Thursday 26 April 2018

'My final goal was victory for black card' - Dublin hero Con O'Callaghan

Young star says run at Mayo defence would have seen him hauled down under old rules

Con O'Callaghan of Dublin scores his side's first goal. Photo: Sportsfile
Con O'Callaghan of Dublin scores his side's first goal. Photo: Sportsfile

Sam Wheeler

Con O'Callaghan is not worried that his early wonder-goals in the All-Ireland final and semi-final will make him a marked man next year - because to acknowledge that possibility would indicate a hint of arrogance or ego that is strictly verboten in the Dublin dressing-room.

O'Callaghan is strong favourite for Young Footballer of the Year but he won't allow himself to imagine what it might be like to be doubled-marked or have the likes of Lee Keegan assigned to shadow his every move.

"There's no guarantee that I'll retain a spot for next year," cautions the 21-year-old, who in a remarkable year has won Leinster and All-Ireland titles with the Dublin seniors, the Dublin U-21s and the Cuala senior hurlers.

"It's a new year, the competition is there already and there are a good few young lads coming up as well, like Collie (Basquel) who I've played with the whole way up. You can name a huge amount of players. Like, Bernard Brogan didn't get on in the semi-final, so there's no guarantee you'd be starting on the team."

O'Callaghan forced his way into the championship side this summer - ahead of a host of household names - despite being behind the eight-ball, having missed the league through his Cuala and U-21 commitments; he was mostly used off the bench in last year's march to the Sam Maguire Cup.

He quickly justified Jim Gavin's faith in him, kicking 12 points in the Leinster final victory over Kildare, before underlining his talent with those surging goals against Tyrone and Mayo.

Con O’Callaghan forced his way into Dublin’s Championship team despite missing the entire league campaign. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Con O’Callaghan forced his way into Dublin’s Championship team despite missing the entire league campaign. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

He is nonchalant about his strike in the final - "I said it before the game that if I got the ball early doors, I'd just go at my man and take him on one-on-one and see what happens" - but he acknowledges the debt he perhaps owes to a recent law change that is not always showered with praise.

"Yeah, in some ways it was a victory for the black card," he smiles, aware that in years past he would have been cynically hauled down on his slalom from the '45.

"It probably deters people still from pulling you down. Because if you're getting a black card in the first minute of an All-Ireland final, it's tough for the Mayo team and it's tough for the person who pulls you down."

Of course, it is not certain that any defender would have been able to lay an illegal finger on him anyway, so sharp was his turn of pace; and his clever finish past David Clarke was worthy of the run. It looked purely instinctive, but O'Callaghan is quick to credit the Dublin backroom team.

"Clarke is a particularly good shot-stopper," he explains. "So we did a bit of preparation on him in the lead-up to the final. And we said, 'Yeah, you have to keep the ball literally on the grass or you're not going to beat him'. So I dropped it and just tried to keep it low."

O'Callaghan spent the tense final minutes on the bench, and it was not an experience he enjoyed. He could not bring himself to even look when Dean Rock lined up the decisive stoppage-time free.

"I wasn't watching the match," he says. "I had my head in my hands, looking at my feet. I didn't watch but the lads beside me jumped up, so I knew he got it! You'd trust Dean with your life kicking anything within the '45."

He is no longer eligible for underage grades, but the UCD commerce student is still likely to be besieged by bainisteoirs wanting him to play for county, club and college at both codes.

"I didn't play for the college team this year because we got so far with Cuala, so I plan to play college this year but it's all dependent . . . I don't know if I'll play the hurling for the college.

"You're going to be pulled and dragged by a lot of people - everyone wants you playing for their team, so you have to be able to say no. I've learned that over the last couple of years."

His exploits with Cuala suggest that he would be a major asset to the Dublin hurlers, but there is no scope to play both codes at county level any more, and he is clearly not going to abandon football. "I love playing with my club in hurling," he says. "But I just have always preferred the football."

O'Callaghan says he didn't target three All-Irelands at the start of the year, but he was aware that Cuala, the U-20s and the Dublin seniors all had a good chance of glory.

"I had a brilliant year personally," he smiles. "But the teams I've been part of have been pretty special as well."

Con O'Callaghan was speaking at the launch of the GAA Super Games Centres at Abbotstown, the first of the three grassroots initiatives that Sky Sports will support

Irish Independent

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