Of all the stories interwoven with De La Salle’s All-Ireland club appearance in Croke Park, one of the most compelling for me is that of Stephen Brenner (pictured), who, majority opinion has it, may well be busier than a barman on a double shift come St Patrick’s Day.
He won’t go down as the best ‘keeper ever to guard the Waterford goal, but he was far from the worst. As a man, John Mullane rates him right up there with the best his club has produced. As the DLS captain told Catherine O’Brien in our special supplement centrepiece, the mate they call ‘Billy’ “is an absolute gentleman; he’s very easy-going and never has a bad word to say about anyone… and plays a massive role for De La Salle both on and off the pitch.”
Stevie is steeped in the club and enjoys coaching youngsters, having managed the Under 21s to the county title last year. His brothers Johnny, Billy, Gerry and Ernest, also played for De La Salle, all together at one time.
Getting back to Croker, where he last played in the 2002 All-Ireland semi-final against Clare, will be something special. “Nothing compares to this. Winning with your club is unbelievable,” he said after the mother of all Munster final comebacks against Adare. “I know there mightn’t be as many people in the stands here as they were in days for Waterford, but coming across the field there, meeting people you grew up with, meeting fellas that used be up training you and fellas you used be playing with, it’s unbelievable.”
True to Mullane’s word, he harbours no bitterness about the way his county career ended. “I’m just happy to be cheering on from the sideline and the stands wherever Waterford go. I’ll be behind them a hundred percent.”
In Christy O’Connor’s brilliant 2005 book about hurling goalkeepers, ‘Last Man Standing’, Brenner gave a glimpse of the torment that often attached itself to the responsibility and pride of standing between the Waterford posts. The shit that comes with that precarious territory.
The classic 2004 Munster final, that potentially disastrous and embarrassing early goal he conceded, is recalled in detail; how captain Ken McGrath told his team-mates at half-time “We’re going to leave everything we have out on that field,” And they did, even after Mullane’s sending off; their desire, as Brenner put it, “really pulling me out of a hole.”
He’d prayed to his father Ger to help him out before the game but in the frenzy after the final whistle the cross was ripped from his neck and fell to the earth, lost. As McGrath lifted the cup Stephen saw his mother Charlotte, the De La Salle secretary then as now, crying her eyes out in the stand; the pent-up emotion, the pressure of it all, overbearing.
His mam was always too quiet to answer her son’s critics, the bigmouths with small-minds, “but my father, God be good to him would have turned around and let fly.”
Stephen remembered his dad, who died on the field with him, after last month’s semi-final win over Cushendall.
Ger Brenner collapsed while doing umpire at an Under 21 football match Stephen was playing in up in Polberry in 1993. Seeing the commotion in the other goalmouth, “We all went down and that was it. It’s something you never think could happen but it did.”
Understandably, he “went a little bit crazy for a while” afterwards, lost interest in playing and was, he told O’Connor, “drinking lights out”. Unable to stick the pace outfield he ended up in goal when Donal Treacy retired, and was discovered to be good at it. Waterford came calling when he was 27. He went on to play in three successive Munster finals, winning two, including that provincial decider to beat all provincial deciders, which, if Waterford have lost, he’d have been haunted by forever more.
Someone up above might just have made sure they didn’t. A cross literally lifted from his shoulders.