Footballer of the Year Fenton reflects on thrilling journey
By John Harrington
Dublin midfielder Brian Fenton was announced as the PwC Footballer of the Year for 2018 at tonight’s PwC All-Stars Awards banquet in the Convention Centre, Dublin.
Earlier in the day he sat down with GAA.ie to reflect on how much the honour means to him and his family, and why he hopes there’s even more to come from him and this Dublin team in the years to come.
Q: Brian, I’m sure your primary goal at the start of the year was to win an All-Ireland medal, but being crowned PwC Footballer of the Year must mean a lot to you too?
BF: Ah yeah, of course. That's it, at the start of the year you don't sit down and write in your own diary, 'I'm going to win Player of the Year', certainly not. But it is one of those awards that you dream of as a kid and dream of as you grow up.
You can see the stars, the names through history, that are winning the awards along the way. I recently went back through the list of the years of players who had won Player of the Year and the talent and the pure magic in that list alone was something very, very special.
So, yeah, it's something that you would have dreamed of as a kid so to win one and be picked amongst my peers as well is just so humbling and special and something I'll never forget for a long, long time.
Q: A quirk of this year's shortlist for PwC Footballer of the Year was that you were nominated with two team-mates and good friends in the shape of Ciaran Kilkenny and Jack McCaffrey.
BF: Yeah, it's probably bitter-sweet I suppose. I recently rediscovered a picture of the three of us playing together at U-12. It was a North Dublin development squad at the time and in the team-photo is myself, Ciaran, and Jack, so that shows just how far back we go together.
Yeah, Jack didn't play much in the League but was Man of the Match in the semi-final and final. And Ciaran just set the standard for all of us this year really, so I certainly couldn't have begrudged either of them this award.
So, to win it is very special, but it is bitter-sweet because they're some of my best friends. Look, I'm sure they're very supportive and happy for me as well, and I would have been equally as delighted for either of them if they'd won it. Yeah, it's very special.
Q: All the sweeter because you were nominated previously for award in 2016 and didn't win it then?
BF: Yeah, it's nice to know that you're consistent through the seasons and you're being recognised for being a consistent performer. That's built from our culture in the team, we're consistently just driving each other on and not resting on last year and not letting the ego creep in and thinking you're a great fella.
Certainly 2016 was lovely to be nominated, and to go one step this year was extra-special.
Q: You did raise your game to a new level this year. You set a new record for the most a midfielder has ever scored from play in a championship campaign, 1-13.
BF: I did hear that during the week. It's amazing, I wouldn't have been aware of that at all. That's it, you always just sit down and look at areas where you can improve and every hurler and footballer is the same and every child growing up is the same.
You want to get better on your weak foot or weak hand. I watched back games I played last year and there were probably opportunities where I could have taken a shot. Not in a selfish way, but the shot was on.
That's something that I tried to work on in the off-season and carry through to the summer. Luckily, yeah, 1-13, I wasn't counting, but it's a nice little record to have.
Q: Your Raheny club-mate Ciaran Whelan previously held the record, he won't be happy you've taken that off him!
BF: Whelo must be sick of me at this stage! Because myself and Brian (Howard) are obviously named in midfield in the football team. Whelo was our inspiration always so to be named in football having watched him as a child is just very special. But I'll take that record off him happily, yeah (laughs).
Q: Being named in the PwC Football All-Stars team at midfield alongside Brian Howard must be extra-special for you both and your club, Raheny.
BF: Yeah, that's what makes the evening and the event and the award extra-special, to be named alongside Brian. As someone who turned 21 this year he's been a credit to himself and our club and his family in the way he's stepped into the role and stayed so mature and humble and grounded. I just think he's an extraordinary guy and it's great for our little club in Raheny and our little parish to be recognised on the big stage. I think we're the only club to be represented twice in the All-Star team, you couldn't have dreamt of that at the beginning of the year or even in history. It's amazing.
Q: People are now comparing you favourably to legendary Kerry midfielder Jack O'Shea. Your father Brian Snr is a Kerry-man, so I presume he told you plenty of stories about Jack when you were growing up?
BF: Yeah, I'm constantly reminded that I wouldn't lace Jacko's boots! That's what I'm told at the dinner-table, anyway. Ah look, I remember standing outside Jimmy O'Brien's bar years ago before a Munster Final and Jacko walked by and I just thought he was floating on air.
I obviously never saw him play but he was always the gold standard and benchmark and historically the best footballer and midfielder of all time. To even be in the same sentence as him is just very, very incredible.
Look, I'm still young and I'm still passionate and hungry for more. I'm not going to put the feet up yet and I'm not going to sit up on the high-stool just yet. I'm going to drive it on for next year and hopefully set another level for myself.
Q: Is this Dublin team a collection of footballers who have that sort of inner drive to constantly better themselves?
BF: Definitely. We have a collective drive but it's absolutely built on an individual inner drive. I'll look back on the year and I probably didn't have as successful an All-Ireland Final as I would have liked. Certainly not in that first half.
There's always areas to improve. This award is great, but it might mask some of the down points of the year. Yeah, there's certainly always areas to improve on and I'll go after them in the off-season and try to drive it into the League next year.
Q: Your Kerry cousins mustn't invite you around for dinner much anymore after all your success with Dublin?
A: To be fair to the Spa club, my Dad's old club, they tweeted me yesterday congratulating me on my All-Star. You know, it's very nice of them to recognise the family connection and that Kerry blood.
Any time I go down there they're very welcoming. I was recently down in Killarney for a couple of pints and everyone was so welcoming and so nice. Look, I've been going down there for years and hopefully that doesn't change.
Q: Have you told your Dad yet that you're the PwC Footballer of the Year?
BF: Yeah, I told Dad and my immediate family. My three sisters. So, yeah, they're all very, very excited. They had outfits planned but they're now gone to buy new outfits! So I think they're even potentially more excited than I am.
Yeah, there were tears and hugs and just joyous scenes in the house. The dog didn't know what was going on!
Yeah, look, for the family and the club and the community of Raheny, I think that's the most amazing thing for me, to just represent them on a big stage and pick up the award. I'll remember it for a long time.
Q: Your late mother Marian must come to mind at moments like that as well, I'm sure?
BF: Yeah, of course, Mam is always remembered. She's always the inspiration that drives me on and the family on. For her not to be here is, again, bittersweet. But, no doubt, she's my number one supporter always and she'll be proud today, yeah.
Q: You inherited sporting genes from her too, didn't you?
BF: Yeah, yeah. I wasn't allowed to sit at home in front of the Playstation anyway! I was always out and about and kicking ball and doing different things. I was even thrown into Irish dancing under her watch at one stage.
Yeah, look, we're a family of go-getters and always active and that's what I'd recommend any child to do. To just get out and get active. The skills you learn from playing all sorts of sports I suppose accumulated into this award for me, in a way.
Q: The inner drive you have, that's a personality trait you would have also inherited from your mother?
BF: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Certainly, and dealing with that bit of adversity. You'll be knocked down, but it's about your response in terms of getting back up. Everyone learns that from their parents and their peers. That was certainly driven in us and she set the standards in our family quite high. I'd say I picked up a bit of that, yeah.
Q: Have you already reset your goals for next year? Are you still enjoying this year's achievements?
BF: Ah yeah, I'll enjoy it until I get the call from Jim (Gavin) again. Look, you're always conscious that 2019 is coming and the challenges that will bring. But until you get the call from Jim I think you have to enjoy it.
You're always trying to keep yourself in shape and conditioned in some way, but you're enjoying it and letting your hair down and you're taking every opportunity you can to spend time with friends and go out and enjoy yourself. Little holidays here and there.
Yeah, you enjoy it but you're always conscious of what's ahead. I haven't written down goals, there's nothing official, but there are always standards you set yourself.
As Player of the Year people might think it's the pinnacle of your career and, obviously, it's a huge honour, but I would certainly like to think that I'll drive on again next year and improve myself and help the team along the way.
Q: Do you normally write down goals at the start of the year?
BF: Oh yeah, always. It's regular. Weekly and monthly and yearly. Just little notes in the diary. I'd say if anyone read it now it would be gibberish, like Leonardo da Vinci backwards writing!
Yeah, it's just little goals and plans and to-do lists, but it's always football-focused. You know, what am I going to do this week for my skills? What am I going to do this week for my recovery?
And, you know, bigger goals. At the start of the year you might say, look, you want to start and improve and to have an impact on a game, to hit a certain distance in a game. Things that are measurably that you can tick off or x off. Unfortunately there are more x's than ticks, but you have to always set a benchmark for yourself, I think.
Q: Dublin's drive for five All-Irelands in a row will be the big talking point next year. It would be an unprecedented achievement if this Dublin team could manage it.
BF: It would be. I suppose we're the third team to win four and probably the greatest team of all time, Kerry, failed to do it. We know there's going to be hurdles along the way but it's just a case of when we look to next year, why would we want to take a step back? Why would we want to lose?
It's not why would we want to achieve this, it's why would we want to be beaten? Why would we want to fall at this hurdle? Why would we want to fall at that hurdle?
In this group of players there's a hunger, a greed almost, to drive on and improve and just set new standards, hopefully, for ourselves.
Look, we're aware of how special the four in a row is. But, as I said, it's not a case that we're sitting down on a high stool with a couple of pints in front of us saying we're great fellas.
Yes, that's done, but it's about the next one. Hopefully that success will carry into next year.
Q: You've never lost a Championship match with Dublin, you're in no rush to experience one?
BF: Jesus, it's almost a burden at this stage. Anywhere I go, people mention it to me. It's not something I think of, I'm just fortunate to be part of a special Dublin team. I'm one of 30 men that plays and that's their record rather than my record.
Yeah, look, it's great, but I've no dobut that time will come. We lost this year in the League and we lose regularly with my club so it's not an unnatural feeling.
Look, it's amazing and something I'll maybe think of later in life but it's not something I think of now or something I'm trying to uphold.
Sport is a funny game and so is life. There are no guarantees, we'll see what happens.