Will we see Diarmuid Connolly in blue this summer? Mystery over his absence deepened last night
A SPARSELY populated Parnell Park, last night, was light years removed from the cacophony of noise that is Croke Park in September.
Instructions from the touchline were audible; you could discern individual cheers and groans from the main stand.
There was one other noteworthy difference.
Amid the nerve-shredding crescendo of last September, Diarmuid Connolly - contrary to his firebrand stereotype - was an oasis of sure-footed calm and clinical composure.
Whereas yesterday evening, as his beloved St Vincent’s made routine work of dismantling Skerries Harps (5-18 to 1-9) in Donnycarney, Connolly was nowhere to be seen. Listed at No 11 in the match programme but absent from the team, his place filled by Lorcan Smyth, wearing No 30.
And that is unusual. Almost unprecedented.
Connolly has skippered Vincent’s to the last two Dublin SFC titles as well as to the 2016 Leinster club summit. He is Marino to the core. He rarely if ever misses a championship outing for his club – even for the hurlers once the inter-county season wraps up.
But while the 30-year-old’s ongoing “rest” from the Dublin football squad has fuelled mounting speculation that he won’t feature this summer (whatever about beyond), last night’s non-appearance will only serve to amplify those doubts.
He didn’t tog out for the Vincent’s hurlers against Raheny last Saturday but his absence from the football fold is even more ominous, from a county perspective.
The story, of course, is not definitive. St Vincent’s will be back in Parnell on Saturday, April 28 for another round-robin SFC clash. That will be against Na Fianna, northside rivals who have engaged in near-annual championship jousts over the last half-decade.
The Vinnies have invariably prevailed, ultimately with something to spare. A recurring theme has been the game-changing majesty of a certain No 11, who shot 1-4 when the sides met in 2017; 1-1 in 2016; and 0-5 at the semi-final stage in 2015. All from play.
If Connolly doesn’t show against Na Fianna in a fortnight, then the prospects of a Sky Blue comeback this summer will shrivel even further.
Pundits are already speculating on what that would mean for Jim Gavin and his team’s quest for the first Sam Maguire four-in-a-row since Kerry achieved that landmark in 1981. Can they still thrive in his absence, or is he irreplaceable?
Some have reached the conclusion that Dublin can carry on winning without him. That the past 18 months have already laid the groundwork for ‘life after Dermo’.
And maybe they’re right, given his dearth of inter-county game-time since the 2016 All-Ireland final replay.
But then perhaps they should rewind the DVD to last year’s decider against Mayo. Of the six All-Ireland finals (one draw included) played by Dublin this decade, this was the first one that Connolly didn’t start as well as finish.
Yet his second half ‘cameo’ - embracing 35 minutes plus well over eight of injury-time – proved to be his most profound All-Ireland final contribution yet.
For the previous six finals, The Herald had given Connolly a player rating of either six or seven. His September work ethic could never be doubted and he had several major moments – none bigger than the impeccably executed penalty that tilted the 2016 replay in Dublin’s favour.
But last September was different: cometh the half-hour, cometh the man.
Connolly produced three plays that showcased not alone his skill-set and nerve but – you can justifiably argue – made the biggest difference of all in deciding the destination of Sam.
THE POINT: This came after 56 minutes. The last score, Lee Keegan’s goal, had restored a one-point lead for Mayo. Enter Connolly, bursting past three Mayo tacklers (Kevin McLoughlin, Tom Parsons and Keegan). The latter fouled him but, with the referee playing advantage, Connolly turns back onto his right foot to nail a brilliant 30-metre score.
THE PASS: With the final deadlocked, in the 67th minute, Conolly cuts in from the right flank before angling the most magnificent of crossfield passes. Not quite outside of the boot; almost off the laces. It teases the outrushing Chris Barrett into an attempted interception, but arcs above his reach and straight into the lap of Dean Rock, with a clear run on goal. He eschews the goal chance, fisting over to become the headline hero.
THE RUN: Again the game is level, deep into stoppage time, when Dublin win a David Clarke kickout and the ball is worked back to Connolly, some 60 metres out near the Cusack touchline. There is nothing safety-first about what transpires: the angle of his run takes him into heavy traffic but also, crucially, into the scoring zone, making 20 metres before he draws the foul off Barrett. Rock does the rest.
Even if Connolly doesn’t return, the hope or even belief in Dublin is that Niall Scully and Brian Howard can fill the half-forward void. Scully has shone for a second consecutive league; the hard-working Howard hasn’t looked remotely out of place this season.
But spring football is very different to August and September: can they step up then? And while Connolly’s inconsistency has infuriated at times, you simply can’t ignore his ability to deliver at those clutch moments - think of Kerry in the 2016 semi-final, and Mayo last year.
Of course, such pivotal contributions have been a rarity for his county over the past 18 months. And this, you can equally argue, is largely Connolly’s own fault.
If you exclude injury-time, he has played a shade over 200 minutes over the past two leagues and one championship.Understandably, after another lengthy club campaign, he made a belated 2017 return - as a sub against Roscommon in late March. But his next appearances (off the bench against Monaghan and starting the league final against Kerry) were both cut short by black cards.
Ironically, that ill-fated Leinster opener against Carlow was the only Dublin game he has started and finished in this period. His brush with authority (in the guise of linesman Ciaran Brannigan) led to the 12-week ban that ruled him out until the All-Ireland semi-final.
To suggest that Connolly’s current disaffection with the game stems from what happened next (even as Dublin romped past Tyrone, he was held in reserve until the 70th minute) is mere idle speculation. None of us can know.
And besides, he went on to produce the goods against Mayo and then to propel Vincent’s to another county title, his first half goal against Ballymun proving the ultimate final tie-breaker.
But his next big game ended in an Aughrim ambush by Rathnew on a day when, reportedly carrying a niggle, he was shunted to the periphery.
The next time we saw him was in Castlebar, on February 24, when Connolly was added to the match-day 26 and came off the bench after 44 minutes.
Once more it was a familiar Dublin triumph against their chief enemy. Connolly betrayed a hint of ring-rust with one ballooned shot that fell well wide and short of its intended target.
But there was plenty of time, we presumed, to iron out any technical glitches. After all, here was probably the most naturally gifted footballer of his era. And it was only February.
Little did we know …
Whatever about Dublin missing Connolly, St Vincent’s coped easily in his absence against Skerries. By half-time they were already 4-11 to 0-7 clear, Tomás Quinn having finished a brace of point-blank goal chances inside the first quarter. But without his usual partner-in-pillage, it was a bit like Butch Cassidy minus the Sundance Kid. Will he be back for the Vins against Na Fianna?
The saga continues ...