Tómas Ó Sé: Dublin need Diarmuid Connolly back - they're vulnerable without him
When I consider the mad scrutiny a high-profile GAA life brings, I'm drawn instantly back to '09 and the circus that erupted over Gooch and myself drinking a few pints that we shouldn't have.
I was in Dingle, he was in Killarney, but the story got such media traction that Jack O'Connor told the two of us that we wouldn't be starting the following weekend. No problem there. Bold boys get punished, it's a story as old as time.
Except, next thing, it was on the front page of a newspaper. It was the day I realised that county men are public property. That being amateur, that playing this game of ours - notionally - as a hobby offered zero protection against the flip-side of fame. Gooch and I drank a few pints and, for that, we were front-page news.
I've been thinking about that in recent weeks as the speculation intensifies about Diarmuid Connolly's summer intentions. Every single Dublin story leads inevitably towards the St Vincent's man and whether or not he'll be available to Jim Gavin at any point of their bid to win a fourth All-Ireland in a row.
I was in Dublin yesterday for the launch of RTÉ's coverage of the Championship and Connolly's name was on the lips of most people, and they have a flood of questions. Of course, the biggest question for most GAA followers is can the Dubs win it without him? My answer to that is probably, but it makes it a damn sight harder for Gavin.
Look at the huge influence he exerted when he came on for the second half in last year's All-Ireland final - there's very few players around with his natural talent who can spray pin-point kick-passes into the full-forward line or kick long-range points with either foot.
The Dubs are getting older and the 'kids' still have to prove their worth at the highest level, so not having Connolly definitely makes them vulnerable and gives a chink of hope to their rivals.
But in the face of all this speculation, and I'm going to be brutally frank here, the only subject I want to comment on about Diarmuid Connolly is what he does between the white lines of a football pitch.
I've heard it all: "Why is he not playing?" "What's happening?" "He isn't even playing with his club, yet he came on a sub in a hurling game."
Me? I've absolutely no idea why Connolly has chosen not to be involved in any sustained way with the Dubs so far this season. All I know is there's an almighty amount of bullshit following this story around.
We have no right to know any more and I've always respected the approach of the Irish media by comparison to those across the water in terms of respecting a player's private life. If a guy wants to go to ground for whatever reason, then let him.
Connolly is an amateur, plays the game for nothing more tangible than love and a sense of place. Yet there's a national debate blazing away right now about his reasons for not being available to Gavin.
I saw the same thing happen with Paul Galvin after the Paddy Russell notebook incident - it was open season for every eejit to throw whatever they wanted at him although he had work, family, friends and, just like Connolly, was an amateur player.
Now given Connolly is in the capital and playing for Dublin, we can only magnify what I witnessed first-hand with Galvin. I've heard he gets awful abuse - is it any wonder the man might fall out of love with the game?
I was absolutely delighted to see him come on as a sub with the Vincent's hurlers last week and I really wish him well. It's none of my business if there's an issue but I sincerely hope that, if he has fallen out of love with the game, he rediscovers a hunger because, to put it simply, he is one of the greatest and has a lot more to give, and to win.
Of course he's done silly things on the field, but I've always thought he does very well not to react more than he did given what he's endured. But I like him more because of his indignant attitude on the field: 'I'm a Dub, I'm here to compete, to win.'
The punishment meted out for his infraction with the linesman last year was ridiculous, more so by comparison with Andy Moran handling a referee this season. And the endless focus on it was worse.
He has given incredible service to club and county, going almost non-stop with both for more than 10 years and while his record is amazing, it is almost dwarfed by his actual ability.
I was fortunate to enjoy a lot of success in my career and, like Diarmuid, sailed close to the wind with hot-headedness and red cards. However, that's where the similarities end. He is a genius, his footballing ability, passing, vision, two-footedness, his dummies . . . they are all on a different level.
You know one big regret I've carried from my own career dates back to a Railway Cup tournament around '09 or '10. I was on a Munster team that played Leinster in Parnell Park and, after the game, Connolly asked me to swap jerseys. Now swapping jerseys was never my style and, given I hadn't a Munster one at home, I declined. I will always regret that decision.
Because I believe the man to be one of the most gifted footballers I've ever seen play the game. There's been something almost magical about him since making his inter-county debut in '07 and banging in 1-5 as a swaggering teenager. He's won five Celtic crosses and ten Leinsters since, but the accumulation of trophies has never been the draw of Connolly to regulars on the Hill.
I believe they hold a special place in their affections for him because they see the flaws, the volatility, the human weaknesses.
They love him because, on some level, everybody who stands there can probably see something of themselves in Connolly. He may be unique in the talent he brings - that incredible balance, the ability to score effortlessly off either side, the vision, the athleticism, the grace, the ease of movement at speed - but you get the sense his life is also full of regrets. And if any of us are honest, whose isn't without regrets?
Connolly, to me, is a football genius. He's also big-game genius. The impact he can bring to bear on Dublin's biggest days marks him down as a very rare talent.
If that kind of talent comes with an edge (which it palpably does) I honestly have no issue with that.
I see Connolly just like I saw Roy Keane or Tommy Walsh or Richie McCaw. In battle, their focus took on a ruthless dimension. They went to war and, in doing so, paid for that with an abundance of people looking to wind them up, yank their tails, expose their volatility.
Given the amount of provocation he has faced across the years, I happen to think it's remarkable how seldom Connolly has got into trouble. He's become an obvious target for Dublin's opponents. Upset him and you're a fair distance down the road to upsetting the Dubs.
People tend to either love or hate Connolly and, maybe, make their judgement on the kind of battles he's had in more recent times with Mayo's Lee Keegan. To me, that's been one of the most glorious sub-plots to a GAA season. Seeing two of the greatest players we've ever seen in the game go at one another like rutting stags.
Hand on heart, would you have preferred if they behaved like altar-boys? Honestly?
Now more than ever, with the relentless din of social media, it's open season on people like Connolly and Galvin. And it's open season simply because they're seen as public property.
In the vacuum of information, it's natural they'll keep asking the question. And, until and unless the player decides otherwise, that question will go unanswered.
To that end, I think Gavin has handled this probably as well as was possible. He's made clear that the door is open, yet also stressed that no pressure was being applied. Nor should it be.
His appearance as a late substitute for Vincent's hurlers on Friday did fuel the fire in a sense, no doubt raising hopes on the 'Hill that they might still see something of Connolly in this year's Championship.
But the most important thing now and always is that people remember the men whose profiles dominate our summers are amateur sports people. That the commitments that they make aren't on the compulsion of a lucrative contract. That the genius of someone like Diarmuid Connolly has flowered in service only to a sense of identity, a love of place.
If it's his choice, he could play for Dublin for another three or four years and probably stockpile more honours. But, equally, if it's his choice, he has every right to take his leave and watch them from a distance.
I fervently hope he chooses the former, but none of us have any business thinking he should be subjected to our advice.
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