Saturday 10 December 2016

Connolly and Walsh galaxies apart but running the one race

Croker battle of the No 12s captures the urban-rural divide in final chase for Sam

Published 19/09/2015 | 02:30

Kerry’s Donnchadh Walsh and Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin - seen here in action in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final - will have key roles to play in tomorrow’s Croke Park showdown
Kerry’s Donnchadh Walsh and Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin - seen here in action in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final - will have key roles to play in tomorrow’s Croke Park showdown

With two minutes remaining in the Mayo replay, Jim Gavin seemed to suspend his principle of outlawing worship of the individual.

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He called Diarmuid Connolly ashore and, in doing so, you had to suspect he was inviting the city to clear its throat. A great peal of thunder duly came rolling down off that shimmering blue wall of people backed onto Clonliffe Road, the Hill's adoration coiling around Connolly as he met his manager with a cursory hand-shake beneath the Hogan stand.

It was as near as Gavin has ever come to playing to a crowd.

Connolly had only been cleared to play in the early hours after a week spent facing the hanging judges of GAA discipline, his case triggering polarised emotions.

For some, it highlighted the sad comedy of a reflex culture of appeal. For others, it cast light again on the St Vincents man's endless struggle against the fetid breeze of provocation.

If his ban had stood, the letter of the law might have been upheld. But would it have been just?

Diarmuid Connolly is shown the red card by referee Joe McQuillan in the drawn game against Mayo, but was cleared to play in the replay
Diarmuid Connolly is shown the red card by referee Joe McQuillan in the drawn game against Mayo, but was cleared to play in the replay

It is doubtful Gavin would have worked that moment for any other Dublin player, but Connolly represents something to the group that cannot really be pigeon-holed.

He has, it is well known, been in his 'scrapes' across the years. He's gone to the very edge of becoming someone's barstool lament. One of Pat Gilroy's earliest acts as Dublin manager was to send Connolly home from a January training week in La Manga for indiscipline.

And Gilroy and Connolly weren't just clubmates, they'd played together in the forward line of a Vincents team that claimed All-Ireland glory in '08.

So all that loose-limbed grace we see now, that regal movement, the impossible, floating balance of a footballer comfortable kicking off left or right, all of that could have been lost in a blur of youthful carelessness.

Because, when you break it down, Connolly's talent only found true expression as Gilroy's Dublin reign was arcing to its peak.

In the All-Ireland winning year of 2011, he finally became that player the city needed him to be.

Barry Cahill tells a story that perhaps encapsulates why. Centre-forward on that team, Cahill recalls heading to the DCU gym maybe four days after their final defeat of Kerry in preparation for St Brigids' upcoming championship campaign. And there, upstairs in the elite gym, he came upon Diarmuid Connolly.

"I was a bit taken aback," recalled Cahill this week. "I was just there to do some injury rehab, but Diarmuid was doing a proper weights session. That was something that showed me just how seriously he'd begun talking his football.

"People could always see the raw talent in him, but it took him a couple of years to get that bit of maturity under his belt.

"Even under Pat Gilroy, he was in and out of the team through '09 and '10. I think he actually left the panel at one point. So it was only really 2011 when he came back into the fold that he maybe knuckled down that bit more.

"It was nearly a case of make or break for him at that stage. He needed to start making a proper impact at inter-county level. It was sort of now or never."

He electrified Croke Park that August with a haul of 0-7 from play in Dublin's defeat quarter-final defeat of Tyrone, yet had to appeal for the right to play in the final after a semi-final red card for putting his hand to the face of a Donegal player in a game that was utterly deadening of spirit.

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Since winning that All-Ireland, Connolly has grown into one of the country's most coveted players. Last year, he finally won an All Star, and a marquee performance tomorrow might put him in the frame for Footballer of the Year.

Yet, dark clouds tend to swing in and out of his story. He underwent anger management after a conviction for an unprovoked early-morning assault in Phibsboro just two days after Dublin's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat of Laois in 2012. The victim of the assault sustained a fractured eye-socket.

Connolly offered an unreserved apology for the incident, agreed to the court's directive that he take up in excess of 200 hours voluntary GAA coaching of youngsters and an undisclosed sum of money was donated to charity.

Gilroy remarked at the time: "He is a human-being, we all make mistakes."

Gavin's decision to make the Vincents man his vice-captain seemed to speak of a faith in Connolly that echoed his predecessor's words. He sees in Diarmuid Connolly a man worth investing trust in.

A jewel beyond the sulphur.

To Kingdom traditionalists, Donnchadh Walsh is a moth among butterflies. In some of the older houses of Kerry football, a view that forwards need not necessarily be measured by what they score seems atheistic.

Walsh seldom runs up a pile. He moves, generally, without tumult. In four and a bit games for Eamonn Fitzmaurice this summer, his tally is 1-3.

He is many things to Kerry, but prolific isn't one of them. So the critics bellow like lost cattle.

Yet, there is an argument to be made that Walsh's value to a team ablaze with plumed talent challenges that narrow orthodoxy. His movement is too selfless to draw stares, but it oils the hinges of what Kerry do. He runs marathons to prise inches. He sacrifices himself.

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How odd then to think that his Championship debut did not fall until '08, five years after Páidí Ó Sé first brought him onto the Kerry senior panel five years earlier. But trumpets never blared for Donnchadh Walsh's arrival onto a football field.

If '08 was his debut year, it ended with him being left out of Kerry's plans for the All-Ireland final with Tyrone and, one year later, he was dropped for their decider against Cork.

Maybe it took Fitzmaurice to unwrap the puzzle of what it was that Walsh might do for Kerry.

In the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, he gave the Cromane man a task of curbing Dublin's cavalier half-backs, notably Jack McCaffrey. Dublin won with a murderous late surge, but McCaffrey had his least effective outing of the year.

When they measure the distances Walsh travels during games, their findings suggest he is supported by lungs of tungsten.

Tomás Ó Sé has first-hand experience. Many were the nights in Fitzgerald Stadium he found himself zig-zagging hopelessly across the field in pursuit of a wing-forward who never seemed to pause for breath.

As Ó Sé puts it "He's a clever, clever, clever man. I could be marking him in a full-on training game and Donnchadh might go left. When I say left, I mean 50 yards left, full-on sprint. And no ball there.

"And I'm there wondering 'What the f**k is this all about?' So I'm following him over and, next thing, he turns on the sideline and darts the other way. This isn't aimless now, he's a great reader of the game. We could have four full 50-yard dashes done before the ball is coming down.

"So you leave him off for that half-second and, next thing, he just gets onto it.

"He has no problem making six or seven lung-bursting runs before the ball gets to him and that makes him a very hard guy to mark. His engine is just phenomenal and it's why he's on the end of moves for goals so often."

One night, a-returning-to-fitness Paul Galvin was sent in to take up Ó Sé's jersey and position for the final ten minutes of a practice game. The jersey's condition bore the measure of the challenge. It was soaking.

"T'was like it had been put under a tap for 20 seconds" recalls Ó Sé with a chuckle. "And you had to see Galvin's face when he felt it. He just f***ed it on the ground. Couldn't understand how any man could sweat so much."

In Fitzmaurice's cull of a winning team for tomorrow, Walsh was never vulnerable. He has lived his life for these days but only now, at 31, does he look like a man in his natural environment.

An overnight sensation after a small lifetime chasing shadows.

Two No 12s then, one brought up in the concrete sprawl of Marino, the other in a tiny fishing village eight miles west of Killorglin.

Both private and reticent off the field, both making up for lost time on it. Connolly's gifts stir the greater commotion because, on a given day, his game takes on a celestial quality.

It would be unimaginable for Walsh, say, to own an All-Ireland club final in the manner Connolly did on St Patrick's Day last year or torture a Mickey Harte defence as Connolly did that August night in 2011 when he was, as Cahill recalls, "untouchable".

Walsh is invisible in tomorrow's man of the match betting and, in terms of first goal-scorer, he is a neglected 20/1 shot compared to Connolly at sevens.

Yet Ó Sé believes that Donnchadh Walsh can be the difference now for Kerry.

"Outside the camp, I would say that a lot of people don't realise how important he is to us," says the Gaeltacht man. "Yes, the traditionalists love their Gooches, they love their Mikeys, they love their Johnny Egans, they love their 'Bombers' and their Donaghys. Great players.

"But this fella is the kind of guy who makes great players flourish. He is the one who actually makes things tick. If we didn't have the likes of Donnchadh or Johnny Buckley or Paul Galvin over the years, Jesus Christ we wouldn't have been half the team."

Connolly's scoring return from Dublin's six Championship outings this year is 4-10, albeit he did not register a score the last day against Mayo.

His form has a tendency to be streaky and there is no doubting the sense that opponents often see in him a target worth baiting.

At times the first day against Mayo, Connolly looked to be surrounded by a mix of bouncers and raconteurs.

Caught in the grip of such contrariness, you can almost hear him ticking.

That he snapped finally when pinned to the ground by Lee Keegan, however, seemed more a human reflex than any confirmation of a loosely wired temper. Cahill believes his old team-mate has largely been handling provocation well.

"Physically, you really need a second guy on him," he says. "I've seen it in club football where teams have actually put three players on him and Diarmuid's been well able to handle it.

"He would have been targeted over the years with Vincents, not only in the Dublin Championship, but then as they got into Leinster and the All-Ireland series.

"I presume a lot of opposition managers spend a fair bit of their time analysing him and talking about him to their teams.

"Because they know if they can nullify Diarmuid, it does go a long way to negating Dublin. He comes in for a lot of punishment off the ball, but he's well used to it at this stage, well able to handle it.

"Yes, he gets into a few scrapes here and there, but I think he has matured as a player and a person."

One man quiet as a rumour then, the other with the worship of a city in his ears. Two No 12s from different cultures, different geography, both running the one race.

Irish Independent

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