It’s another man down, another Irishman, as Robbie Keane last week lost his coaching job with Middlesbrough.

t is a lonely thing, for a native of this country to try and work successfully in football management in Britain. Of the 134 league clubs in England and Scotland, just five have an Irish-born manager.

But in one part of London, which is claimed by many as GAA heartland, a success story has come to pass as Wealdstone FC are promoted and are now just one step away from the Football League, guided there by their Dublin-born manager, Dean Brennan.

The man from the Liberties has been in England for his entire adult life but the accent remains as Dublin, and as strong, as the day he left for Sheffield Wednesday as a 16-year-old.

Brennan says he realised in his early 20s that he would not make a great success as a footballer but had the skills to do well as a manager and allowed that dream to shape his future path.

And now, Brennan has just celebrated his second title success in English football by the age of 40. “Wednesday of last week was a good day,” he says. “It was my 40th birthday and on the same day we found out that we would be promoted to the National League, as champions. It’s good to have something to celebrate.

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Dean Brennan with kit manager Tony Waugh

Dean Brennan with kit manager Tony Waugh

Dean Brennan with kit manager Tony Waugh

Dean Brennan with kit manager Tony Waugh

“I am proud of having won two leagues over here. I had a manager at AFC Wimbledon who told me he’d been in it for 30 years as a manager and had won nothing, apart from a play-off.

“He told me if I managed to win anything in management I’d be doing well, that showed me how tough it was to win a league, any league. So to have two league titles so early is nice,” he added.

Irish voices in the manager’s office in England are rare. Only three of the 92 league clubs have an Irish-born boss (Brian Barry-Murphy at Rochdale, Graham Coughlan at Mansfield and Mark Kennedy at Macclesfield).

“There’s not that many of us,” says Brennan who adds fellow Dubliner, and friend, Daryl McMahon (Dagenham) to the mix. There’s not loads of us and it’s difficult. I feel if you start right, do well in your first season in your first job, it buys you time because it can change very quickly.

“It’s different to when I was a player as I wasn’t the most committed when I was young. You have to do the work, you miss out on time with the family. I have three kids but you have to put the time in and make sacrifices if you want to succeed.”

Compatriots

Brennan had high hopes, like any talented Irish teenager of his ilk, when he left home for Sheffield Wednesday at 16, having learned his trade with Lourdes Celtic.

His compatriots who moved over to Hillsborough at the same time, Alan Quinn and Derek Geary, went on to achieve a lot, both playing in the Premier League, while Quinn was capped at senior level.

But Brennan’s career never really started. Released by Wednesday (“they let 18 of us go one summer as they’d over-spent trying to stay in the Premier League”), he had a very brief spell under Roddy Collins at Bohemians in 2000, returned to England with Luton Town but after just nine league games in two seasons, he dropped down into the non-league scene, never to play league football again. He travelled across the lower tiers as a player with 15 clubs (names like Hitchin, Stevenage, Grays, Lewes, Dunstable, Chesham, Halesowen, Alyesbury, Corby) but had his eye on a non-playing career, getting his first managerial job at 29, as caretaker manager with Hemel Hempsted and then as permanent boss of that club.

“I was only 32 when I got that opportunity and I was grateful for that, the Hemel owner is from Dublin and he gave me a chance, I was there for six years,” he says.

“When I was playing at Stevenage [2003/’04] I asked myself, ‘Can I continue to make a living as a football player?’ I dropped into non-league, made the decision to go into business and coaching and that was the best thing I did,” says Brennan, who set up a healthcare recruitment company.

“When I was a player, I knew I wanted to be a manager, I was always tactically aware. I wasn’t the best physically, I wasn’t the quickest player in the world, but I think I had a football brain and I made an early decision to quit playing and start my own business, I did that at 26 or 27 as I knew I wanted to manage. I’ve managed over 400 games now.”

In his second full season at Hemel Hempsted (2013/’14) he led them to a league title, the Southern Premier League, and promotion to their highest-ever level, then had other spells as manager with Billericay Town and Kingstonian before Wealdstone took him there in May of last year.

He’d played against that club and always had a soft spot for their fans. He also liked the area, in Ruislip.

“It’s a great club, there’s a real affection in the area for the club, they’re really passionate, we get around 1,200 every week. There’s a good Irish connection here, both the club owners are Irish, from Cork and Waterford, and Ruislip GAA grounds is a mile the road,” he says of a working-class club with no big benefactor.

Brennan has of course enjoyed his successes but there have been testing times. He left his previous managerial role (Kingstonian) to look after his son, then aged 16, after he suffered serious injuries in a road accident. “I had a hard year. My auntie, who brought me up in Dublin inner city, died. She lived with us since 1986 and helped bring us up. A month ago I got a call on a Saturday to say she wasn’t well and was going to pass, I was on a boat to Dublin at 2am and I got back in time to see her as she died that evening,” he recalls.

“That was tough and I also had a separation from my partner, that’s not easy with kids so it was personally a very tough year but a successful one on the pitch. You take your football home, you’re moody when you have a bad result, as a player you can let it go but as a manager it stays with you and I’ve had to learn how to separate the two.

“On a Sunday I turn the phone off, that’s family time, I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old so they need me as well, Sunday is for them.”

Last week came word from the authorities that the non-league season’s tables would count as they stood pre-pandemic so Wealdstone were promoted. Playing in the fifth tier, with the Football League only one step away, is exciting… and challenging.

“We have some big clubs there, the likes of Wrexham, Hartlepool, maybe Notts County if they don’t get promoted,” says Brennan. The average wage at his club is £300 a week but the standard across the league is £800. “Some clubs pay thousands a week and we can’t do that,” he says, aware that all but two of the 22 clubs in that division are full-time.

“I have players who are teachers, lads who work in the City, run building firms and they’ll have to make sacrifices if we are to do well. It will be tough to compete but this is what we wanted at the start of the season. If you work hard you get rewards and we’ll see what next season brings.”

Irish Independent

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