Wednesday 16 January 2019

Alan Brogan: Anyone can be replaced - even Diarmuid Connolly

Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Alan Brogan

I spent the winter of 2009/'10 worrying about how we'd replace Ciarán Whelan.

Pat Gilroy was busy deconstructing the bits of our team that hadn't been blown to smithereens by Kerry the previous August, drafting young men with big potential and others that weren't really mapped.

But Whelo leaving made me anxious.

He'd been so important for us for more than a decade that we'd struggled visibly around the middle when he didn't play.

There were days when he carried us.

He had a presence, he was a sort of figurehead of our team.

He was peerless in the air and his athleticism for such a big man was amazing.

He was one of the team's real top quality players, someone who took the fight to everyone, and opposition teams put huge thought and effort into how to stymie him.

Ciaran Whelan.jpg
Ciaran Whelan in action against Cork during his playing days

Whelo left huge shoes to fill – literally and figuratively – and for all I knew about the Dublin football scene at the time, another midfielder of his abilities simply didn't exist.

Then Michael Darragh Macauley bulldozed his way onto the scene.

I'd seen Macauley play with UCD before he was ever involved with Dublin and I was dubious about whether he had the football to cut it at inter-county level, let alone provide a viable replacement for a player of the influence of Ciaran Whelan.

But in he barged anyway and within a couple of years, Macauley was Footballer of the Year in his second All-Ireland winning season.

That didn't seem possible to me after Whelo's retirement – I thought we'd struggle badly – but it goes to show how a player, any player, can be replaced.

I saw it in my own situation, too.

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In the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final when I hobbled off with an injury that would take a year to get over, Ciaran Kilkenny scored 0-3 on his inter-county debut, just a season out of minor.

Another year on, Ciaran was the team's centre-forward as Dublin won the first of Jim Gavin's All-Irelands.

The same last year with Bernard and Con O'Callaghan.

Bernard's scoring returns marked him as a once-in-a-generation sort of inside forward but in his first full season, Con exploded on the scene and scored brilliant goals in both the All-Ireland semi-final and final and won an All Star.

Even a uniquely pacey wing-back like Jack McCaffrey was adequately replaced by John Small in 2016 when Jack took a year off.

That's Dublin's four recipients of the Footballer of the Year award this decade all replaced without a dip in the team's results, even if the new man in each case was stylistically different.

So no player is irreplaceable. Even Diarmuid Connolly.

As a Dublin supporter now and a former team-mate, I hope Diarmuid plays for Dublin again.

That he played hurling last week for St Vincent's shows that he still has motivation to tog at some level and and I think in time, he'll gravitate back towards the biggest stage.

But given how long he has been with the squad and how hectic his career has been occasionally, he's entitled to his time off if he feels he needs a bit of space.

Playing for Dublin can be all-consuming, especially for Diarmuid, who has been doing it since he was 18 with a huge amount of attention on him at all times.

Diarmuid's a very strong character though, who wouldn't worry too much about what people think about him, just so long as he's happy enough himself.

But assuming nothing drastic changes over the next few weeks, Dublin will miss him.

And a certain sparkle has been taken away from them in the psyche of their opponents in his absence.

Take last year's All-Ireland final as a classic example.

Lee Keegan did as good a job of hassling and curbing Ciaran Kilkenny as anyone in 2017 but if Diarmuid had started, where would Keegan have been deployed?

And if Mayo had left him on Ciaran, who would have marked Connolly?

Brian Howard is the most obvious replacement, even if it's not fair to compare him directly to Diarmuid.

tony McClenaghan of Donegal in action against Brian Howard of Dublin

Diarmuid Connolly can do things that nobody else in the game can, so comparisons aren't relevant.

People remember all the flashes of genius Diarmuid produced with the ball but he worked as hard as Paul Flynn or any other wing-forward when he had to.

When he was really tuned in, he was a Trojan.

Look at those matches against Mayo again and you'll see Diarmuid tracking back every time Keegan goes forward, working every bit as hard.

Maybe in the lesser games his interest levels waned a small bit but when Dublin needed him, he took on that responsibility every time.

Howard's progress bodes well, though.

I played against him recently in the club Championship and he has everything needed to thrive immediately at this level.

He can pass accurately, has a sharp sidestep, he can run, tackle, can defend – basically he has all the bits and pieces required to develop into a brilliant modern wing-forward.

Or it could also be that Kevin McManamon comes back into the team and has a season like he did in 2016, when he started all of Dublin's big games and had a huge bearing on them winning that year's All-Ireland.

But the trend has always been for Jim to prefer the younger man in a 50/50 selection call, particularly up front.

The culture of the group makes it easy for young players to settle in and once they reach a certain level, Jim has been quick to trust them with a place in his team.

Jim will move on quickly.

He possesses an inherent pragmatism that means he won't dwell on the situation.

If Diarmuid can't influence Dublin's attempt to win Sam Maguire this year, and if every avenue has been exhausted to bring him back, Jim won't expend any further energy worrying about what a loss he might be or what the team lacks in his absence now.

It's next man up – always.

Even if the man being replaced is as brilliant a footballer as Diarmuid Connolly.

Herald Sport

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