Moving on up

Dean Brennan told David Hennessy about taking Wealdstone FC to within touching distance  of the football league. 

At a time when Irish managers in soccer have become a rarity, Dean Brennan from Dublin has taken Wealdstone FC to within touching distance of the football league. After triumphing in the National League South this year, in Dean’s first season in charge, Wealdstone are preparing for their first season in the National League, just one tier below League 2.

Dean Brennan told The Irish World that preparations for the next campaign are already underway: “My job now is to not rest on our laurels, make sure we move up to the next level and have another impact.

“Our football club hasn’t been there for 32, 33 years. We were 33/1 outsiders the start of last year.

“It’s a very passionate football club, Wealdstone and we recruited the right hungry players. I thought we could have done well and we’ve proved that. We’ve done really well.

“I know everybody’s enjoying it but this is the most crucial time of the season. We’ve got to get the recruitment right. We’ve got to get our training structure right. We’ll recruit some more staff and we’ll recruit a strength and conditioning coach which we’ve never really had before.”

With the season having to be curtailed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Wealdstone were awarded the league on a points per game basis but Dean says this took nothing from the achievement.

“It’s very satisfying. I felt it was the fairest way to do things. At the end of the day we couldn’t get the games completed. We would have loved to go toe to toe with Havant and Waterlooville. There’s no doubt it would have probably gone down to the last game.

“We felt it was going to be a tight race. I’ve won the league with Hemel and the only difference with that winning the league on a Saturday is that celebration that you have together, that’s the only difference. But like anything, unprecedented times at the minute. We’ll take the success if we can get it.”

Dean knows that the club have a massive challenge ahead of them as they will be competing against teams that have bigger budgets and resources.

“Twenty-two of the 24 clubs in the division are full-time. Ourselves and Woking are the only two that are part-time so it’s going to be a difficult challenge but Woking had a decent season. There’s no doubt we can go up and make a decent impact.”

An intimidating place for visiting teams to come to, Dean has enjoyed turning Grosvenor Vale into a fortress.

“Our supporters are known for their passion and their quite aggressive passion as well.

“When I used to manage against Wealdstone, it was always a passionate place. As you come out of the tunnel, all the supporters are around the cage. There’s a lot of die hard Wealdstone fans and I think more and more Premiership supporters are starting to get disillusioned with that, starting to come into non-league.

“It’s a very passionate group of supporters. They’ve always been that way. I’m pleased for them. They can gloat over it all summer. My job is to make sure we’re ready for the next level.

“When I first got there, I felt with having a young team, we could create that togetherness and I think the players and supporters created that.

Although Ruislip is known as the home of GAA in London, Dean has noticed the club attracting an Irish faithful: “There’s a big Irish connection within our football club. There’s a couple of lads that live in Dublin that travel over to watch us play as well.

“Ruislip is a very Irish area. You’ve got the GAA around the corner.

“We do have a lot of Irish supporters. I’ve shared a drink with many of them after the game.

“That’s the intimacy of non-league football or lower level, you can have a chat with the players after the game. It’s not like the Premier League now where you can’t get near them. That’s what I love about non-league football.

“It is a unique football club. There’s a togetherness. I suppose winning football matches helps. When you’re having success, it’s a positive place to be. We’ll see what happens when we start losing football matches.”

Even when he was still playing, Dean knew he wanted to manage.

“I always wanted to be a manager. I’ve probably enjoyed being a manager more than being a player. I know people say it’s the other way around, play as long as you can but I really enjoy being manager. I love every aspect of it.

“I wouldn’t have said I was the most athletic player. I had a football brain. I always had to think tactically, how I could get the better of someone more physically athletic than me. I always thought about the team, how we could do things better.

Dean with kit man Tony Waugh.

“Even as a player when I was playing for Grays Athletic, I would be tapping into players on the pitch, sort of saying, ‘Come on, join us next season’.”

Dean started his football career in England with Sheffield Wednesday. Although he left before making a first team appearance, he secured a move to Luton Town.

“I was at a Premier League club for three years. You live in a 5 star bubble really. When you’re released, you have to find your own way in the world. I came back home, played for Bohs (Bohemians) for a couple of games and lucky enough my youth team manager got the managing job at Luton.

“He contacted me and said, ‘There’s a contract here for you if you’re fit’. I came over and I settled in the Luton area. I never really settled at Sheffield. It was tough. When I came over, I was a young kid. I had only just turned 17. I was always homesick.

“There was a big Irish connection in Luton and I’ve stayed within that area. I’ve lived in that area ever since.

“I grew up in the Liberties. I grew up in the Dublin 8 area. I love it. It’s where my family are from and where I was born and bred. I wouldn’t criticise it too much but I knew the right thing to do was to get back to England and make sure I have a career.

“When I grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, there was a heroin epidemic. It was a tough place to grow up. You have to be streetwise to survive. Football gave me everything. We all have choices to make in life and I’m happy with the ones I’ve made.”

As a schoolboy, Dean played with Lourdes Celtic, the same outfit that big names like Niall Quinn and Damien Duff sprung from. When playing for a Dublin XI team against the Premiership’s Sheffield Wednesday, a sixteen-year-old Dean caught the eye of the Owls.

“We drew 0-0. I remember the game. Seven of us went on trial. Myself, Alan Quinn and Derek Geary were all signed. Obviously Alan had a really good career. Derek had a good career but stopped by injury. I went a different route. I went down the levels, non-league and became a manager.”

Alan Quinn enjoyed a good career with Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United and Ipswich as well as playing for Republic of Ireland eight times.

Derek Geary played over 100 games for Wedneday and now manages Sheffield United’s Under 18s.

Dean wouldn’t get the same breaks and would play non-league football for the majority of his career, calling time on his playing days With Dunstable Town in 2012.

Does Dean reflect on why he didn’t have more success in his own playing career? “I wish I had been more professional and understood what it takes to be a professional. I’ve no regrets about it. It’s stood me in good stead for management. I’ve left no stone unturned as a manager. As a player, I cut corners.”

Dean went straight into management with Hemel Hempstead and would lead them to the play-offs in his first season and then to the Southern Premier League by ten clear points in 2014.

“Hemel was like an apprenticeship. I was lucky enough to be given a chance by David Boggins. He’s an Irishman, a publican. He’s from Clondalkin originally.

“They gave me a chance and I’ll thank them for that forever. Without that opportunity we wouldn’t be having this chat now. I spent six and a half years there and every year we improved the football club.”

After six successful years at Hemel Hempstead, Dean would leave and have short stints at Billericay Town and Kingstonian.

“It was a tough decision to leave Hemel and when I look back at it, was it the right one? I don’t really have regrets. I learned lots.

“It was an offer I couldn’t turn down, going to Billericay, mainly financially but the chairman at the time wanted to get into the football league. It didn’t work out in the end but I learned a lot from those four months.

“Then I had a real unfortunate event. My son, 16 at the time, got run over by a van. He was doing his GCSEs. I had to look after him. It could have been a lot worse.

“I had to step away from the (Kingstonian) job after four games. That gave me time to reflect.”

It was in May 2019 that Dean was appointed as manager of Wealdstone with Stuart Maynard, his long time second in command, installed as his number two.

He could not have asked for more from the club in his first campaign, could he? “Definitely not. A lot of success and long may it continue. I’ve gone from having one club for 6 ½  years to having four in eight years. In a year and a half, I’ve managed three or four teams. When you have time to reflect, you say, ‘You know what? These are the errors I made in those clubs. Let’s fix it’. It’s good experience.”

Does Dean see himself being boss of Wealdstone long term? “You never know in this business. You’re only six games away from the sack, aren’t you?

“There’s a lot of positivity around the club but the biggest thing for us now, especially me as manager, we’ve got to go up and make an impact at the next level. We can’t just go up and be another number. You need around 50 points to survive and you need in and around the late 70s to get into the play-offs.

“Let’s get ourselves to 50 points and if we can get more than 50 points, we’ll see where we go to.”

There’s a lot to learn. We’ve got good experience. Even though we’ve got young players. They’ve all played at that level. Some of them have played higher. We’ve got to make sure we get the structure right.

Now that the football league is in touching distance, Dean wants to take the Stones there but knows a massive challenge lies ahead.

“I think it will be difficult to do it part-time at this level. If you’re looking at teams that have gone up. When Bromley went up, they were part-time. So were Borehamwood and both clubs went full-time a year later. Whether we have the finances to do that will be a question for another day.”

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