Roy Curtis: 'Dublin management have extended the invitation - now the question is whether Connolly will accept it'
IT is a curiosity, as Dublin’s horsemen of history gallop toward a defining summer, to find the most blinding laser of scrutiny trained on a gunslinger who long ago decommissioned his Sky Blue six-shooters.
Such is Diarmuid Connolly’s reputation as a maker of spells that, even in continued exile, he remains the high voltage third rail electrifying so many drive-for-five discussions.
Some 21 months on from last working his alchemy on a championship field, no GAA luminary - not Joe Canning or Aidan O'Shea, Brian Cody or even Gregory Kennedy - can ignite a remotely comparable inferno of barstool debate.
As the Mardi Gras ribbon is cut, Connolly, 13 days younger than Leo Messi and a citizen of the same fantasy island of artistry, is out on his own as the headline story.
Will he or won’t he answer Jim Gavin’s invitation to return is the question dwarfing all others as Dublin seek to place a Sky Blue footprint in that virgin five-in-a-row snow.
The manager’s overtures are sincere. There was contact just last week. Intense work continues behind the scenes on this most delicate of subjects. Just a week ago a breakthrough appeared imminent.
If there is resistance, it comes from the matinee idol's reluctance, perhaps his anxiety, about returning to the silver screen.
From a Dublin perspective, the hunger for the return of the Marino dream maker is easily understood.
It would be an exaggeration to suggest their most difficult league spring under Gavin (losing three out of seven games and failing to reach the final for the first time since 2012), suggested a stalled motor requiring jump leads.
Dublin had multiple players nursing injury and going at half tilt. The league was understandably downgraded in the lush of 2019 priorities.
Still, the addition of Connolly, a player who would be a contender to top the poll if a vote was taken on the most naturally talented footballer in the country, would deliver a huge psychological spark.
The Leinster giants are heading into uncharted territory, a journey that will bring with it unimaginable pressure.
When the Dubs looked a little lost in the opening 35 minutes of the 2017 All-Ireland final, Gavin was thankful for the St Vincent’s game-changer's second half intervention.
In that immortal September joust with Mayo, Connolly was the North Star guiding his team safely home.
Connolly changed the direction in which that contest was sailing as surely as if he had the September ship's tiller in his hand.
Despite a controversial 12-week suspension restricting him to a few short minutes of game time over the previous three months, he unveiled his rare and enduring class to again decisively shape a contest to his team’s advantage.
Connolly delivered a stunning score, arrowed another brilliant 50-yard assist and, at the fateful hour, won the free from which Dean Rock kicked the decisive score.
His influence in 35 minutes was far more seismic than most mere mortals could hope to contribute in 70.
Again, it would be straying deep into the territory of overstatement to say that without the 31-year-old Dublin’s tapestry of attacking options would look threadbare.
This, after all, is a squad that can present the following names as a sample tray of their offensive might: Rock, Paul Mannion, Ciaran Kilkenny, Con O’Callaghan, Cormac Costello, Brian Howard, Niall Scully, Kevin McManamon, Paddy Andrews, Eoghan O’Gara and Colm Basquel.
Yet, with four-time All Star Paul Flynn retired and Bernard Brogan recently turned 35, Dublin would hardly decline the services of a narrative-altering, hugely decorated veteran.
Connolly’s point-taking range, vision and capacity to break tackles with gliding power is why Hill 16 frets about the possibility of the latter sweep of his peak years being reduced to a rusting hulk.
He can make real fantasies about which lesser mortals are reluctant to even dream.
The back catalogue of his greatest days - an All-Ireland semi-final for the ages against Kerry in 2013, a club final masterclass that did for Castlebar, a memorable seven point salvo against Tyrone in 2011, his body of work between 2014 and 2016 - reveal a superior difference maker.
Gavin, of course, will not compromise a single tenet of his working philosophy: Even a player of all the talents will only return on the manager’s terms.
Additionally, there is the question of whether Connolly wants himself or his family to endure the suffocating attention his return to arms will inevitably command.
Those close to him were bruised by a Sunday Game debate in which they felt he was unfairly treated and by the subsequent, inevitable and unfiltered social media hyperbole.
But if he enjoyed a redemptive, liberating 2018 summer in Boston away from his goldfish bowl existence, he remains a competitor at heart, a player born for football’s high road.
He has the rare capacity, if he is willing to throw the championship dice, to bend summer's casino to his will.
Should he return and help Dublin arrive at an untouched landmark, his aura will burn more brightly than ever.
With seven All-Ireland and 14 Leinster pennants in a county and club career of sustained and brilliant achievement, it might sound like the last word in absurdity to suggest continued exile might smudge a towering performer’s legacy.
Yet, such is the enormity of the prize potentially lurking at the summer’s end and such is his potential to influence the narrative in the most unforgettable way, that such conversations are ongoing.
Five-in-a-row is summer's final frontier, offering the chance to secure an immortal tenancy in Croke Park’s halls of fame.
And so, as the long days approach, the castle of historic achievement awaits its Sky Blue king.