Wednesday 21 March 2018

Missing from the Áras, medal presentation, and team holiday - Where does Diarmuid Connolly fit in Gavin's plans?

Diarmuid Connolly lines up prior to Dublin’s All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone last year. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly lines up prior to Dublin’s All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone last year. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

"Just rested up Diarmuid today, that's all," replied Jim Gavin when asked about the absence of Diarmuid Connolly from the 26-man squad for Sunday's fifth-round league win over Kerry.

Now it could be that Connolly has been training incredibly hard in an effort to catch up after a late seasonal return earlier this year and needed a breather. Or maybe Dublin looked at the choice of referee and felt that the presence of Ciaran Branagan, the linesman that Connolly pushed to pick up that three-month ban in the middle of last summer, was a potential sideshow they didn't need.

But it was a curious one nonetheless to 'rest' a player who has played so little for his county over the last 18 months and had already made his re-appearance in the previous round against Mayo when he came on a substitute for the last 26 minutes in Castlebar.

In the past, Connolly has had taxing club campaigns that have stretched into February and March but St Vincent's shock exit to Rathnew on the second Sunday in November last cleared the way for a winter of repair.

If anything one of the game's thoroughbreds has never been so lightly raced. Since the conclusion of the 2016 All-Ireland final replay against Mayo Connolly's time in play calculates at a little over 200 minutes, including that cameo against Mayo at the end of February.

His 2017 return against Roscommon in the league as a substitute gave him 26 minutes, successive black cards meant just 15 minutes against Monaghan and 30 minutes against Kerry in the league final which he started.

Diarmuid Connolly embracing manager Jim Gavin after last year’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly embracing manager Jim Gavin after last year’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

He played the full game against Carlow in the Leinster quarter-final but, of course, that was mired in controversy over that incident with Branagan and a three-month ban ensued.

Gavin defended his player vociferously, especially the process that brought the charge against him, but deep down he can't have been happy with the reaction to the official.

Not surprisingly, Dublin coped comfortably without Connolly with Westmeath, Kildare and Monaghan in opposition.

With Tyrone in the other corner for the All-Ireland semi-final, the expectation was that Connolly, back from suspension the night before, would play a much more meaningful role. But with the game essentially over as a contest by the end of the opening quarter, Connolly had to wait until the 70th minute before his re-appearance, the last of six substitutes used having a feel of tokenism about it.

There was no shortage of speculation about his potential inclusion for the All-Ireland final but his omission pointed to a management clearly not bowing to popular opinion to run him straight back in. Could they win an All-Ireland title without his influence?

It didn't go down well with the 30-year-old who warmed up wearing a sleeveless training top and tracksuit bottoms, completely out of sync with his team-mates that afternoon.

Both were official pieces of gear, it should be said, unlike the Leitrim GAA tracksuit he wore in the warm-up for the 2011 All-Ireland final. But such little sartorial anomalies go against the 'one for all, all for one' ethic espoused by the current regime. It was seen in some quarters as Connolly's own way of letting the management know of his displeasure.

Dublin went with Eoghan O'Gara in that one attacking position that wasn't tied down and when Jack McCaffrey limped out with a cruciate ligament tear in the opening minutes it was Paul Flynn that Jim Gavin reached for to fulfil a midfield role rather than juggle with Ciaran Kilkenny to accommodate Connolly.

But with the game on the line at half-time Connolly was sprung into action and delivered with his biggest impact in any of the six All-Ireland finals he has been involved in with his county. The margins were so tight that without him it's highly doubtful as to whether they would have got over the line without that impact.

Since then Connolly appears to have somewhat isolated himself from the Dublin set-up. He was absent from pictures of the Dublin men's and ladies visit to Áras an Uachtaráin for a reception hosted by President Higgins,

He was absent against from the medal presentation in the Inter-Continental Hotel while he didn't take up the team holiday to South Africa either.

When Dublin hosted a big fundraising dinner in the Shelbourne Hotel last November and a player was assigned to each table, he wasn't to be seen either. He was in Boston for the Super 11s hurling tournament sponsored by Dublin sponsors AIG, however.

Like Connolly, Bernard Brogan and Michael Darragh Macauley also found themselves out in the cold for the business end of last year's championship but they both hit the ground running this year, eager to make up for that lost time.

Brogan had put in a big pre-season before his cruciate went in training on the Thursday before the Donegal league match. Macauley has been resurgent in this campaign with his performance against Kerry last Sunday a high point since his 2013-14 form.

With Gavin and his selectors, possession of a jersey at this stage of the season isn't exactly ninth-tenths of the law but informs quite a bit of their thinking.

This looked like a league that would show a resurgent Connolly after a fractured 2017. But so far that hasn't been the case and his omission from the squad at the weekend begs the obvious question as to what level his contribution in 2018 will be as Gavin continues to propagate successfully.

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Irish Independent

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