Patrick Bamford was just another face in the crowd packed into Belfast's Ravenhill rugby ground on Saturday for the European Heineken Cup match. He was much more than that 21 months ago at another game in the south-west France city of Toulouse.
Then, pictures of him, bruised and bloodied, were beamed around the world. He had just become the unwitting victim of one of the most infamous acts in modern-day sport.
I happened by chance to be there that grey Sunday afternoon in January 2007, seated a few rows behind him in the grandstand of Toulouse's World Cup stadium.
Trevor Brennan has the stature of a man you wouldn't want to tangle with on a dark night, never mind on or off a rugby pitch. Not for nothing is his nickname “The Barnhall Bruiser”. Barnhall, a junior club in Dublin, is where he began his career which led to him winning 13 caps for Ireland. He played in three European Cup finals for Toulouse, where he also owns an Irish bar.
An eye-witness — one of many who gave evidence later — recalls what happened that Sunday.
“Brennan began warming up in front of the Ulster section of the stand, in preparation for joining the field as a replacement player. As he was doing some press-ups the Ulster fans began to count them out. Brennan seemed to enjoy this and smiled to the crowd, and said ‘Come on’.
“Shortly after this, some Ulster fans began to sing ‘Your bar's a load of *****’, possibly referring to the poor service and poor drinks several fans had encountered there. The mood of the fans at this time was jovial, with everyone enjoying the atmosphere.
“Brennan was still smiling and appeared to be taking the joke well. At this point Mr Bamford stood up and shouted towards him: ‘Trevor, your bar's crap, you wasted my Friday night! At the best your pub is below average’!
“Mr Bamford then immediately sat back down. Brennan began walking towards the retaining wall separating the stands from the playing area and shouted towards Mr Bamford “What the ***** did you say?” He then climbed over the retaining wall and jogged up the steps towards Mr Bamford. Once he reached him he lunged at him and began striking him as hard as he could in the face with his fists.”
There were many witnesses. One said: “In almost 40 years of watching rugby I have never seen anything to match the criminal action I observed.”
Another said: “It was an illogical, berserk reaction to innocuous, non-aggressive banter. We were all extremely shocked.”
Patrick Bamford, now aged 27, an accountant in London, had gone to the match with two friends from his old school, Methodist College. I watched as he was taken away, blood streaming from his face, to be examined by a doctor. He did not have a fractured jaw, as was initially suspected, but he was extremely shaken, his chin, mouth and temple badly bruised.
“It was a surreal event. I took a good pasting,” he told me last week. “But I was quite lucky there was no lasting damage.”
However, there was plenty of other damage that led to months of legal wrangling and disciplinary hearings as well as numerous libel actions.
The Toulouse police eventually took action against Brennan and he was fined €800 for “violence resulting in inability to attend work for a period not exceeding eight days.”
A European rugby tribunal gave the player a lifetime ban from playing rugby, or participating in the European Cup, fined him €25,000 and ordered him to pay €5,000 to Patrick Bamford.
Brennan did not appear at the hearing nor at a subsequent one where his lifetime ban was reduced to five years. The authorities condemned Brennan's behaviour as misconduct warranting very significant punishment. They accepted that it was “unprovoked” and that the Ulster fans had shown commendable restraint.
Unfortunately that was in contrast to some other opinions. For example the Toulouse club claimed in a statement that the attack had been provoked by the behaviour of fans and described Brennan as “a generous man who has always respected opponents and their supporters. It required sustained and repeated provocation to make him react in an unacceptable but understandably human way.”
Brennan, himself, claimed that he had reacted because derogatory remarks were made about his mother. His uncle went on RTE and claimed he had been subjected to sectarian abuse. As pictures were published of Patrick Bamford's bloodied face , other media fell into the trap of blaming Brennan's actions on sectarian provocation and pointing the finger at Mr Bamford and Ulster supporters.
Had Brennan's punches been televised or had he thrown them in the UK or Ireland, the outcry would surely have been magnified. He might even have faced more serious criminal charges and possibly a jail sentence. To this day, he can certainly count himself lucky that Patrick Bamford was not more seriously injured.
Allegations made on radio and in newspapers that Brennan had been subjected to sectarian abuse have led to several legal settlements in favour of Patrick Bamford. RTE, Sky, the Irish Sun, Irish Star and the Guardian have settled libel actions amounting to a substantial five figure sum.
The Guardian's apology said: “Our article suggesting there is a sectarian element in the behaviour of some Ulster rugby fans, wrongly included reference to an incident in which an innocent spectator, Patrick Bamford, was hit by a Toulouse rugby player, Trevor Brennan. We wish to make it clear that Mr Bamford was not involved in sectarian abuse and we unreservedly apologise to Mr Bamford.”
What of Trevor Brennan? Despite what he did and the fines and bans which ensued, his career seems to be blossoming in other directions. His book, “Heart and Soul”, in which he is described as an “anti-hero”, won the William Hill Irish sports book of the year award in 2007.
He has developed quite a presence in the media as a rugby pundit. He even presented the award for the best sports programme at the 2008 Irish film and television gala evening in Dublin, shown on RTE.
The Irish Times has employed Brennan to produce a regular rugby diary which is ghost-written for him by the paper's sports writer, Gerry Thornley.
He was also employed in the Republic as a TV pundit during the 2007 World Rugby Cup in France. When Munster played Toulouse in the final of last year's Heineken Cup, he wrote in his Irish Times weekly column how he sang the Fields of Athenry in front of 600 Munster fans in a bar at the European Cup Final in Cardiff, how he did “a couple of pre-match lunches” and later a “two-man show” with another Irish international, Mick Galwey.
In short, despite the notoriety he achieved for his attack on Patrick Bamford, Brennan appears to have bounced back into prominence in Irish rugby circles and in the Dublin media. His disgraceful behaviour in January 2007 appears to be air-brushed from his image.
Brennan was banned from playing rugby for five years but that has not stopped Toulouse from continuing to employ him. They have put him in charge of coaching a squad of up-and-coming under 18-year-old players.
To cap it all, Brennan, a former gaelic player before he turned to rugby, has just been appointed by the GAA to act as a “tackle coach” for the Ireland team in its forthcoming matches against Australia. His controversial appointment has not escaped the notice of the media Down Under.
Brennan said last week that the Irishmen needed to learn to handle Australia's physical approach. “When it gets physical, sometimes the Irish guys have reacted to being tackled and hit hard. It's just about the Irish guys adjusting to the culture of the tackle.”
Meanwhile, Patrick Bamford was back home this weekend with his girlfriend and south Belfast family, continuing to support the Ulster team at Ravenhill.
The memories of that traumatic day in Toulouse will never leave him nor any of us who witnessed the brutal attack in the grandstand. While Brennan did express remorse to the rugby authorities, he has never spoken or written any apologetic words directly to his victim.
“What hurt me as much if not more than his punches were the unfounded allegations afterwards,” Patrick Bamford told me. “I was particularly upset for my parents in Belfast and for the Ulster fans.”