Sunday 18 August 2019

David Kelly: 'Connolly's return for some will evoke all the theatre of the most spectacular ring-walk'

 

Comeback kid: Diarmuid Connolly is back in the Dublin squad and could make his first championship appearance for over two years against Tyrone in Omagh tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Comeback kid: Diarmuid Connolly is back in the Dublin squad and could make his first championship appearance for over two years against Tyrone in Omagh tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

As Wolfe Tones planned for their Boston County final against Donegal a year ago, one man was dominating their thoughts.

Diarmuid Connolly.

"He was averaging five points a game and we thought if we kept him to six or seven, we'd probably win it," recalls a Wolfe Tones player now. "The f***** came out and scored 12 points!

"He couldn't miss. He played the game at his ease and really upped the gears. A big game-player."

Twelve months and three-thousand miles later, Healy Park may be a world away from Canton Field but Connolly's name will still be uppermost in many people's minds this weekend.

Dublin didn't have him a year ago against Tyrone, didn't really need him two years ago against them but here we are in 2019 wondering will they use him at all against them this year.

Tomorrow's games may offer little intrigue in wider championship terms but the potential presence of a certain D Connolly does.

It is almost a one-man theme.

GAA Newsletter

Expert GAA analysis straight to your inbox.

The last of his nine goals may have come in the 2016 final replay against Mayo but one bookmaker have him down as 7/2 to score a goal at any time tomorrow.

Ciarán Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, Con O'Callaghan and Dean Rock are not even chalked on the board which might lead one to believe that the satchel-bearers might have a closer line to the workings of the Dublin brains trust than the rest of us.

Electrifying

The Connolly conundrum forms a fascinating backdrop to events in Omagh, where the prospect of ho-humming humdrum shadow play could be dramatically energised by a shadow player's electrifying entrance.

For this will be no ordinary appearance; Connolly's return for some will evoke all the theatre of the most spectacular ring-walk; for others, it is only deserving of the prosaic polite applause reserved for the ballet.

The ambiguity is fitting; although one of the sport's greatest players of the modern day, one who can combine both the grit of the prize-fighter and the grace of a dancer; his name is not only an augury for spectacular deeds but controversy, too.

And it is a name that has been upon so many lips all summer.

At least, that is, for those beyond the inner sanctum of Team Gavin, for whom the issue is vastly disproportionate to the concertina of conspiracy that has enveloped not only their support base, but so many beyond the Pale, too.

Would he stay? When would he play again? Would he start? What position would he play? Who would he replace? How would his team-mates feel? Would he even play at all?

If Dublin completed their drive for five, we were told Connolly's return will have been a triumphant certainty; if they didn't, a tragic calamity.

The tight-knit squad remain amused, whatever happens; perhaps as much by the absence of any chat about their drive for five than anything else; for them, Connolly's return to the panel has not magnified the pressure, rather it has released it.

That's the easiest bit done. Gavin must now decide when it is best to launch the Vincent's man into the fray.

Healy Park, with its choking conflict and terrace toxicity, might seem the least likely stage of all but, if anything, these are the very reasons why it does make sense to unveil him here.

After all, one of the widely expressed concerns has centred upon the prospect of how Connolly's temperament can be either provoked or exploited to extremity.

Far better for Gavin to allow him to run the gauntlet in enemy territory against gnarly foes, even within the context of a cosmetic contest.

Dublin, regardless of what team they select, will want to win tomorrow.

Win with Connolly and Dublin's impressive march gathers pace; win without him and the intrigue sends an ominous warning to remaining rivals.

Lose with Connolly, though, and wild questions about the manager's apparently wilful decision-making will resurface; lose without him and people will wonder what was the point of repatriating him in the first place.

What is certain is that the second-guessing will not conclude until the All-Ireland campaign does.

The last four campaigns demonstrate that Gavin normally finds the correct balance and not always in the straight lines predicted with such certainty by others; just like the day job, nothing is guaranteed when guiding a plane to earth's safety.

Every landing is different. In Gavin they trust.

Two years ago, when Connolly's name was just as debate-stirring as it is now following the Carlow farrago, Gavin chose to deploy him for only a few cursory minutes at the fag end of a game already bagged by half-time.

The clarion calls that week had been as urgent then as they are now; "Connolly must start!" Of the 10 other forwards used that day - Cormac Costello was marked absent with injury - another remained on the bench for the entire exercise.

His name was Bernard Brogan.

Recovery

Brogan hasn't played a minute this summer following his remarkable recovery from a cruciate injury and the 35-year-old's selflessness has been used as a stark counterpoint to an apparent indulgence of Connolly's wayward genius.

Both, in fact, might feature tomorrow, so too Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O'Gara.

Apart from the first-choice forwards already mentioned, it also makes little sense to over-exert other key players like Jack McCaffrey, Brian Fenton, Brian Howard, James McCarthy and Stephen Cluxton.

Rory O'Carroll, Eric Lowndes, Eoghan Murchan (if fit) and Jonny Cooper need minutes.

Others still will be keen to assess whether the slick speed fleetingly displayed by the likes of Cork and Roscommon poses a threat heralding a potentially devastating defensive flaw.

Or whether, a bit like that the equally transient 'high ball in the square' scare of recent years, the danger is wildly and optimistically inflated by opponents desperately seeking any weakness in this Dublin team.

Also of interest will be whether the slow adaptation in style continues with the changed personnel; the subtle shift from prolonged periods of possession plays to an occasionally more direct approach, whether via ball-carrying wing-backs or early deliveries into ball-winners like Kilkenny and O'Callaghan.

How Connolly fits into this system - and where - is uncertain. Dublin have more pressing issues to detain them.

As they did last year, Dublin coped without Connolly; and he without them.

"He loved it here," says our friend from Boston. "Liked his beers, never missed work or training. Did aerobics at lunch on the Common. Even when he left, he sent some gear for the kids."

Now 32, perhaps the St Vincent's man discovered that he needed Dublin more than they need him.

Tomorrow won't totally redefine that relationship. But it will certainly shine a light on where it might go next.

Irish Independent

The Throw-In All-Ireland Hurling Final preview: Can Tipp's firepower edge clash with the Cats?

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport