Thursday 18 July 2019

Donnchadh Boyle: 'Door closing on Diarmuid Connolly but football cannot afford to lose more of its mavericks'


Diarmuid Connolly is unlikely to return to Dublin panel this year
Diarmuid Connolly is unlikely to return to Dublin panel this year
Jamie Clarke.
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

This week, the seemingly interminable debate over football's playing rules rumbled on.

It has meant that other issues have been pushed aside or given less prominence. But this week also saw football lose two of its more mercurial stars of recent times.

Owen Mulligan, after a colourful career that saw him score one of the great Croke Park goals, hung up his boots. And yesterday former Dublin player Senan Connell stated that the could see no way back for Diarmuid Connolly.

It's a pity it has come to this. Connolly turns 32 this year and with Jim Gavin set to remain at the helm until the end of the 2021 season, it's not hard to imagine that Connolly has made his last appearance for Dublin.

Of course, there's every chance Dublin will continue to thrive without the St Vincent's man.

As Kieran Donaghy pointed out this week, it's a testament to the squad that they won last year without "one of their best players" in Connolly.

While Dublin have already shown they can afford to be without him, football needs him and his ilk more than ever.

The game is in the midst of an identity crisis. Playing rules are being changed and the championship could be in line for more tinkering.

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The figures from the Leinster Council showed too that attendances for their football championship are down.

Dublin's dominance is undoubtedly the single biggest factor and supporters have voted with their feet - or more accurately their arses - and stayed on the couch. In sport, predictability is the cousin of death.

And that's why football needs mavericks like Mulligan and Connolly. Or a Ciaran McDonald or a Graham Geraghty, or the handful of players every generation who can lift a stadium or change a game.

Those players lilted between the brilliant and the banal. They could almost disengage from the game, seemingly bored with the humdrum of it all before exploding into life and making the most difficult skill look routine.

The Americans call them franchise players, talented athletes who are interesting for more than just their ability. They put fans in the stands and move merchandise. It also often means that they can move from the back pages to the front, not always for the right reasons.

Whatever they are, they are never boring. Football needs its franchise players right now. The risk-averse, possession-first nature of the game means there's less room for the individual.

There's a fine line between genius and madness and the way the game has gone, it feels like there's a move against those sort of outliers. That perhaps they aren't worth the risk they carry.

There was an example of that late in the 2016 All-Ireland final. Connolly wrestled a sideline ball from Ciaran Kilkenny and attempted to score from a sideline. He missed narrowly but Mayo swept up the field and scored to force a replay.

Connolly made the wrong call there and it might have played on the minds of other players but in the replay he dispatched a penalty that was dripping with pressure. His explanation when asked about the kick?

"It was just, take a breath, put it in the corner and walk away."

Franchise player.

McDonald, too, was a bag of contradictions. Long, bleached, blonde hair in dreadlocks and body art but simultaneously as private as they come.

In one International Rules series, the Aussies spoke of "getting the Sheila". By the end, his toughness and talent won them over.

He has all but disappeared since he left the county stage. It only makes him all the more interesting.

Geraghty courted controversy for much of his career, went on the 'Late Late Show' to scotch rumours surrounding his personal life and also ran in a general election in between a brilliant GAA career that saw him flirt with rugby and soccer.

It's not hard to imagine a Connolly, a Geraghty, a McDonald, or a Mulligan getting fed up with being contained by a system, forced to play against their own instincts.

The point McDonald kicked to help beat Dublin in 2006 wouldn't be encouraged now. Wrong side for the left foot, it wasn't the percentage play. That he did it anyway only adds to his appeal.

There's hope of course. Shane Walsh is sprinkled with star dust. There's a genuine giddiness in Croke Park when Jack McCaffrey gets on the ball. Jamie Clarke is back in harness. Conor McManus is another. There are others too and their talents and instincts should be encouraged, not stymied. Because football needs its mavericks now more than ever.

Irish Independent

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