Gaelic GamesThe Weekend That Was

Where’s the next Con O’Callaghan coming from for Dublin?

It’s seven years since he arrived along like a lightning bolt - since then there have been a lot of auditions but few starring roles

Con O’Callaghan’s second point against Kildare on Saturday night was instantly identifiable, like the McDonald’s arches or the Guinness harp. One of those where even if you blurred out the faces and turned the jerseys different colours, you’d hardly need three guess to name the scorer. A splash of pure distilled Con.

Niall Scully found him one-on-one with Mick O’Grady at full-forward. O’Callaghan made a bull run at the Kildare defender, all flailing arms and burrowing shoulders, until just when he was on the borderline of taking too many steps. Still barrelling on at full pelt, he dropped the ball to the ground and toe-poked it on the half volley, drawing a reaction save from Kildare goalie Mark Donnellan who tipped it over the bar.

It was the sort of score Dublin had been crying out for all night. Or, if you like, the sort of score they’ve been crying out for since O’Callaghan arrived in the scene, which was seven years ago more or less to the day. He made his senior Dublin debut on January 30th, 2016, coming off the bench for Paul Mannion in a league opener against Kerry.  Somehow, baby-faced Con O’Callaghan will be 27 in April.

The only reason for tallying up the dates and ages here is that O’Callaghan’s threat was so singular and obvious when Dublin were able to get him involved on Saturday night that it begged the question – is he the last inside forward Dublin have produced? For all the talk of Dublin riches and the weight of population and so on, can it really be 2016 since they rolled a dangerous strike attacker off the conveyor belt?


Well, let’s go through it. A trawl through the records for the past seven campaigns shows that since O’Callaghan’s first game, Dublin have handed senior debuts to another 18 forwards. Here they are, listed by year.

2017: Niall Scully, Colm Basquel, Conor McHugh.

2018: Brian Howard, Paddy Small.

2019: Ryan Basquel, Seán Bugler.

2020: Aaron Byrne, Dan O’Brien, Dara Mullin.

2021: No new forwards.

2022: Ross McGarry, Lorcan O’Dell, Ciarán Archer, Cameron McCormack, Alex Wright, Harry Ladd, Brian O’Leary.

2023: Killian O’Gara.

A few caveats. Obviously, not all of them would be considered as full-time attackers. Brian Howard started life in the half-forward line but has operated more in and around the middle third in recent years and often at centre-back. Niall Scully and Seán Bugler are out-and-out wing-forwards, Ballymun’s Cameron McCormack is essentially an attacking midfielder. Nobody has ever looked to them to be the next Con O’Callaghan.

The point stands, all the same. Between Jim Gavin and Dessie Farrell, Dublin have laid on no shortage of audition spots over the past seven years and yet there is still no screamingly obvious addition to the main cast. The closest is probably Paddy Small, who since coming on the scene in 2018 has started an All-Ireland final and has generally held his place whenever injury has spared him.

Let’s measure it this way. How many of those 18 forwards have played a championship game outside Leinster? After all, what outsiders think of the relative merits or otherwise of the players involved doesn’t matter a fig. What matters is what scenarios the Dublin management are prepared to trust them with.

Howard is one of the first names on the teamsheet, albeit rarely in the forwards. Scully had a bit of a wobble last year but is generally a fixture in the side, regardless of circumstance. Bugler and Small have both featured extensively at the business end of things. But go through the rest of them and it’s slim enough pickings.

Colm Basquel has posted two substitute appearances in the All-Ireland series since his debut in 2017. Aaron Byrne has the same number to his name since his debut in 2020. Lorcan O’Dell started last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, making him the first Dublin inside forward to do so in his debut year since Paul Mannion in 2013. Even O’Callaghan had to wait until his second season to play in the All-Ireland series.

Clearly, it would be overstating things to slap a label on the situation and call it a crisis. It might not even be a problem. The sky won’t run out of stars, Dublin will not run out of footballers. If everyone turns up fit and firing in the summer, they will still have probably the most balanced attack among the leading contenders for Sam Maguire.

But it is interesting that the one debutant in the Dublin forwards on Saturday night was Killian O’Gara (28), brother of Eoghan, who played O’Byrne Cup for Dublin as far back as 2018. And that the other two attacking subs were Colm Basquel (26) and Dean Rock (33 in a few weeks). And that the main addition to the attack for 2023 will be Paul Mannion (30 in May), who hasn’t played intercounty for three years.

You can’t be expecting a thunderbolt like Con O’Callaghan to arrive fully-formed on the scene every season, obviously. But it was striking on Saturday night that the most eye-catching forward on show was Jack Robinson of Kildare, making just his third start for Glenn Ryan’s side. He was full of running and chutzpah, he was mad to take on defenders and dare them into bringing him down. In the end, he rattled off three points from play and got fouled for two more.

There will have been plenty up on Hill 16 watching on and thinking it’s a while since they saw a new Dublin player do that.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times