The name of Offaly's Matt Connor conjures up 'many memories for Kerry fans

NEXT Tuesday night, May 1, Kerry Radio's popular sports programme, "Terrace Talk," hosted by Weeshie Fogarty and Eamon O'Sullivan, will honour the former Offaly football star, Matt Connor, whose name conjures up so many memories for Kerry supporters

NEXT Tuesday night, May 1, Kerry Radio's popular sports programme, "Terrace Talk," hosted by Weeshie Fogarty and Eamon O'Sullivan, will honour the former Offaly football star, Matt Connor, whose name conjures up so many memories for Kerry supporters.

A presentation will also be made to Matt by the Kerry Supporters Club on the initiation of Jerry Savage.

This is a very special occasion for Kerry Radio and especially Weeshie Fogarty, whose idea this was and who set the wheels in motion several weeks ago. It is the first time that a programme extending to an hour and a half has been devoted to somebody from beyond the confines of the home county.

In taking a decision to honour Matt Connor, one of the all-time greats of Gaelic Football, Kerry Radio have chosen wisely on several counts. During his all too short career in the green, white and gold jersey of his beloved Offaly, the man from Walsh Island endeared himself to a generation of football followers in a way that few others have ever done. He personified all the prized values that make for sporting excellence.

It wasn't just his wondrous skills as a footballer that marked him out for special attention. He had that special aura that made for star quality.

Much of that appeal was related to his impeccable sportsmanship and modest demeanour on the field of play. In every game,he played from a very young age, his reputation went before him. This meant that every effort would be made to stop him by fair means or foul. He would be pulled and dragged and pushed and shoved as opposing backs gave him the closest of attention.

But whatever happened on or off the ball, Matt never retaliated or took umbrage, as well he might. His sole concentration was on playing football. He was a model sportsman who showed no emotion in victory or defeat.

One of his teachers in Portarlington CBS, Brother O'Connell, described him as a "quiet, unassuming, country boy" and those few words capture the essence of his personality.

He grew up with his five brothers and two sisters in a remote place surrounded by the flat boglands of County Offaly. This is a place where one could expect to see a lark soar into the summer sky, where a quiet land personifies timeless values.

A proud football tradition flourished among these quiet fields and the Connors grasped the torch and carried it on to higher peaks when their time came. Their father, Jim (RIP), played for Offaly and won several county championship medals in his day. An uncle, Tommy Connor, played Railway Cup football with Leinster. Their first cousin, Willie Bryan, was a midfielder star on the Offaly team that beat Kerry in the 1972 All-Ireland final.

Liam and Tomás Connor, who played important roles on the Offaly side that thwarted Kerry's bid for five-in-a-row in 1982, were double first cousins. Two more uncles, John and Pat, both deceased, also played for Offaly.

While Matt is the acknowledged virtuoso of the Connor clan, his brothers, Murt, Richie, Willie, Sean and Seamus, were star players in their own right. Willie, it is said, would have gone on to great things had not illness intervened at a young age. Murt and Richie won All-Ireland medals and Richie captained the side that beat Kerry in 1982.

As might be expected, the Connor brothers and their cousins became central figures on the Walsh Island team that won six successive Offaly titles and two Leinster club titles.

They were beaten by Walterstown (Meath) by a single point (3-9 to 2-11) in the Leinster club final of 1983 when Matt scored 2-6.

That is an enviable record for a small rural club who drew their playing personnel from a population of roughly 400 people. The whole team came from within a radius of a few miles and nine of them, the six Connors and three Mulhalls, lived close together on Mill Lane.

Matt Connor had many landmarks in a brilliant career. He is the highest scorer in the history of Gaelic football. Some of his individual tallies are awe-inspiring. Playing against Kerry in the 1980 All-Ireland semi-final, he scored 2-9. Between 1980 and 1984, he was the highest scorer in Ireland. During the 1980 championship he scored 5-31 in four games, which is a record. Playing for Offaly in league and championship football he scored 38 goals and 383 points.

At the height of his fame, when he had the world at his feet, Matt was the victim of a serious motor accident which has left him confined to a wheelchair ever since. It happened on Christmas Day, 1984, when he was driving home for his Christmas dinner after completing a night shift at Tullamore Garda station where he still works in an administrative capacity. He was only 25.

The months of rehabilitation that followed were harrowing for himself and for his family. Friends and neighbours rallied round, trying to offer words of solace and comfort, but there were none that would be meaningful in the circumstances. Football followers throughout Ireland and beyond were aghast at what had happened.

Many would remember where they were on hearing the tragic news just as others would recall their location on the day when President John F Kennedy was assassinated.

Since then, Matt has rebuilt his life and goes about his work and leisure by adapting to changed circumstances. Summer or winter, he never misses an Offaly match and he still has an all-consuming interest in football.

He served as an Offaly minor selector for six years. He travels extensively, has been to America on several occasions since the accident and he followed Jack Charlton's Irish soccer team to far-flung venues on the continent.

But perhaps the most trying journey of all was over icy roads to attend the Frank McGuignan testimonial dinner at the Prairie Restaurant in Kildress, Co Tyrone, in December 1985. McGuigan had suffered a bad injury in a motor accident some time previously and Matt wanted to offer his moral support. That is the kind of man he is.

His presence in the Kerry Radio studios next Tuesday evening will inevitably bring back memories of that fateful day when Offaly smashed Kerry's bid for five successive All-Ireland titles and immortality.

His two points from frees in the closing minutes (he never contemplated going for a goal, he says) paved the way for Seamus Darby's earth-shattering goal.

During an inter-county career that extended between March 26, 1978, when he made his debut against Meath in the National League, until his last game at O'Connor Park, Tullamore, against Mayo on December 9, 1984, Matt won three Leinster senior medals, one All-Ireland medal, one Leinster U21 medal and a host of lesser awards.

He was a Bank of Ireland All-star in 1980, 1981 and 1983 and one of his goals against Kerry in 1980 was voted RTE Goal of the Year.

But far more enduring than medals or records is the reputation he rightly earned for sportsmanship, dignity, modesty and unsurpassed football standards.

These will stand the test of time.