Wednesday 18 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'David Clifford and Con O'Callaghan could be the Messi and Ronaldo of Gaelic football'

Hold The Back Page - All Ireland Final Special

‘Physically then, Clifford is Ronaldo and O’Callaghan Messi. On the other hand, O’Callaghan, like Ronaldo, is primarily a finisher. Clifford, like Messi, creates as much as he finishes.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘Physically then, Clifford is Ronaldo and O’Callaghan Messi. On the other hand, O’Callaghan, like Ronaldo, is primarily a finisher. Clifford, like Messi, creates as much as he finishes.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

David Clifford and Con O'Callaghan could be the Messi and Ronaldo of Gaelic football. Two prodigious talents with the ability to become all-time greats who play for two teams embarking on a fierce rivalry at the top of the game, two players who relish the big occasion, do best when their teams need them most and have a touch of genius about them, the Kerryman and the Dubliner look set to light up the '20s.

They're only beginning of course. At 23 O'Callaghan is in his third season as a senior footballer, at 20 Clifford is in his second. O'Callaghan was Young Footballer of the Year in his first championship season and so was Clifford. The former is currently favourite to be named Footballer of the Year while the latter is the shortest priced non-Dublin player.

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It has been given to very few players to be this good so soon. Look at the other young footballer award winners of the decade, Diarmuid O'Connor, Ryan McHugh, Jack McCaffrey, Cillian O'Connor and Aidan Walsh. All fine footballers but, with the possible exception of McCaffrey, none gave quite the same impression of unbounded potential as O'Callaghan and Clifford. There's something different about these two.

Like Messi and Ronaldo, Clifford and O'Callaghan are very different players. Clifford is the far more imposing physical specimen, his tendency to play with his head up making him always look his full six foot two. By contrast, O'Callaghan's low centre of gravity and love of scurrying, bobbing and weaving can make him seem smaller than his five foot 10.

Physically then, Clifford is Ronaldo and O'Callaghan Messi. On the other hand, O'Callaghan, like Ronaldo, is primarily a finisher. Clifford, like Messi, creates as much as he finishes and has a stronger all-round game than his rival.

Extreme precociousness is another thing Clifford has in common with the Argentinian. Messi was regarded as one of the best players in the world by the time he was 19 while Clifford made an enormous impact in his first year out of minor. Ronaldo's break-out season was his third at Manchester United, when he was 21, the same age as O'Callaghan was when breaking into the Dublin team.

All four members of the quartet specialise in scores which bear their own unique individual mark. O'Callaghan's goal in the 2017 All-Ireland final was a three-pointer like no other. The fact that he beat three All Stars of that year, Colm Boyle, Keith Higgins and David Clarke, on his way to scoring, coupled with its importance in such a close game, may make it the greatest final goal of all.

His goal in that year's semi-final against Tyrone also illustrated O'Callaghan's single-minded ruthlessness. From the moment he got possession 50 yards out he seemed to sense that a goal was on and, after he breezed past Ronan McNamee, his emphatic finish from 20 yards was a rebuke to anyone who's ever described fisting the ball over from such a position as "the wise option."

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O'Callaghan believes the real wise option is a goal. His most dangerous attribute is an ability to double the potential of a half chance, illustrated by his burial of Mayo in this year's semi-final. There was something breathtaking about the way Lee Keegan was disposed of for the second, one of the game's great defenders left flat-footed and helpless by a single instinctive movement.

Clifford has some fine goals on his resumé, most notably the one squeezed in from an angle through a ruck of players to earn the Kingdom a draw in last year's Super 8 meeting with Monaghan. Yet it is as a kicker of points that he stands apart.

There has been quantity, six from play against Mayo, four against Tyrone, three versus Cork, but it is the quality which has really caught the eye. The concluding score in the semi-final, hoisted over the bar from distance while off balance and under pressure, the sideline kick against Mayo scored with apparent ease, one from way out on the left wing against Tyrone, two from the right against Cork, a succession of scores which seem to redefine the limits of what forwards can do.

If a stranger to the game were to look at a Clifford highlights reel he might think sweeping angled shots over the bar from out the field under pressure was a natural thing in Gaelic football. The Fossa man makes it look like the most skilful game in the world.

Even the most puritan of catch and kick devotees would recognise Clifford as a footballer in the classical mould. O'Callaghan is a more contemporary phenomenon, a player who places a premium on athleticism and pace, neither of which are particularly notable weapons in the Kerryman's armoury.

Both share the crucial ability to strike when their team's need is the greatest. Clifford's goal against Monaghan was an example of this facet of his game but he also, impressively, was in there battling to the end when more experienced team-mates seemed to have thrown in the towel during last year's humiliating defeat by Galway.

Dublin are so seldom under pressure that you need to turn to hurling when highlighting O'Callaghan's ability to thrive in adversity. Curbed for much of last year's All-Ireland club final replay against Na Piarsaigh, the Cuala man found his side a point down at the end of normal time. Cue an extraordinary injury-time blitz where he first won the levelling free and then scored a point himself before setting up Mark Schutte for the clincher.

Hurling commitments may have had something to do with O'Callaghan's sophomore slump last year when he seemed a bit short of zip despite a terrific 1-3 from play against Galway in the semi-final. With no extended club championship run this year, he has seemed entirely rejuvenated. Cuala's difficulty may be Dublin's opportunity.

There have been moments when you wondered if Clifford might suffer a similar reaction to a magnificent debut campaign. He was not at his best in the league final against Mayo, Donegal coped reasonably well with him in the Super 8 and he has been troubled by a back injury. Yet overall it has been an even better year for Clifford, his imperious display against the notoriously mean Tyrone defence an important milestone in his development.

One big difference between the duo is their supporting casts. For Dublin, O'Callaghan is just one more cog in a mighty machine. Surrounded by all-time greats he is expected to supply the finishing touches rather than paint the entire masterpiece himself. Clifford does have some good talent around him in the Kerry attack but the burden of responsibility on him is much greater. He is a player who was expected to carry the Kerry team before he'd even played for it.

It seems likely that the next few years will see Dublin and Kerry exert a Barcelona-Real Madrid type grip on the championship. In which case it could be that Clifford will fill the Ronaldo role, starring for a team who though miles ahead of everyone else are repeatedly denied the ultimate domestic honour by their greatest rivals.

Right now it seems that Kerry, like Real, can only hope to triumph if the champions take their eye off the ball. Dublin, like Barcelona with 'tiki taka', have evolved a system which in terms of sophistication and efficiency leaves even the most talented opposition playing catch-up.

O'Callaghan and Clifford attract a lot of attention from defenders, not all of it legal. But they have in common with their Portuguese and Argentinian alter ego, an ability not only to shrug off such treatment but to apparently regard it as nothing personal, just business. There is a serene unflappability about them.

Both players will have occupied the minds of opposing managers over the past couple of weeks. That Dublin and Kerry's full-back lines are their weakest links means the potential is there for O'Callaghan and Clifford to have very big games today.

This means that serious counter-measures will be in place. We're unlikely to see either man going one-on-one against a marker within the scoring zone very often today. But you'd still back both to eventually make their class tell. They are too good not to.

Sometimes individual rivalries within a team sport can capture the public imagination, define an era and encapsulate the larger battle. That was the case with Messi and Ronaldo, with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, with Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira. The same thing is going to happen with David Clifford and Con O'Callaghan.

It all starts today. This could be the beginning of a beautiful rivalry.

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