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Head in the books, mind on the game – Patrick McBrearty interview

Donegal forward Patrick McBrearty. Photo: Donna McBride.

BY CHRIS MCNULTY

IT ALL happened so quickly for Patrick McBrearty.

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The first hint of possible involvement with the senior team came in the car park of Brewster Park, Enniskillen last March.

The 17-year old McBrearty had played for the Donegal U21s as their season ended with a defeat to Cavan.

Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher were over the U21s and had combined them with the seniors for training purposes. Now that the U21s were done for the season most of them would cease inter-county training.

Some were on the senior panel anyway, but the management had clearly seen the special talent that is the Kilcar teenager as a secret weapon they could use. As they parted ways outside a darkened Brewster, McBrearty and Rory Gallagher made some small talk.

“It’s a pity you’re so young, you could play for the seniors,” Gallagher told the young forward.

It seemed to evolve so rapidly from there.

“I didn’t really think too much about it, but after the League final against Laois, I got a message that Jim wanted to chat to me, I knew then what was happening,” says McBrearty.

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“That week, he gave the call and I was honoured and delighted to get it. I’ve come a long way since then.”

That’s quite the understatement.

When he parted ways with his class-mates at Colaiste na Carraige last June, he’d already made the breakthrough to the Donegal seniors. By the time they returned in September, McBrearty had just had the summer of his dreams, playing in the Ulster final as Donegal ended a 19-year hoodoo and, a week before the resumption of school, featuring in front of 82,000 at Croke Park in an All-Ireland semi-final.

“It was strange going back to school because the day I went back there were a couple of photographers outside the school,” he says.

“I went into the class and had to get some of the boys out to get a picture taken. They’ve been on about it ever since.

“Playing in front of 82,000 at Croke Park and going back into school was a bit depressing I suppose. I’ve been a bit jet-lagged since I think!

“It has given me a great motivational factor, having an Ulster medal under my belt. It has probably settled me down and matured me. It was fantastic. Working with the lads I am here has matured me as a person and that can only benefit me in my studies too.”

Last year, McBrearty was shunned from the limelight, well protected from the vultures of the fourth estate by Jim McGuinness. Now, though, as he enters a second championship season, he speaks like a veteran as he discusses his rapid rise in the clubhouse at O’Donnell Park.

He talks of the importance of football at Colaiste na Carraige, what he calls ‘a tight-knit community’ in the south-west and he has real

words of thanks for his teachers there, as he juggles Ulster championship preparations with the small matter of his Leaving Certificate which gets underway next month.

He says: “There is pressure from everywhere alright. There aren’t too many men who’ll be saying they have an Ulster Championship game and the Leaving Cert coming up to do.

“The school have been absolutely fantastic during the season. They let me leave early to go to training sometimes and they’ve been brilliant.

“The principal Pauric Ó Léime has been superb, very supportive and helpful. There is a big emphasis on football in the school which helps.”

The decision of McGuinness to draft in McBrearty was kept low-key by the manager, but the whispers began in the week before the Antrim

game. And when Maxi Curran, a member of McGuinness’s backroom team, raced onto the field immediately after the minor game to usher him off, it was only a matter of time before the prodigiously-talented McBrearty would enter the senior championship stage.

17 minutes from the end, McBrearty was taken in, replacing Michael Hegarty, a fellow Kilcar man whom he’d watched toiling in a Donegal shirt for years.

“I was rushed off after the minor game. I was trying to shake everybody’s hand after the minor game to get off,” he says.

“I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life. It’s an exclusive club of people to have done that (playing minor and senior championship on the one day). Benny Coulter was the last man to do that, so to follow those footsteps is unreal.

“I was warming up and Jim gave me the call. But it was only when I was on the field and the instructions were coming from Kevin Cassidy and Michael Murphy that I realised where I was and it sank in. It took a few minutes to get settled in.

“I went home and it was fantastic watching it on television again and I had 40 or 50 messages on the phone when I got back to the dressing room.”

McBrearty was born in Dublin, but the family moved to Kilcar at a young age. His mother, Carol, is from Dublin and is a cousin of former Dublin All-Ireland winner Tommy Conroy; his father Seamus ‘Super’ was a bustling feature in the Kilcar squads of the 1980s.

McBrearty has been on the radar for some time now, his performances for Kilcar and Donegal at underage level marking him out as a future senior player. The secret weapon was unveiled against Antrim and then started against Cavan in the Ulster quarter-final.

He showed experience beyond his years as he led the line after Michael Murphy’s sending off, scoring 1-3 on his first full senior start.

“I can’t really remember getting the goal, but the hole in the net took the shine off it a wee bit. Half the people in the crowd probably didn’t know it had gone in. It came at a good time because we’d been struggling. It gave the team the boost it needed.”

On Ulster final day, there was a surreal feeling swirling in his mind as he took his seat in the Gerry Arthurs Stand at St Tiernach’s Park, Clones.

“I went out to watch the minor game and was thinking that, with a bit of luck, the Donegal minors could have been there,” he says.

“At the start of the year my ambitions were to be in the Ulster final with the Donegal minors; I never even thought I’d be there with the seniors.

“It was fantastic to win an Ulster medal. It was a massive honour and seeing grown men cry on the pitch in Clones made you realise what you’d done and what it meant to people.”

He’s been heavily targeted by Australian Rules scouts of late and recently attended trials in Tallaght and Guildford, London. His immediate plans, however, are on home soil. In the autumn he hopes to head to Maynooth to college, with aims of becoming a secondary school teacher.

It’s hard to believe sometimes that McBrearty only turned 18 last August. The pressure’s coming on from all corners – but he would have it any other way. He played National League football for the first time this year, and hopes that experience will stand to him this summer.

He says: “Playing in Division 1, it’s near Championship pace all the time. Anyone who was at the Armagh game will have seen a game that was as close to Championship pace as you’ll get.

“The wee bit of pressure that’s on us might help us in a way. It’s a challenge for us, but one we’re looking forward to.”

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