BY CHRIS MCNULTY
ONE spring evening in 2011, the phone in the McBrearty household in Derrylaghan, Kilcar rang a little more urgently than usual.
The call was expected – Jim McGuinness was on the other end.
Patrick McBrearty was making waves and the time and McGuinness, who had doubled as the Donegal senior and Under-21 manager in the early part of that year, couldn’t ignore the potential that was just urging to be unlocked.
He was a only a fifth-year student in Colaiste na Carraige, that great football nursery in Carrick, at the time and still 14 months off doing his Leaving Certificate, but in football terms McBrearty was beyond his years.
Some time previously, his services were courted by controversial former AFL agent Ricky Nixon, who filmed the Kilcar clubman when he was playing for Carrick VS in an Arthur’s Cup, Ulster Schools final.
He attended AFL trials in Tallaght and Guildford, but resisted the lure and stayed with the O’Neills rather than switch to the oval ball game.
McGuinness knew McBrearty could add something new to his side and was keen to talk.
Rory Gallagher, McGuinness’s then number two had already planted the seed.
“It’s a pity you’re so young, you could play for the seniors,” Gallagher told McBrearty in the Brewster Park carpark following the Ulster Under-21 final defeat by Cavan.
The seniors and under-21s combined for training at the time and McBrearty was far from out of place. In fact, he was quite at home.
After Donegal’s defeat of Laois in the Division 2 League final that April, McGuinness went in search of his man.
“Jim phoned us and he was really nice about it,” says Seamus McBrearty, his father.
“We felt that Patrick was too young at first, he was only seventeen and there was a worry that he was too young to be playing in the minor and the senior games.”
Their arm was twisted, however, and seventeen minutes from the end of the Ulster Championship clash against Antrim in Ballybofey the board went up and McBrearty made his Donegal senior debut, replacing fellow Kilcar man Michael Hegarty. Earlier that day, he played for the Donegal minors against Antrim in the curtain-raiser, the first Ulster footballer since Benny Coulter of Down to play both grades on the one afternoon.
The McBrearty house is steeped in football and on Sunday Patrick heads into his second All-Ireland final in three years.
“The right call was made,” Seamus says now ahead of a day of days for the family.
Before Patrick takes on Kerry, another McBrearty – Stephen – lines out in the All-Ireland minor final, also against The Kingdom. Stephen has recently started college in DCU, but doesn’t have to look far in the family for the man he aspires to.
“Patrick’s a good role model to have about the house,” he says.
“Not many players have played in two All-Ireland senior finals at 21. It was brilliant to see Patrick do what he did in 2012.
“He’s been key. He’s done something crucial in every game. He kicked the winner against Armagh and his pace troubled Dublin. When himself and Christy Toye came on, they drove at Dublin. They were big turning points in the game for me.
“I was hopping off my chair when he kicked that winner against Armagh.”
Stephen has just come back from a nightmare year out after sustaining the horrid cruciate knee ligament injury while playing for Kilcar against St Eunan’s in the All-County League. He’d missed some time with a cartilage problem and was just coming around when the cruciate snapped.
He says: “I’ve had a bad time with injuries, but thankfully they’ve cleared up now. It was touch and go if I was going to make the team after I missed the Ulster League, but thank God I’m back now.
“It was a long eleven months. I was just so hungry to get back. I’d be kicking myself to be missing this.
“I played in county minor final on one leg. I probably shouldn’t have done that. I’d a horrific time, but I got over it.”
That June day in Towney, when McBrearty burst in along the endline and he just collapsed is an image Carol McBrearty won’t forget in a hurry.
“The day Stephen did the cruciate was heartbreaking,” she says.
“He took it on the chin, though. He came back and he worked so hard so it’s fantastic to see him back playing.”
Seamus McBrearty had success as a tough centre-forward with Kilcar in his day, winning three Donegal Under-21 Championships and he was on the panel for their winning of Dr Maguire in 1985.
His experiences watching his sons tops it all.
He says: “It’s really special. We’ve always known what Patrick has been capable of, but to see Stephen come back, we were so glad. It’s such a bad injury, but he did really well to get back.”
Stephen made a telling contribution as a sub against Derry, kicking a point as a late sub to help swing the pendulum. Their march to the Ulster title told Donegal a lot about themselves and McBrearty was allowed build his own fitness along the way.
He says: “It was a good Ulster campaign. We let teams back into games, but we’re a team that doesn’t panic and we got over the line. We learned a lot about ourselves from Ulster.”
The All-Ireland quarter-final against Roscommon’s defensive sheet posed Donegal an amount of puzzles they’d not seen before – but the answered them as Cian Mulligan led the way with four points.
For McBrearty, that afternoon in Sligo was crucial.
He says: “That was a game of horrors. They had six men in the full-back line. It was horrible to play against. It was a good test and it showed our patience. We didn’t do anything stupid.”
In the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, he was man of the match, kicking four points including two in the second half that would have been home on any stage. McBrearty’s
“It was a day to remember,” he nods modestly. “No individual performance will win you any match. It’s all about the team and we’ll need a big performance to get over Kerry.
“I watched Kerry against Mayo. They’re a good side. Any side that gets this far will be a good side, though. Kerry are a good, physical side. It’s a two-horse race, but we don’t want to just go up there to experience what it’s like to play in a final. We want to go up and become the first Donegal team to win an All-Ireland minor title. We are undefeated in three years and we want that to continue.”
Carol McBrearty likes to find a quiet couple of hours in the week after games to sit down and watch the action again. She’s been caught by the All-Ireland buzz and you can feel her bursting with pride as she talks about the prospect of watching her sons take to the field in the All-Ireland finals.
“It’s more than exciting,” she says.
“It’s hard to take it all in sometimes. It’s great to have the two boys in the final; I don’t know how we’d have picked up the pieces if one of them had lost. You miss a lot of what is going on because you do be watching your own boys all the time.”
Carol’s cousin is the former Dublin All-Ireland winner and All-Star Tommy Conroy and the McBrearty brothers might well have been lining out in the sky blue. The first ten years of Patrick’s life were spent in Dublin. The family lived in Terenure and he kicked ball for St James’ Gaels in the capital. Kilcar called, though, and they settled in south-west Donegal.
Terenure’s loss was Towney’s gain.
“There are five people from this parish of 1,500 going to play in Croke Park this weekend,” Stephen points out. Alongside the McBrearty siblings, senior star Ryan McHugh, as well as minors Andrew McClean and Conor Doherty will be vying for a slice of the action.
Patrick McBrearty has lost only three times in Championship football. Despite his tender years, he’s played in every Championship game that McGuinness has managed. In recent times, he’s been called an ‘impact’ man – but don’t be surprised if he’s the man asked to unlock the Kingdom gates on Sunday.
“He’s been great for advice,” Stephen adds. “Especially coming up to my first game in Croke Park. He’s a very experienced player now too. He’s been through so much with Donegal. Hopefully we both get over the line on Sunday now.”