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John Brennan defies time in the battle for Ulster glory

By Declan Bogue

Published 19/10/2016

Winning habit: John Brennan has just landed his 10th county title at the age of 74. Photo:
Stephen Hamilton/Presseye
Winning habit: John Brennan has just landed his 10th county title at the age of 74. Photo: Stephen Hamilton/Presseye

Who is the most successful manager in Ulster football? You're thinking Mickey Harte with his five Ulster titles and three All-Irelands. But consider for a second, one John Brennan.

On Sunday, the former Derry manager won his 10th county championship title. That was his fourth with Erin's Own, Cargin.

He has also had success with Slaughtneil, Carrickmore, his own Lavey club and the Loup.

At the time of his last birthday, John Brennan blew out 74 candles. While most of his contemporaries have settled for a life of minding grandchildren and following soap operas, he is standing out getting soaked on the training field.

It's not difficult to see where his drive comes from. His wife died suddenly at 44 and he left a senior position in British Telecom to care for his children. In 2011, he said: "Now I spend 99 per cent of my time alone and heading out and coaching football with young people: it is great."

Sometimes it feels like we are too quick to label any manager over 50 in some way 'old-school' and therefore offering little.

But Ulster is teeming with rebukes to that theory. Mickey Harte is back on top in Ulster. Mickey Moran claimed three consecutive Derry titles on Sunday. Pete McGrath continues to work the oracle and all three are comfortably into their 60s as retired schoolteachers.

Age is all relative anyway.

In an interesting interview in Saturday's Belfast Telegraph, the People Before Profit politician and erstwhile journalist Eamonn McCann was asked about being 73.

His answer was perfect. "As for being 73, I am not aware of it at all. I don't know what it is to be 73 except what it is like for me to live right now."

That's how Brennan must feel when he is managing winning teams. And to win so much, you cannot be a choir boy.

After Cargin's victory on Sunday, Brennan came out of the stands to join the celebrations - he was serving a touchline ban after an indiscretion earlier in the summer in Ballymena.

One of his specialities has been to send a runner on with some instruction, while at the same time ambling down to the opposition dugout to create a distraction. By the time the opposing manager noticed the switch, they could be a point or two down.

Nor is Brennan infallible as a coach. The story goes that while he was manager of the Loup in 2009, a delegation of senior players spoke to him about the training methods. Before long, Martin McElkennon was conducting the sessions.

Some specialise in man-management. Others in the skills. The Loughgiel hurlers credit the late Jim Nelson for honing their skills sufficiently to win the All-Ireland club title in 2012, but would he have been able to manage the team the way PJ O'Mullan has?

Last Friday, Brennan emphasised to this writer: "All this theory and so-called training advantages, there is so much talk going on. But you have to go with the times, and I reckon I go with the times for modern-day training. You have to have your team ready physically and, more importantly, in a mental state. Then it's up to them to perform."

And that is the crux of Brennan's success. He recognises where his field of expertise lies, and that is man-management.

Getting people into the right headspace. Muttering dark curses sort-of-but-not-quite under his breath in training sessions, urging his players on.

"Unadulterated war," as one of his Lavey players once said.

He taught them in their transformation from makeweights in Derry to All-Ireland club champions in 1991.

The temptation might be to see all the success that more seasoned managers are achieving and try to implement that in your own club or county.

Caution should be exercised. Experience is nothing without adaptability. In the era of Peter Donnelly and Gavin Devlin, Mickey Harte does not take Tyrone training sessions. Same as John Brennan, who has Dualta Johnston to train the Cargin footballers.

They have their own strengths. The secret is recognising them.

Belfast Telegraph

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