Wednesday 22 January 2020

Comment: Dubs can do without Connolly for now – but not when it comes to winning an All-Ireland

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

Donnchadh Boyle

When the subject of Dublin's dominance of the Gaelic football landscape and their natural advantages come up, those of a blue persuasion are quick to point out that they haven't exactly been steam rolling their way through All-Ireland finals.

Of their five All-Irelands since 2011, four have been won by a single point with one of those coming after a replay. The other saw them beat Kerry in 2015 by just three points - a single score.

This Dublin golden era has been built on fine margins. But they have shown time and again that when it comes to the crunch, they have been able to find that little bit extra.

That was well illustrated in last year's All-Ireland final. On that occasion Dublin's edge came in the shape of the brilliant Diarmuid Connolly. And after he didn't line out for St Vincent's in the first round of the Dublin SFC over the weekend, it cast new doubt on whether the talented Marino man will be available to Jim Gavin at all this summer.

His ability has never been in question. Connolly ranks as one of the most talented players of his generation. A rare mix of supreme athleticism and silky skills. And his value to the Dublin cause came into full view in last year's All-Ireland final win over Mayo.

Connolly had effectively been idle all summer. The ban picked up in the wake of the win over Carlow in Leinster kept him out of action until the All-Ireland semi-final with Tyrone.

Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Jim Gavin defended his man resolutely to the point where he withdrew cooperation from RTé at one stage in protest at their coverage of the incident that saw Connolly slapped with a 12-week ban for 'minor physical interference' with linesman Ciaran Brannigan.

With that in mind, Connolly was expected to be pressed back into action when his suspension expired before the All-Ireland semi-final. However, Gavin held the St Vincent's man in reserve until injury time.

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It was a meaningless cameo. At that stage, the Red Hand had been long since dispatched.

Yet when Dublin were a point down at half-time in the All-Ireland final, Gavin turned to his bench and called on Connolly. It proved to be a master stroke.

His influence on the game was profound as Dublin claimed three All-Ireland titles in a row.

With the game seemingly moving in Mayo's favour after Lee Keegan's goal with just over 15 minutes to play, Connolly, surrounded by three Mayo players, wriggled his way through the tacklers to land a brilliant point and bring the teams level again.

On 67 minutes he turned provider, arcing a beautiful pass over the fingers of Chris Barrett and into the chest of Dean Rock who suddenly had a run on goal. The Ballymun man fisted over the bar to put Dublin's noses in front once more. Then, with the game in injury time, he embarks on a run that is eventually ended illegally by Barrett. Rock did the rest from the free and Dublin were champions again.

Connolly had played fewer minutes than in any of the previous four Championship campaigns but his role in that success could hardly have been more significant.

That impact from the bench has been key to their success. Kevin McManamon helped turn the 2011 decider on this head when he came off the bench.

Alan Brogan got the perfect send off to his career when he kicked the insurance point in the 2015 final. In 2016, Cormac Costello was the hero, landing three points after coming on. While Mayo - and others on occasion - have shown an ability to go toe to toe with Dublin for long stretches, no one can match them in terms of their bench press.

When Gavin finally confirmed that Connolly was no longer part of the panel, he suggested that the door was far from shut in terms of him rejoining the squad. When he didn't line out for the St Vincent's hurlers as he has done in the past, it raised a few eyebrows but his no-show as Vincent's kicked started their hunt for a third Dublin title on the bounce is more noteworthy.

In the past, Connolly has been known for playing in challenge games and turning up at fixtures he's not required to. In the days before the 2016 All-Ireland final, he is said to have travelled to Crossmalgen for a match. In that context, missing a championship game is a significant development.

Connolly has captained the Marino men to their last two Dublin titles and his absence for the club doesn't bode well for the chances of seeing him in a Dublin jersey again this year.

In the absence of clarity, rumours surrounding the reasons behind Connolly's absence have circulated. Gavin stated only that Connolly "would take a rest over these games" when quizzed on his absence and indicated he wanted him back this year. James McCarthy used similar language but expressed hope that he would return for the start of championship.

Dublin likely won't need him to get through Leinster. And they have enjoyed another fine spring where they unearthed more new talent in Brian Howard and Colm Basquel. But history tells us they won't have it all their own way at the business-end of the Championship.

Their success has been built on fine margins and keeping clear heads in clutch moments. For all of Dublin's reserves of talent, even they might not to be to fill the hole Connolly's absence would leave.

Irish Independent

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