Wednesday, February 05, 2014

After so much heartache, football has come good for Niall Browne and Two Mile House

Niall Browne

Niall Browne

 

NIALL Browne never got to play with his hero.

In Two Mile House, Maurice Colbert was football’s first immortal. He partnered Niall Buckley in the Kildare midfield as the county minors won the 1991 Leinster championship. The following year they graduated to the under-21s and anchored the Lilies to another Leinster. By the time Colbert captained his club to the Kildare junior championship title in 1994, he was just 20.

“He would have been a God to us,” says Browne. “If Mauri ran a particular way, I’d try and run that way or if Mauri caught the ball a particular way, I’d try and catch the ball that way.”

After ’98, Browne could only work from memory. Colbert’s career was cut short when a freak injury during a club championship game left him blind in one eye. His vision returned six months later but football was gone forever.

“It breaks your heart because the game starts and you just stand on the sideline,” says Colbert, who was 24 at the time. His absence left a massive void, for him and for his club. It was like the team of ’94 had disappeared overnight. The players coming through were too young to shoulder the burden.

There was one consolation though. Niall Browne was among the emerging generation and Colbert had already glimpsed his successor in the Two Mile House midfield.

One memory is still vivid – an underage game and the House had just been beaten.

“Sure you only lost, you were the best player out there,” Colbert’s mother told the teary-eyed boy but her sympathising pleas made no impression on a distraught 10-year-old.

‘You don’t understand Mrs Colbert. I want to play for Kildare.’

 

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There are football friends and then there are non-football friends. And for that reason there are two Niall Brownes. Mr Chalk is laid back and easy going but he’s rarely seen these days.

“When I’m up in Two Mile House the lads say, ‘Jaysus Browner’s on the war path again.’ I’d be intense. Everybody kind of loses the plot when it comes to the GAA. Even guys I’ve met who I’ve played football against over the years and you would hate the chap. And then you meet him out in the pub or whatever and he’s the nicest lad you’ve ever met in your life.”

Whatever he was like off the pitch, Browne was not always the nicest on it. When he gazes into his football past, a dark vision emerges.

“I’d have been a nightmare to play with from a Two Mile House perspective,” he reflects. “I would have been ashamed of my behaviour then because you’re giving out to guys instead of encouraging lads. I was no good to them.”

Managers and teammates will attest to that. Those who knew him best suffered least. Mattie Kelly would throw his eyes up to heaven. Mickey Burke and Shane Darcy took no notice. Those three remain his closet friends. Ignorance was bliss but few knew the extent of Browne’s own frustration.

A county footballer from under-14 level all the way up to senior, the boys at home called him splinter-arse. Being sidelined was bad enough but his biggest problem was only exacerbated by sitting on the bench.

“By over-thinking things, you end up making more mistakes. That was probably one of my weaknesses as a player. I would have been going out and trying to do everything brilliantly and make a big impression. And it probably comes from being from a small club. You’re always trying to be recognised.”

It was hard going from club – where he was the driving force – to county – where he was peripheral – but at college he blossomed. DCU were in the early stages of establishing an academy when Browne pitched up for a Business Studies degree. Playing alongside future all-Ireland winners Stephen Cluxton and Bryan Cullen, it was the beginning of a football education.

“I was one of the first getting Cluxton’s 70-yard kickouts on to my chest,” Browne remembers of his time at third level. He shared a house with Ballyteague’s Rob McCabe, Dublin’s Paul Casey and Monaghan’s Owen Lennon, who captained the Farney men to last year’s Ulster title. Success eluded that group in the Sigerson Cup but Browne was keeping county men out of the side.

His confidence soared but just as quickly he was shattered again.

“For three years I couldn’t really play football. I got Glandular Fever in January 2004 and it was about 2006 before I really recovered out of it. I just couldn’t train because I was so drained.”

As he struggled to finish his degree, football became a source of frustration again. He was fatigued from the fever but he was also fed up playing with the whipping boys of the Kildare junior championship.

“Back then we would have been one of the weakest sides in the county. It was hard coming back down. You were a marked man and you were probably expecting lads to do the same things that were happening at college level. I was very close to joining another club. I suppose we were down so low.”

Promising junior footballers invariably attract attention from bigger clubs. For a long time the belief was that you needed to play senior to put yourself in the shop window for county football. Browne was ambitious and so long as he was just one of a handful at training, it was tempting to leave.

“The guys who really always gave it 100 per cent for the club, they all said: ‘Niall if you want to go, best of luck. You can always come back.’ And by them saying that, that actually made me say, I’m going to stay. You’d feel like you let them down.”

Patience had never been one of his virtues but now he knew where his loyalties really lay.

 

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Browne’s decision to stay coupled with Mark Millham’s arrival in Two Mile House set the club on a new path. Millham – a senior championship winner with Naas in 1990 – was organised and determined to succeed. He also had the sense to bring Maurice Colbert on board as a selector. On the back of a Minor B championship success the previous year – a team coached by Browne and featuring future all-star Peter Kelly – the seeds of the club’s current success were sown in 2006.

“Mark has had a massive influence because Mark created a bit of structure there that we’ve kept since then,” says Browne. “He started sending out text messages for training and we thought this was the most wonderful thing in the world. Since then we’ve always kind of competed. He probably doesn’t get a whole lot of credit for it but having been there in the dark days, you can appreciate it.”

Millham didn’t deliver a championship but he got them winning games again, enough to earn promotion from the league’s basement division. Progress. The following year they reached the junior final. More progress. They lost to Ballykelly by six points but they were learning all the time. Two years later they were back in the final and leading by two points at the end of 60 minutes. They were finally ready to progress out of junior for good when they suddenly stalled. Straffan stunned them with an injury-time goal.

“To win the junior grade is not as easy as it might seem,” says Browne, who had to wait another four years to finally get his hands on a championship medal. “People go on about monkeys on backs. This was like a gorilla.”

To lose one final was unfortunate, to lose two seemed like carelessness. And then the House lost a third. And a fourth…

“The fear of losing can strangle you,” says Browne. “You’re not willing to take as much risks on the ball. The mental strain of it actually takes the wind out of you as well.”

Two Mile House entered the last year’s junior championship as overwhelming favourites for the title but how can you be fancied if you keep losing finals? It was hard to believe that victory was inevitable with the memory of 2009 still alive. Clogherinkoe rekindled it in 2012, netting another late winner. That meant the House had actually won the championship twice during normal time. Entering the 2013 final against their old nemesis, Straffan, there was more than a game at stake.

“The county final was the most difficult game I ever played in in terms of pressure. If we hadn’t won it, it would have had huge repercussions for the club because we’re trying to build something now. To have lost five finals, I don’t know what we would have done. The fall out would have been massive. A lot of lads would have found it very hard to go back and train for another junior championship.”

Once more the House held a two-point lead entering injury-time. Once more a stubborn Straffan side refused to quit. They were just about to launch one final attack from midfield when the House were finally shown some mercy. That final whistle was pure bliss.

“To win it was the greatest feeling any of us ever had. Afterwards in the dressing room, nobody was jumping up and down. Everyone just sat there, just pure relief. It was amazing.”

19 years after watching his hero collect the trophy, Niall Browne retraced Maurice Colbert’s footsteps. Colbert was there to witness it all – to see that teary-eyed ten-year-old take on his mantle.

“He’s a phenomenal personality. He is the driving force behind the team,” says Colbert, describing the 31-year-old who now captains the club. It’s the kind of tribute Browne always wanted to hear.

“He was the guy you’d look up to because he was such a professional and he was so big and strong.

He’s such a decent, genuine fella. You’d be trying to impress Mauri.”

Only now Browne has the chance to do something Colbert never could.

 

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TO think that he almost transferred to another club is unimaginable now. Two Mile House are on the brink of something special and they wouldn’t be here, preparing for an All-Ireland final at Croke Park next Sunday, without him. The semi-final was heading for extra-time until Browne popped up with the winner – his fifth point of the game.

“When the game is in the melting pot, rather than fearing that we try to enjoy that period,” says Browne, reflecting on the way in which the team have changed over the last 12 months. “The Leinster championship and the All-Ireland semi-final, that was enjoyment,” he adds.

Experience has taught him to savour these moments.

“When you get a bit older and you get a bit of cop on you start realising it’s just a game. You start enjoying it and you start giving yourself targets before a game. Before I’d make loads of mistakes in a match and say I’m useless, I’m useless. Whereas now if I make a load of mistakes, I sit down and ask why did I make that one? Why did I make ***that*** one? I put a bit of a system in place and try eradicate it and work on it.”

His influence has grown year by year, not merely because of his performances on the pitch. Last season he managed the minors to the county final, striving to ensure the next generation avoid the same mistakes he made. If Browne was to have his time all over again, he knows what he would do.

“I’d have gone down to Clare when I was 18,” he says of the decision he made to play with his mother’s native county in 2010. “It was like going away and finding yourself as a footballer. When you’re up in Two Mile House and involved in Kildare panels, you’re worried what everybody else thinks. I was given opportunities with Kildare and just didn’t take them. I probably didn’t believe in myself enough to make it.

“When I got the chance with Clare, I just said, let’s find out once and for all. I’ll go down, no one will see me playing, no one will be down there, no one will know who I’m playing but at least you’re getting to play and you’re getting to play against good players.”

Browne played Munster championship against Cork and Kerry, learning more in 10 minutes against Aidan Walsh than he would in three months playing club football. After his failure to make the breakthrough with Kildare, he was willing to drive two hours south on a Thursday evening after work just to further his inter-county career.

“I wanted to see whether I could compete at that level. I loved every minute of it. I learned so much. I’m a better player for my club now.”

It begins and ends in Two Mile House. From the moment Declan Andrews built a set of goalposts for the Browne’s family farm, football captured the imagination of their youngest boy. On Sunday morning Niall Browne will only be a mile from home when he leads his local team out of the village on the way to Croke Park for the biggest game of their lives.

“Playing Sigerson Cup and underage and junior with Kildare. It was more a kind of individual thing, where you were trying to beat your man. Whereas with your club it’s a collective, you don’t want to let anyone in your local area down or any of the lads you know so well.

“I think we have to win the all-Ireland. I think it would somehow make up for all the losses because in an ironic twist of fate if we had won any of those county finals we would never have got to this stage because we would never have been good enough. We won the junior when we are at our best. Winning the all-Ireland would make up for all that pain.”

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