Thursday 17 October 2019

Donnchadh Boyle: 'Dublin's tilt at history has lost some of its lustre without Connolly's mercurial talents'


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

Donnchadh Boyle

So that's it then. A transfer to the US brings the Diarmuid Connolly saga to an end and we all get to get on with our lives.

Reports that he's heading for Boston for the second successive summer seems like we finally have an answer to the 'will he, won't he' conundrum that has been running around the St Vincent's man these last few months. We don't know for certain if it's the end of Connolly and inter-county football, but it certainly feels like it.

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It was a story Dublin boss Jim Gavin did nothing to kill since the start of the year. At the launch of the Leinster Championship he told reporters that "Dublin supporters and myself would love to see him (Connolly) back," sparking speculation that he was ready to return. It made sense. Dublin were preparing for a tilt at history and they were determined to be fully loaded for it.

When he didn't appear for the Dubs' championship opener against Louth, it was the first real indication that a return wasn't on the cards. But even after that match, which saw Rory O'Carroll return to the pitch for Dublin after a stint in New Zealand, Gavin left the door open for Connolly, dragging the story on for another couple of weeks.

Perhaps Gavin's mind was made up a long time ago and he decided he wasn't going to do the media's job for them by telling them Connolly was out of his plans. Or, maybe, he didn't want to say anything that might jeopardise a return. Either way, the issue looks to have come to a head now. Dublin are driving for five without their most talented player.

It all feels deeply unsatisfactory. Connolly was a maverick of the game at a time when it was inherently risk averse. A hero of the Hill, a villain for the rest, the interest in Connolly always went beyond the white lines. Many were as fascinated with his life off the field (where he landed himself in hot water) as on it. Not many footballers of the last few decades have held people in such thrall. Graham Geraghty and Ciarán McDonald come to mind.

Like those two, Connolly's talents were universally respected. Search through YouTube and you'll be reminded that he saw the game a little bit differently to most. There's that brilliant point against Kerry in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final when he split the posts, left-footed into the Hill without breaking stride.

Then there was the point against Mayo when he wriggled away from three defenders to point into the Canal End in the 2017 final. He started that game on the bench, but did as much as anyone to help Dublin to three in a row.

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Now it all seems to be over. The circumstances surrounding Connolly's departure are unknown. Was he pushed or did he jump? With hindsight, the All-Ireland semi-final of 2017 feels significant.

The St Vincent's man had just returned for a 12-week ban for 'minor physical interference' with linesman Ciarán Branagan in their Leinster SFC win over Carlow and seemed ready to return as Dublin faced Tyrone in their last-four clash.

But after being forced to sit out most of the summer, Connolly was left on the bench until the 69th minute.

Almost immediately afterwards, rumours flew around that he was unhappy. Dublin would win the All-Ireland that year, but only after Connolly was sprung from the bench.

The following year he didn't make his seasonal reappearance until February when he played 26 minutes against Mayo and he hasn't been seen with Dublin since.

Connolly's league debut came in front of almost 82,000 people as the Croke Park floodlights were switched on for the first time, a suitable stage considering his talents, but that low-key cameo stands as his last appearance at county level.

Notoriously meticulous, Gavin isn't in the habit of leaving anything to chance but it looks now like he is going for five-in-a-row without his most talented player.

If it goes south, questions will be asked if more could have been done to keep Connolly involved. Doing extraordinary things usually requires extraordinary players.

On the flip side, Eamon McGee recently suggested that parachuting him back into the set-up could be interpreted as a lack of trust in the rest of the panel.

So when it came to having Connolly involved this year, Gavin was damned if he did and damned if he didn't.

Either way, the championship's conclusion will be a poorer place without him.

Irish Independent

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