Saturday 21 September 2019

Balance, explosiveness and an air of calm, we are lucky to witness O'Callaghan's star quality

'Con O'Callaghan's talent has a kind of irresistible charisma about it'. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
'Con O'Callaghan's talent has a kind of irresistible charisma about it'. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Hold the Back Page: Eamonn Sweeney

Con O'Callaghan is different. I'm beginning to wonder if the GAA has seen anyone quite like him before, a guy so good, so young, at both football and hurling. There's something special about O'Callaghan's play which makes it immensely pleasurable to watch him in action. His talent has a kind of irresistible charisma about it.

Take what should have been a pretty routine Leinster club hurling semi-final between Cuala and Wexford champions St Martin's at Parnell Park last Sunday. Three times in the first quarter O'Callaghan cut through the Wexford side's defence. It was almost matter of fact, as though the backs weren't there. St Martin's survived - a goal was disallowed, their goalkeeper Luke White made a fine save, another ball was scrambled away.

Yet O'Callaghan kept coming back. In the 17th minute he cut through again and when the ball was knocked from his grasp he quickly essayed a kind of stepover back-heel into the path of Jake Malone who found the net. The green flag had hardly been put down when he won possession 50 yards out and simply ran away from the St Martin's defenders like a wild horse disappearing over the hills before improvising a kind of tennis serve of a shot to beat the excellent White.

He would go on to score three points in the space of 90 seconds in the second half, each time easily disposing of Willie Devereux, an experienced inter-county defender.

When, 30 seconds after the third point, O'Callaghan showed impressive strength to shrug off Devereux's challenge, another Martin's defender seemed to have eased the danger by the simple expedient of lying on O'Callaghan as the forward was on the ground. Yet somehow the kid extricated himself from this situation, clambered to his feet and burst forward before showing exemplary unselfishness to lay the clinching goal on a plate for Colm Cronin.

OK, it was only a club game. Yet what makes O'Callaghan special is that he does things that no-one else can really do, partly because he seems to see the game in a different way. That's what enabled him to finish as second top scorer in the club championship Cuala won last season, the 7-15 he scored in five matches all the more incredible because it all came from play, an average of over seven points a game. O'Callaghan does for Cuala what Joe Canning used to do for Portumna when they were winning All-Irelands.

Which isn't bad considering hurling isn't even his number one sport. It does, however, enable him to display the most notable feature of his game, that nose for goal which seems to have him thinking of three points every time he's in an attacking position.

Remember that goal against Tyrone in the All-Ireland football semi-final? O'Callaghan wasn't much over the half-way line when he took possession yet there seemed almost an inevitability about the way he surged forward, dismissed a challenge with a quick-fire sidestep and rattled a shot home from 20 yards, a range from which most forwards are content to tap the ball over and receive credit for 'taking the wise option'.

Yet that score paled next to what followed, which just happened to be one of the greatest goals in All-Ireland final history. The frantic nature of the finale has slightly obscured what O'Callaghan did to Mayo after just 85 seconds. But it's worth looking at again and again, marvelling at how little seemed on when he takes the initial pass from Cian O'Sullivan. O'Callaghan is shadowed closely by a player who would deservedly win an All Star - Colm Boyle - but gains a vital yard on him with a sudden unexpected burst of speed. He then dismisses a second All Star, Keith Higgins, with an imperious body swerve only to be confronted by a third, David Clarke, the game's best one-on-one goalkeeper. O'Callaghan just drops the ball and with the outside of his right boot dinks it past Clarke as casually as though he's kicking around in the park. Three All Stars faced, three All Stars beaten. Football nirvana.

The balance, the explosiveness and also the calmness of that goal remind me not of any Gaelic footballer but of Lionel Messi. And I suspect O'Callaghan has the potential to, like Messi, expand the notions of what is possible in his chosen game and to destroy any system designed to curb him. He has become a player who, like Canning or Colm Cooper, you want to watch in any game he plays just to see what he'll come up with. The difference between him and those three greats is that O'Callaghan can do it in two different sports.

Still only 21, the Cuala man already seems to have it all, skill, pace, strength, intelligence and an unflappable attitude. In GAA terms 2017 has been Con O'Callaghan's year. I think he'll put his name to a few more before he's finished. He can be as good as he wants to be.

Gaelic football should cherish Con O'Callaghan. It's lucky to have him.

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