Con O’Callaghan still taking it all in his stride

Dublin star dismisses talk of a switch to hurling as ‘nonsense’

Con O’Callaghan sits down around a low lounge table in the dimly lit Cuala clubhouse bar and is immediately at ease. To kick things off we’d admired the size of the Dublin crest on his tracksuit top and he agrees it’s all going soccer style now, isn’t it?

Looking superbly healthy and still schoolboy fresh, O’Callaghan may be a stranger to interview scenarios such as this, although on his own turf and perhaps terms too his openness is quickly apparent. Nothing to hide here anyway.

Maybe because it's also here where it all began, Hyde Park in Dalkey, O'Callaghan no more than three or four when his dad Maurice would bring him along as he coached the Cuala underage teams that included Cian, his elder brother of three years.

“Yeah, definitely, dad is standing up there,” he says, nodding in the direction of the bar behind, “and he used to train my brother’s team, Cian’s, he’d take the lads up the top pitch, and myself and my younger brother would just play on the sideline, jump in the drills when we could and get involved.

“From then it was all go, really, we had a little green out the front too that we always used to play on. We came up here, spent a lot of time here, would spend our summers here, spend a lot of time training with really good management and friends and cousins and family and things like that. So from a very, very early age it’s been a massive part.”

O’Callaghan turned 26 last month, he tells us somewhat reluctantly, as if that somehow makes him sound ancient. This is his seventh senior season with the Dublin footballers, beginning in 2016 when he’d just turned 20; he now has five All-Ireland wins, three All Stars, during which time he’s won plenty more in hurling too. Where to begin?

In the 12 months from March 2017 to March 2018 he won nine titles, beginning with the 2017 hurling club All-Ireland with Cuala, another Leinster and Dublin club title, a Leinster and All-Ireland under-21 football title, a Leinster and All-Ireland senior football title, a Sigerson Cup title with UCD, then another All-Ireland hurling club title with Cuala.

He dabbled in other sports “around 12 or 13, swimming, tennis, the whole lot, but my focus was always kind of football and hurling”. Maurice O’Callaghan always said he didn’t mind what his sons played as long as they were content, still hurling appeared the more likely option (Maurice uniquely played both codes for Dublin and later Westmeath).

The idea that both codes came similarly easy may be exaggerated: “I don’t know about that. I always enjoyed it, always loved it, spent a lot of time with my brothers, as I said, with my younger brother. When we used to go on holidays with my cousins it was always football, you’d find a pitch where you could play football, it was always just something I loved doing. Yeah, it’s always been a huge part of my life.”

What began the swing towards football was Cuala winning a Dublin minor title, in 2013, a team which included Seán Drummond, who in 2019 sustained life-changing injuries in an accident in London, O’Callaghan here to lend his support to the Support4Drummo jersey campaign.

“We won a minor championship a little unexpectedly, we didn’t win any championships underage with Cuala or anything, that was my first kind of success. We won a minor Leinster (with Dublin), then it was kind of under-21s, we won an All-Ireland, a lot of things fell into place, we got lucky and had a lot of good performances on big days, that’s all part of it.”

So he finds himself walking into Jim Gavin’s Dublin team, in 2016, at the height of their powers. Daunting?

"Definitely, yeah, you've been looking at Stephen Cluxton and Diarmuid Connolly and these lads on TV for so long, looking up to them. Then to actually go in alongside them and play with them is obviously hugely challenging, but it's a massive opportunity, you just try to take those things in your stride.

“Once you spend a lot of time with the lads off the pitch you kind of feel more comfortable, you can express yourself that bit more and you feel more comfortable in your own play.”

Cluxton, not surprisingly, made an instant and lasting impression: “Probably just fear, you see this guy who has won everything, stone-faced, you know he’s just an absolute champion in everything he does. He takes his football really seriously. You’re scared you’ll make a mistake or something like that.

“He doesn’t say that much at the best of times, but no, he’d be very encouraging, particularly to the younger lads. He obviously has very high standards, and if you don’t meet those standards you’ll know about it.”

Philly McMahon also put up a special welcome. “If you are going up to senior football you are going to have to be able to get through different challenges and be able to look after yourself. It’s not like I went out looking for a fight or to prove anything, but it’s just one of those things that you are facing, you get on with it, that’s part of it.”

An ankle injury sustained a week before Dublin's unsuccessful league campaign meant O'Callaghan only returned for their opening championship match against Wexford, rejuvenated it clearly seems. In the meantime, he had people telling him they heard he was joining the Dublin hurlers - "nonsense" - his appetite for football still undiminished.

“The more I play, the more I enjoy it, I was raring to get back as quick as I could. Maybe in the long-term the break might do the bit of good but who knows?”

The Support4Drummo campaign in aid of Seán Drummond, the former Cuala and Dublin GAA underage player who sustained life-changing injuries in an accident in 2019, will see the jersey worn by Dublin senior teams in four major codes over the coming weeks, including the Leinster football final against Kildare.

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