Dublin's Con O'Callaghan on the verge of one of the greatest individual seasons in the history of the GAA
IT’S not challenging the boundaries of reason to suggest that Con O’Callaghan is on the cusp of having one of the greatest individual seasons in verifiable GAA history.
It may be the eve of his first All-Ireland SFC final with Dublin but O’Callaghan has been in two already this year.
Firstly, with Cuala in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day and then, in Tullamore when the Dublin under-21 footballers beat Galway in late April.
Since then, he’s secured a spot in the senior’s starting attack, despite playing no league football.
He has scored the goal of the championship against Tyrone and produced arguably the individual attacking performance of the summer against Kildare.
O’Callaghan has a Leinster winner’s medal. They have stopped taking bets on him being this year’s Young Footballer of the Year.
He is a virtual shoo-in for an All Star and as it stands the Cuala player is among the bookies’ favourites to land the Footballer of the Year gong too.
What, you might wonder, will he do for a follow-up act next season?
“There are a whole host of underage players who have had good underage careers that when we brought in, for one reason or the other, didn’t make it as inter-county footballers,” says Jim Gavin.
“Con just took his opportunity. He has a great attitude. And that’s his biggest resource.”
Clearly, Gavin is taken with Dublin’s latest attacking prodigy.
Such is the frequency with which Dublin clubs appear in the All-Ireland Series in February and March, Gavin is asked annually whether the absence of the affected players from his squad has a negative affect on their candidacy for a starting championship place.
Every year he answers, “yes”.
O’Callaghan wasn’t even playing the same sport in February and March but Gavin picked him for Dublin’s summer opener against Carlow despite not having played a minute in the league, left him on despite a peripheral performance in Portlaoise and selected him again three weeks later against Westmeath.
“He was probably more frustrated than anyone else,” says Dublin selector, Declan Darcy
“He was afraid that by the end of the National League ... sometimes the players might feel if they are not in the team they might have a hard task to break into the team.
“But Con’s attitude was fantastic when he came in, his attitude in training is why he’s getting on that pitch – that’s why he’s getting the performances on the day, his attitude and his work-rate.”
Gavin denies that O’Callaghan was ear-marked for a place in his attack from early this year.
“The teams of what you see are a reflection of what we see in training,” he stresses.
“There is no one player that we’re pushing for. We’ve never taken that approach.”
Most impressively, O’Callaghan has managed a hectic year impeccably.
In January, he gave up on a €4,000 scholarship from UCD due to the demands of Cuala’s hurlers and the two Dublin football squads he then inhabited.
“I had to prioritise what I was going to do,” O’Callaghan explained, “and I couldn’t have committed to the U21s as well so I decided Cuala would be my focus and, to be honest, Jim Gavin agreed with me and so did Dessie Farrell that it’s not often you get these opportunities with the club so you’ve got to take it with both hands.
“There was a good bit of drama with the hurlers and the scholarships.
“I was told I would get a scholarship but I hadn’t been really approached so it made it a little bit easier and I said ‘look before you offer me anything I’m going to take a step back’, so it was grand and they were very understanding.”
Thus, he is two-for-two from his All-Ireland finals this year.
In March, he starred for Cuala as they became the first Dublin club to win a senior All-Ireland when such were the strength of his performances at full-forward, the inevitable cries to migrate to the county hurling effort rang out.
Anthony Daly, a candidate for the vacant Dublin manager’s job, reckoned O’Callaghan should be “begged,” to hurl for Dublin.
Cuala manager, Mattie Kenny - another strong contender for the same job - stated in March that he “wouldn’t rule out the chance that he’ll play senior hurling for Dublin.
“Because he is talented enough to be able to change over at any time,” Kenny elaborated.
“I would say there is some part of him that would (like to play hurling for Dublin).
“I’m sure he could excel at whatever his chosen sport is.”
According to his brother and Dublin senior hurler, Cian, “Con has been a footballer all his life.”
“Anyone who would have coached him underage would have seen that,” he outlined.
“I remember when he was a bit younger, he’d play
full-forward on the football team, and he ended up being moved to full-back, he was being fouled so much.
“He was only a small lad back then. But he has been a footballer his whole life, but a pretty good hurler at the same time.”
It clearly helped his hurling to have experienced a season of conditioning with Jim Gavin’s squad last year.
“Operating with the Dublin football team, you’re at a different stratosphere, in terms of physical preparation,” as Cian noted.
And his newness to the senior inter-county has granted O’Callaghan the element of surprise this season.
“I was speaking to some of the Kildare guys after the Leinster final,” says Barry Cahill, “and they did so much homework and video analysis on the Dublin team, but they didn’t really factor in Con O’Callaghan at all.
“Now it’s hard to cover everyone Dublin has, but it just goes to show that given an opportunity ... he scored 12 points (six frees) that day and with his goal the last day, he’s been a real boost for Dublin.
“Twelve months ago the team did look that bit jaded, so the emergence of him, Scully and Lowdnes has reignited the forward line a bit.”
But mostly, O’Callaghan has carved his own fortune with a couple of powerful performances against Kildare and Tyrone.
“His attitude is phenomenal,” says team-mate and predecessor as Dublin’s most coveted dual talent, Ciarán Kilkenny.
“He works really, really hard.
“He’s just a well-grounded young man.”