Sport GAA

Thursday 13 December 2018

Colm Keys: O’Callaghan could become finest dual player of our time but may never play inter-county hurling

Con O’Callaghan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Con O’Callaghan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Just a few minutes in to last Sunday's Leinster club quarter-final the Kilkenny champions Dicksboro were forced to rip up their pre-ordained script and fight one of the most common fires that blazes in Gaelic games these days.

They had planned to deploy their most prized asset, Cillian Buckley, in front of their full-back line to keep general tabs on Cuala's vast array of attacking talent.

But the early evidence suggested that the focus should be on one man only. Two runs on goal, culminating in a point and a wide, were enough to prompt radical remedial action.

Con O'Callaghan moves with the 'Jaws' theme music ringing in the ears of those who chase him and watch him admiringly from a safe distance.

Every twist, every turn, every surge has a menacing feel about it.

But even the switch of one of the game's top defenders to a man-marking role couldn't prevent O'Callaghan's rich run of form and, by the end, Buckley had been left trailing in his wake.

Pat Gilroy. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Pat Gilroy. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

O'Callaghan finished with 1-3, was fouled for four of David Treacy's frees and set up Jake Malone for another goal.

It was the fourth game in five, commencing with Cuala's last Dublin SHC group game against Crumlin, when he came off the bench, that O'Callaghan had found the net to extend his current streak that has made it one of the most remarkable years for any GAA player, in any year.

It's a headline fact that O'Callaghan has won three All-Ireland medals in 2017, club hurling with Cuala, U-21 football with Dublin and senior football with Dublin, on top of a football All-Star and Young Footballer of the Year award.

But O'Callaghan hasn't just been hanging around benefiting from being a member of talented teams.

Even at 20 and 21 he has been on the front foot with that eye for goal, in both codes, that is surely unprecedented at his age.

In the last 12 months, dating back to the first Sunday in November, 2016 when Cuala played Borris-in-Ossory/Kilcotton in a Leinster club hurling quarter-final and he announced himself with four goals, he has played in 23 competitive games (10 with Cuala, five with Dublin U-21s, six with Dublin seniors and two with Cuala senior footballers) and has scored a stunning 21 goals.

Only in nine of those games has he failed to score a goal, including the Leinster football final when he compensated with 12 points, six from play.

Not all, of course, are similar but they do have a familiar theme with fielding and explosiveness at the core of most.

This young man doesn't really do ordinary goals as his parting of the Tyrone and Mayo defences in the early stages of the All-Ireland semi-final and final this year underlined.

Eight of the 21 goals have come in the 13 football games he has played (his All-Ireland U-21 semi-final against Donegal in April lasted just three minutes because of a black card so maybe that should be scratched), making it 13 for Cuala in their 10-game stretch either side of St Patrick's Day last.

Judge that by any standards and it is a phenomenal return for someone who, for five months of the year, in the best of the weather, doesn't hurl competitively at all.

Even on days like that All-Ireland club final when he didn't find the net he was devastating, setting up both goals and crashing a shot off a crossbar with that trademark turn and go in the opening half.

How Pat Gilroy must have looked on in Parnell Park on Sunday and felt an even more acute sense of loss that O'Callaghan will, quite probably, not be part of his project next year or perhaps at any stage over the next three years.

Any narrow window of opportunity for elite players to play both codes at the top level have long been extinguished and Gilroy himself was a contributor to that. But the advent of a new fixtures plan means that even the likes of Keith Higgins will struggle to turn out for Mayo's hurlers and footballers in the same summer.

Dublin has many fine dual talents but none can surely illuminate quite like O'Callaghan.

If the programme allowed for it we could potentially be talking about one of the greatest dual players of any era.

He is a young man with a Midas Touch. In those 23 games over the last 12 months that he has been involved in he has lost just once, Cuala's Dublin football quarter-final against St Jude's at the end of September.

Even Cuala's defeat to Ballyboden in round-robin stage of the Dublin hurling championship came in his absence as he was preparing for the All-Ireland U-21 football final against Galway, a game that he, inevitably, scored a goal in.

His star has already soared to the top of the game where his displacement of Bernard Brogan was completed this year and where he will undoubtedly remain for many years to come.

The challenge for Gilroy is to broaden the appeal of Dublin hurling so that a talent like O'Callaghan finds it even harder to make a choice.

Gilroy's stated aim is to make Dublin a competitive 'top four' team by the end of his tenure. But climbing any higher will surely require the supply of oxygen that O'Callaghan's goals and sublime movement and intelligence gives those teams lucky enough to have him.

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