Sunday 16 December 2018

Joe Brolly: Jim Gavin better pray that the four in a row is not blown while Diarmuid Connolly is in America

Dublin manager Jim Gavin with Diarmuid Connolly
Dublin manager Jim Gavin with Diarmuid Connolly
Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Paraic Farrelly from Cavan is obsessed with Gaelic football and for some time, we have kept up a lively WhatsApp correspondence. I could be sitting in a packed court 11, waiting to rise to my feet to cross-examine a flummoxed detective, when I feel the buzz in my pocket: 'Greg Blaney was a better number 11 than Brian McGuigan, what do you think?' Or, 'What is your best ever half-back line?' Or, 'I know you revere Geraghty, but Paul Curran always marked him out of it'.

Last week we were inching towards the game's best ever forward line. There were two automatic choices. One was the Bomber Liston, the other Diarmuid Connolly. The rest are fighting for their places. It is a pity that the climax (anti-climax) of Diarmuid's stupendous career came in the CCCC's office shortly after Dublin's game against Carlow. The lines between fantasy and reality have long since blurred. Superficial emotion has triumphed over logic. Likeability has triumphed over performance. So, Trump is building a wall across the Mexico border, and Andy Moran is player of the year.

Diarmuid's problem was that it was all fine and well being the greatest forward of his generation, with five senior All-Irelands, two club All-Irelands and all the rest of it, but he wasn't that furry little animal stuck up a tree who has to be rescued by the fire brigade. This is an easy enough point to illustrate.

Diarmuid, being dragged, pulled and nipped by three Carlow players in plain view of the officials, breaks free, runs to one of them and asks him if he's just going to stand there and watch (answer: yes). As he does this, he briefly touches linesman Ciaran Brannigan's jersey. Ciaran didn't so much as blink. His facial expression did not alter. He was holding up the white flag signalling the direction of the sideline at that second, and he continued to hold up the white flag. The referee took no heed of it either.

Afterwards, Pat Spillane whipped the morally outraged into a frenzy, and the fate of the GAA's number one panto villain was sealed. This season, on national TV, Andy Moran committed a similar offence but wasn't sanctioned.

When David Hickey was recovering from his cancer surgery earlier this year, we were chatting about this phenomenon. I was wondering aloud how Aidan O'Shea had got an All Star after disappearing in another final, how Andy Moran had been made player of the year ahead of James McCarthy and how the Mayo goalie had got the All Star ahead of Cluxton. David, his face etched in contempt, slowly removed his oxygen mask and whispered, "Why do they keep giving them awards?"

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The CCCC's suspension of Diarmuid was partial and unjust, but it didn't need to end so disastrously. Diarmuid was eligible to return for the semi-final. Dublin thumped Tyrone and the natural thing would have been to bring him in for the last 20 minutes. When this didn't happen, we wondered. When he wasn't selected for the final, it quickly became a disaster.

Having fought so hard and publicly on Diarmuid's behalf when the suspension was announced, Jim Gavin wouldn't pick him again. I remember the atmosphere in the RTE studio when we saw the Dublin squad emerging from the tunnel on the day of the final and Diarmuid was wearing a different top than everyone else. That training vest looked like the biggest fuck you to a manager in the history of finals. When he was brought on at half-time it was out of necessity. Like all the greatest players, Diarmuid steered his team home. Dublin win All-Irelands. Mayo win All Stars.

Since that final, Diarmuid's only action for Dublin has been a second-half substitute appearance against Mayo in the League in February. Last week, it was announced that he is off to America, which is like Le Bron James playing in a pub league.

Jim Gavin is not easy to pin down. But he must surely have understood that the decisions he made would be humiliating for Connolly. Dublin's mantra that the squad is everything is an ideal that never survives reality. Argentina would not drop Messi for the World Cup to make a point. Nor would Ireland drop Johnny Sexton. This is because a player at that extraordinary level will be publicly humiliated if lesser players are favoured. I cannot think of any other explanation for Diarmuid's decision. He is, after all, only flesh and bone.

Jim sees Con O'Callaghan as an ideal successor. Con - like many young forwards - is an explosive, exciting first-half footballer. But he does not yet have the maturity to be the go-to guy who leads his team home. Diarmuid had long since become that man. He was the main target of the opposition, from McGuinness's trash-talking Donegal through to Lee Keegan's one-man Mayo war machine (I exempt Lee from all of my previous observations. He was one of two automatic choices in my and Farrelly's greatest ever half-back line). In every game, Connolly was tortured. Yet his football remained sublime. He had every ability that a fantasy footballer could have, only he was real.

The three in a row was salvaged by Connolly's intervention. Jim better pray that the four in a row is not blown while Connolly is labouring on a building site in Chicago.

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