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Diarmuid Connolly: ‘I don’t miss playing, my body couldn’t do it now’

‘I think I was a good team player, I found was if you worked your socks off you ended up getting on the end of those moves anyway’

From the soot-black picnic bench where Diarmuid Connolly sits, a BMX dirt track he remembers from a different time in his life lies unseen, hidden just out beyond a thicket of Holm Oak and Bird Cherry trees.

He spent countless hours around here when he was younger. He was just another kid in the park then. Nobody knew him. They soon would.

It’s early afternoon in late November and the changing of the seasons is everywhere. Blood orange and crimson tinged leaves fall like weathered confetti, carpeting the ground. Nothing stays the same, everything changes. Diarmuid Connolly is no different.

He hasn’t played football now in over 15 months. He’s a club hurler these days, a dad with several businesses on the go. He’s just launched and co-founded Cupooch – an Irish start-up developing and manufacturing pet products for dog walking.

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Chatting to Diarmuid Connolly about dog fouling, Cu Hurls and the growing tech-pet space is quite the plot twist.

“I always wanted a dog when I was younger,” explains Connolly. “But both my parents worked so it wouldn’t have been fair. One of the first things I did when I left home was to get a dog.”

Roy Keane had Triggs, and Connolly’s faithful friend is Buddy. Connolly is 36 now and getting Cupooch off the ground is currently where a lot of his energies are directed.

Indeed, he hadn’t really intended to play anything this past season but then Pat Gilroy took over the St Vincent’s hurlers. And when Pat calls, it’s hard to say no.

Still, it was with the big ball that Connolly captured the imagination. Blessed with absurd skill, two-footed, athletic, strong, he moved as if gliding across the pitch. He also possessed a freakish ability to improvise under pressure, almost nonchalantly.

It might sound glib to call him a street baller but there’s a video online of Connolly ambling around Dublin smacking balls off kerbs, buildings and even kicking size fives across the Liffey.

A prodigious sporting talent, he played with Home Farm for a while but was drawn back to the GAA. He grew up with a love of hurling and football and how they should be played.

Several weeks back, he watched a group of young kids training.

“There was no ball,” says Connolly. “They were hitting nets and hitting tyres, but there was no ball involved. I was wondering, ‘What are they learning here?’

“Football and hurling are ball games – the motor skills of which are to play with the ball. It’s not rocket science. Mickey Whelan would always say if you want to play football then get a football and kick the f**king thing.”

But kicking it and making it sing are two very different outcomes to the same action. There are few players who managed the latter quite like Connolly.

And yet it wasn’t just his footballing genius which endeared him to Dublin fans. They loved him as much for his volatility and how he naturally gravitated towards risk-taking and the spectacular. If Bernard Brogan was talented and always safe, Connolly was gifted and occasionally reckless. His willingness to play on the edge made him a cult hero on the Hill.

Former Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice, writing in his Irish Examiner column, once said of Connolly: “It is the players with personality who stand out and live on in our memory.”

Connolly, who won six senior All-Irelands with the Dubs and two with Vinnies, was a totemic figure.

Confidence was never an issue, though he recalls himself as a “slight, skinny kid who had never seen the inside of a gym,” when he first joined the Dublin squad in 2007.

“I think not lifting weights early on helped prolong my career, because I never had any major injuries. The gym stuff came later but when it did, I embraced it then,” recalls Connolly.

“Nowadays I don’t lift heavy weights, I lift 10 kilo dumbbells. When I was 25-26, I was trying to lift the whole gym.”

He retired in September 2020. He was just 33. But the latter years of his Dublin career were soured by a 12-week suspension arising from an incident where he put his hand on linesman Ciarán Branagan during a Leinster SFC clash against Carlow in O’Moore Park.

Connolly played just seven games for Dublin after that, six of them off the bench – but still managed to make key plays in two All-Ireland finals.

There were several high-profile disciplinary issues over the years but that 2017 incident changed everything. Including him. “It gave me a completely different perspective,” he admits. “There was a small altercation on the sideline, but I genuinely thought nothing of it.”

But as Connolly sat in the dressing room afterwards, yanking off his boots, Jim Gavin approached.

“Jim asks, ‘Did you hit the linesman?’

“’What are you on about? No, I didn’t hit the linesman.’

“In my head what had happened on the sideline wasn’t a big thing, but by the time I got on the bus there were so much going on about it I was like, ‘Show me what happened?’

“I got a 12-week ban. Aside from that, you were getting portrayed in the media in a very negative light and away from the football that takes its toll because of everything that accompanies it.”

One assertion made by Dublin was that there was no mention of the incident in the referee’s initial report and that media coverage subsequently prompted disciplinary action.

“What annoyed me most was the referee’s report,” adds Connolly. “Yeah, okay, you can say I made a mistake but he didn’t even make an issue of it, nor did the referee. If it was dealt with at the time fair enough, but it wasn’t, it was dealt with through the media and then others got involved.”

As a mark of protest, Gavin declined certain media interviews following Dublin’s subsequent outing, claiming Connolly’s good name was “attacked” by a “bile and malevolent attitude” of some broadcasters who he felt had influenced a campaign that led to the suspension.

Dublin breezed through Leinster, but for Connolly it was a stormy period.

His suspension ended the night before Dublin’s All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, and Connolly was brought off the bench late on in that game. He was introduced in the final against Mayo too, scoring a point and drawing the injury-time free which Dean Rock nailed, despite an incoming GPS device, to win the All-Ireland.

The following February Connolly made a substitute appearance during a league game against Mayo in Castlebar.

“It was a wet and miserable evening. On the way home I remember saying to myself, ‘I don’t think this is for me any longer.’”

He didn’t play again for Dublin until August 2019. The summer of 2018 was spent in Boston, away from all the noise. There was a plan to go back in 2019 only for visa issues to determine otherwise. But as one door closed, another opened. Five-in-a-row talk was everywhere. Connolly had been there at the start of the journey, but he was about to become an onlooker at the finish line.

“From early on that year a lot of people were saying to me about the opportunity I was missing, but I only grasped that later in the season, and by that stage I was too afraid to pick up the phone to ask if I could come back.

“It’s hard to say, ‘I want it now.’ I was afraid the reaction would be, ‘You made your bed, lie in it.’ That was the fear.”

But his Dublin family were waiting for the prodigal son’s return. He was given a strength and conditioning programme, and three days a week Connolly rose at five am to workout at the gym. He eventually re-appeared at training in mid-July.

“It was a running session down the seafront on a Sunday morning and it was kind of like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’”

Connolly hauled ass that morning. Afterwards the squad went up to All Hallows where he addressed the room, making it abundantly clear he hadn’t come back to hang out with old friends.

“I just kind of said, ‘Lads, I’m not coming back to make up the numbers, I’m coming to start and I’m looking to take a jersey off you.’ I think me coming back actually helped take the spotlight off the five-in-a-row as well.”

It was always a short-term arrangement. The fire wasn’t there for anything beyond 2019. That summer was one last dance.

“Those couple of weeks were magic,” he says.

He walked away with a bagful of medals, leaving behind a showreel depicting one of the most colourful, scrutinised and electrifying intercounty careers. Afterall, how many players have greeted the president on All-Ireland SFC final day wearing a Leitrim top?

The short version of how he came to wear Leitrim training gear during the warm-up for the 2011 final is that Connolly simply picked up the wrong geansaí before leaving home. His brother, Keith, was playing with the Leitrim hurlers at the time and so the family hot press was stuffed with branded clobber, all O’Neills.

“They looked the same, navy tops with a crest. I just grabbed the wrong one, threw it in the bag, I didn’t even realise until after the game that I had been wearing the wrong top.”

And it wasn’t the only time his dress-sense became a national talking point. For the pre-match warmup for the 2017 All-Ireland final Connolly took to the field in a Dublin GAA sleeveless vest.

Up in the RTÉ studio Colm O’Rourke suggested Connolly was “not a happy camper” and making “a statement” because he was not on the starting team.

“It was roasting hot that day and I didn’t have the sleeved top with me,” contests Connolly. “People saying I’d worn the vest to get some message across to somebody else, nonsense, it was part of the package of gear we got for the final.”

Over the years Connolly has had as many thorns as garlands tossed at his feet. Some of his own making. But game has always tended to recognise game.

“If you can’t respect him for what he did as a player, then you are crazy. I loved every bit of playing against him,” said Lee Keegan earlier this year.

“I think I was a good team player,” says Connolly when asked about his best attribute. “The team motto was always to give the ball to the man in the best position. I never felt I was a selfish player.

“And what I found was if you worked your socks off you ended up getting on the end of those moves anyway.”

When he watches the Dubs play now, he does so with a great sense of ease.

“I don’t miss the intercounty, I don’t miss playing, my body couldn’t do it now,” he says. “Everybody has their time.”

Connolly didn’t tag along with the squad’s post-All-Ireland final celebrations in July either.

“You’d feel like a bit of a hanger on. It’s not my team now, it’s their team, let them celebrate.”

Anyhow, the club hurling championship was on the horizon then. Vinnies ultimately lost at the semi-final stages, after extra-time. The following day Gilroy was on the phone talking about 2024.

“No decision officially made, but in my head I’ll probably be back,” he says.

As Connolly speaks, a passing jogger noticeably slows and cranes his neck. Whatever about his athletic endeavours, what’s clearly running through his mind is: That’s Diarmuid Connolly.

Even through the changing of the seasons, evergreens endure. Connolly’s showreel will weather well. But how would Diarmuid Connolly sum up his Dublin career?

“Eventful,” he replies immediately.

Pauses. Smiles.

“Successful.”