The great blue hope
Jack of all trades Diarmuid Connolly ready to come of age in Dublin's latest quest for Sam
Published 24/06/2011 | 05:00
"IF HE had played golf," says Diarmuid Connolly's former U-21 hurling manager Sean Lane, "it would have been him winning the US Open last weekend. He's just that kind of guy, give him three or four years with one sport and he could achieve anything."
Few footballers divide opinions more than the enigmatic Dublin forward, but everyone agrees on one thing -- his talent.
Speak to coaches who worked with him and experts who watched him develop and they will talk of a youngster who possessed remarkable ability, no matter what he tried his hand at.
Had he stuck to hurling, those in the know say he could have strengthened the Dublin forward line in Tullamore last Saturday night. He had the talent for soccer but his commitment to Gaelic got in the way. As for golf? He never gave it a proper go, but young Diarmuid was a natural.
The fans on Hill 16, however, have yet to be convinced, even if Connolly appears to be finally putting his promise into practice.
Years of collapses mean the Dublin football fan is sceptical of false dawns, and few have flattered to deceive quite like the St Vincent's forward, who has a history of fitful seasons where he has impressed early on but faded by the business end of the season.
He turns 24 next month and has reached an age where potential is no longer a currency he can trade on. It's time to deliver.
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Pat Gilroy demanded total commitment from his players last season as he changed the way the Dubs went about their business in pursuit of their Holy Grail.
In the days that followed the five-goal humbling against Meath, Connolly failed to show up for a challenge match and was dropped from the panel.
It was the latest episode of indiscipline from a man whose character has been called into question in pubs all over the capital as the great debate on Dublin's future continued after a succession of championship collapses.
The popular view was that Connolly was wasting his talent and there were real fears that he would never realise his great potential.
But wherever he watched Gilroy's Dubs come up short against Cork last August, something stirred in him, and by January he was getting up early for the training sessions on the Alfie Byrne Road.
Around the club they noticed a change in attitude. Connolly had his hunger back.
"He's learned his lessons," Dublin legend and fellow St Vincent's man Jimmy Keaveney reckons. "I knew they would bring him back and they brought him back for the league and he hasn't looked back.
"He's the ideal man. He's a poacher, he's a fielder. He takes the pressure off everyone, especially Bernard (Brogan). Look at the passes he lays off; there are goals coming from them and he can kick with both feet.
"It's a huge plus to have him back, because the full-forward line at the moment is the deadliest in the country."
But for a phenomenal display from goalkeeper Eoin Culliton, he'd have bagged a hat-trick against Laois in a strong display and former team-mate Ciaran Whelan has noticed a newfound maturity in Connolly's play.
"Maybe sitting in the stands last year and watching the lads progress so close to an All-Ireland final was the kick in the a**e he needed to realise that if he wanted to be part of the set-up, he would have to change the way he approached it," Whelan says.
"It looks like Pat has him on the right track now."
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Paul Caffrey thought enough of a young Connolly to start the 19-year-old in the 2007 championship opener against Meath, but by the time they reached the All-Ireland semi-final, he was an unused substitute watching from the Hogan Stand.
Later that year he would win a Leinster title with the U-21 hurlers, while the following St Patrick's Day he scored a vital goal as St Vincent's claimed the All-Ireland club title. Playing alongside Connolly was a certain Pat Gilroy, both operating under the tutelage of Mickey Whelan.
When Gilroy, assisted by Whelan, assumed the reins of the county team after the devastating defeat to Tyrone that August, the conspiracy theorists reckoned the new man would delve heavily into his club for talent.
In contrast, one of his first decisions was to send his clubmate home from a La Manga training camp in January 2009 for a breach of team discipline.
He featured in the championship, failing to contribute in the repeat collapse against Kerry, and when the manager's attitude hardened and demands increased, Connolly -- who has never scored in a championship game outside of Leinster -- fell by the wayside.
When he was dropped off the panel altogether, Connolly was written off in many quarters, but his former coach Lane reckons he just needed a different approach and is now ready to be a real leader in the Dubs set-up.
"If you barked and shouted at him and told him you wanted 100 things, you wouldn't get any of them back," Lane explains.
"He needs a kind of management style that shows an interest in him. If you take time out and show Diarmuid what to do, he'll give you so much back it's unreal.
"He might be the very fella who is dragging lads across the line instead of trying to get over it himself. A lad that had a chequered career, people maybe found it difficult to understand him.
"He may be the very fella who will understand everybody else when it's his time to lead and, I tell you, I'm looking forward to that part of his career."