ERIC Lowndes has a memento of the time tens of thousands of people mistook him for Diarmuid Connolly.
It was August 2017, in the second half of the All-Ireland semi-final. Dublin were lording it over Tyrone.
Connolly, a twitchy presence on the bench, was available for the first time since his 12-week ban elapsed for an altercation with linesman Ciarán Brannigan in the Leinster quarter-final against Carlow in Portlaoise.
The ban, the media coverage of the incident and Jim Gavin’s remarkable defence of Connolly, was the brooding controversy of that GAA summer.
After 66 minutes, Gavin sent Lowndes – who was named in the starting 15 and thus wore the number 12 shirt – on for Paul Mannion.
The Hill, giddy with anticipation of Connolly’s return all afternoon, roared in acclaim.
It was a comical case of mass mistaken identity, given the very marginal likeness between the two, and it blew up on social media in the days afterwards.
A couple of weeks later, when he went back into the staffroom of Scoil Bhríde in Blanchardstown where Lowndes teaches, his colleagues presented him with a gift – a mug.
Printed on it was a picture of Lowndes’ face. But when he added hot water, the image morphed into one of Connolly.
Connolly himself wore an altogether sterner expression when he came on in the 69th minute against Tyrone.
In his brief appearance, he never touched the ball. And by the full-time whistle, he was already making his way towards the tunnel.
Four days later, the Dublin squad assembled in the Gravity Bar at the Guinness Store House in St James’ Gate for a pre-All-Ireland final team bonding night.
The choice of venue, with its 50 glass panes forming a 360 degree cylindrical bar, 46 metres in height and view that extends from the Dublin Mountains to Howth Head, was a deliberate one.
As the players sipped away in each other’s company, Gavin pointed out across the city skyline, reminding the players who and where they would represent in two-and-a-half weeks time when they would meet Mayo.
Damien Dempsey, a regular performer and staunch favourite of many of the older members of the squad, provided the entertainment.
His songs about concepts like pride of place and the value of being true to yourself, anthems for some of that evening’s audience, resonated deeply with the players.
They were all in attendance. Everyone who played against Tyrone. Bar one.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
‘There’s no such thing as a natural athlete.’
“I mean, you have to work. Some people are more gifted than others, but you have to work on your game and try and tweak things here and there, and be the best that you can be. It’s pure and utter hard work.”
“I always worked really hard on kicking off both feet and my kick passing, score getting and stuff like that.
“No one is naturally two-footed.”
– Diarmuid Connolly, 2016
BY his own admission, Diarmuid Connolly was “more of a hurling fan as a young fellow than a football fan”.
His father is a Kilkenny man and childhood summers spent in the county nurtured a deeper affection for the game.
“I didn’t actually follow them (the footballers) that much to be honest with you,” he once explained in a rare interview.
Scoil Mhuire, Marino, was where he initially acquired a reputation for prodigious skill levels in both codes.
In 2006, he won an All-Ireland colleges hurling medal with Dublin Colleges, who became the first – and remain the only – team from the capital to the win the Dr Croke Cup when they beat St Flannan’s in the final.
A year later, he played in Parnell Park when Dublin won a first Leinster U21 hurling title since 1972 by beating Offaly.
But football drew him in.
At St Vincent’s, people like Mickey Whelan and Tony Diamond saw the immense potential and actively nurtured the talent.
“Diarmuid was just a phenomenon,” said Pat Gilroy recently.
“I’ll never forget his senior debut was a game out in St Mark’s. They would have been a tough team at the time.
“He was tiny. He was skinny. He was 17 years old. I think he scored 12 points from play.
“And it was left foot and right foot, six off each. It was just phenomenal.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
IN one of his first squad sessions with the Dublin seniors in the gym in DCU during the early months of 2007, Connolly was paired for a drill with then sub goalkeeper, John Leonard by ‘Ski’ Wade, a St Vincent’s man who conducted some of the team’s training and organised their defence.
“He’s almost as mad in the head as you are Lenny,” Wade told Leonard.
‘Pillar’ Caffrey, Dublin’s manager in Connolly’s first two seasons, has described Connolly as “the best player I’ve ever been in a dressing-room with”.
But by Connolly’s own admission, a lack of maturity – he was only 19 at the time - meant it took time before he demonstrated that with any consistency.
If the arrival of Gilroy and Whelan, with whom Connolly had won an All-Ireland with St Vincent’s in 2008, was the making of him in terms of commitment, it didn’t happen instantly.
Early in their reign, in January 2009, Gilroy sent Connolly home from a holiday training camp in La Manga for a breach of discipline.
In his autobiography, Jason Sherlock recalled flaring up on Connolly at one subsequent training session in ’09 for lacking focus and intensity, walking off the field during an A v B game out of pure frustration.
The following year, as Connolly revealed to the Hill 16 Army Blue is the Colour podcast, “me and Mr Gilroy had a bit of a falling out” and Connolly left the squad after the Leinster semi-final loss to Meath.
“In hindsight it was probably the wrong thing to do. But in 2011 I came back with the bit between my teeth.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“I speak to Diarmuid Connolly regularly because he’s a clubmate of mine.
“I don’t think Diarmuid is in a position where he wants to commit to the hurling. He’s 30-odd now. Unless you’re playing hurling a huge amount there’s no way you can think about playing inter-county.”
– Pat Gilroy
THAT Pat Gilroy was even entertaining a question about Connolly coming on board with his new Dublin hurling project showed how uncertain his future with the footballers had become in the months after the 2017 All-Ireland final.
His answer was issued in an interview which took place in the lobby of the Boston Harbour Hotel in November of that year, where Gilroy had taken his new hurling squad to play in the ‘Super 11s’ in Fenway Park.
There were strong rumours, never substantiated, that Connolly’s participation in the final was in serious jeopardy in the days after the semi-final, due to his unhappiness of his very limited cameo against Tyrone.
That he wore different training gear in the warm-up to his team mates was admitted as evidence, albeit circumstantial, that Connolly was making some form of statement.
The story went that Connolly had expected to start once he was available again, but management hadn’t been satisfied with his preparation during the 12 weeks of his competitive hiatus.
Stories of a breakdown in personal relations between Connolly and Gavin were exaggerated – Gavin didn’t do personal relationships with players. And if anything, Gavin had staunchly supported Connolly at every turn.
Shortly after taking over from Gilroy in 2012, Gavin made Connolly, then just 25, vice-captain of Dublin.
After the incident in Portlaoise, Gavin claimed that Connolly’s “good name was attacked” in some of RTÉ’s analysis.
But from then, until 10.30pm on Wednesday night when Connolly’s retirement statement was published on DublinGAA.ie, his status as a Dublin player was always clouded in doubt.
Given that the only game he started after the Carlow match on June 3, 2017 was the ‘Super 8s’ dead rubber in Omagh last July, it’s hard not to surmise that the incident with Brannigan, the ban and the subsequent fallout was the beginning of the end of Connolly’s Dublin career.
It was, however, only the beginning of a sequence of dramatic plot twists.
There was the brief, singular cameo in Castlebar the following March and the terse responses from Gavin when subsequently asked of Connolly’s whereabouts.
There was the summer in Boston that ruled him out of Dublin’s 2018 and the rumours of him wearing a GPS unit whilst playing with St Vincent’s the following spring that ignited stories of a return.
Then, most dramatically, the out-of-date ESTA which led to Connolly being being turned away at immigration at Dublin airport last June before Gavin’s hilariously casual delivery of the news that he was “back in training,” on Dubs TV, all of which led towards last September, and Connolly – inexplicably - playing a full half of the game in which Dublin sealed the mythical five-in-a-row.
The following morning, asked about Connolly’s re-inclusion, selector Declan Darcy said: “Things weren’t going really well for him probably outside of football and I think he needed football, he needed structure and whatever about whether he was to function within our group or not, to bring him back into the group was the right thing to do.”
But the fact remained that Gavin, the great pragmatist, saw enough in such a brief time with the squad last year to risk it all on Connolly in the second half of the biggest game of his tenure.
Management might have brought Connolly back in out of loyalty to the person, but they used him out of almost blind faith in the player and his extraordinary ability.
And there ended his remarkable Dublin career.
Only a few weeks back, Connolly gave another reminder of those gifts when he lobbed an inch perfect pass to Shane Carthy, which led to a goal for St Vincent’s in their Dublin SFC group game against Clontarf, a clip of which blew up on social media.
And though Connolly came off in that match with what looked a hamstring injury after Vincent’s were comfortable, he chatted happily to Jack McCaffrey on the sideline during the game’s closing stages.
To everyone there, it was only natural to assume that McCaffrey’s inter-county career was one of the subjects they discussed.
Few, if anyone, expected that Connolly’s was over.