Top-class Diarmuid Connolly at the height of his powers

This week’s All Star award seems an overdue recognition for the gifted Dublin and St Vincent’s forward

Diarmuid Connolly: “It was in the second half, when the home crowd was in a state of shock, that he had arguably his best spell in a Dublin jersey, bringing the fight to Donegal  at Croke Park.” Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Diarmuid Connolly: “It was in the second half, when the home crowd was in a state of shock, that he had arguably his best spell in a Dublin jersey, bringing the fight to Donegal at Croke Park.” Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Among the usual head-shakes and grousing that accompany the annual GAA All-Star football awards a genuinely mystifying statistic was noted. This week’s chosen football team saw Diarmuid Connolly win his first award. The St Vincent’s player is so firmly established as a leading attacking light that it hardly seemed possible.

In the 1980s, an NBA star named Dominique Wilkins had such a gift for making all sorts of impossible attacking moves look easy that he became known as the Human Highlight Reel.

There has been an element of that about Connolly this year. Connolly struck 2-5 against Castlebar Mitchels in a virtuoso display St Patrick’s Day and hasn’t really looked back for club or county since.

In the hours after that All-Ireland title, Connolly avoided the flash bulbs and microphones and it was left to team-mates to put his performance in context.

“He is a super talent,” said Vincent’s captain and Dublin star Ger Brennan. “Does he do it as often as he could? Well, that’s kind of for him to work out.”

It would seem he has worked it out. Connolly carried that club form into the Dublin dressing room and if Paul Flynn emerged as a model of consistent excellence and the leader of the All-Ireland champions, then the range and versatility of Connolly’s attacking skill seemed to grow more terrifying with every passing game.

It wasn’t that he was always a serial scorer – he was relatively subdued during the weeks when Dublin looked genuinely untouchable, contributing just 0-2 to the 2-25 piled onto Wexford in late June and 0-1 against Meath in the comfortable Leinster final stroll. It was more about the precision and pain he was capable of inflicting through his ability to produce something from nothing – as demonstrated with his precisely taken goal which effectively ended Monaghan’s resistance in the All-Ireland quarter final.

But it was in the semi-final, when Dublin ran into a Donegal hurricane that showed up on no advance radar, where Connolly really distinguished himself. He was sublime in the first 20 minutes, when the Dubs were singing. But it was in the second half, when the home crowd was in a state of shock, that he had arguably his best spell in a Dublin jersey, bringing the fight to Donegal and stubbornly landing points which kept the champions alive and just about in the match.

Really settled

“There is not an awful lot missing and he seems to have really settled into his role now both with Dublin and with Vincent’s. He has definitely matured and while he could always deal with the physical stuff, mentally he seems to be a lot stronger than he was in the past. But he is what 25, 26 now and this is probably the time when he is approaching his best.”

As Ballyboden St Enda’s manager, McEntee had the unhappy pleasure of having the best seat in the house for Connolly’s return of 1-6 in the Dublin semi-final last week. The former Meath minor coach had, naturally, paid attention to Connolly as he laid out a plan to try and cope with the threat that St Vincent’s presented before the match.

Dublin’s long championship run means that running off the club championship in double-quick time and every week, Connolly seemed to be providing scores to remember. The most celebrated of those was his second-round goal against St Sylvester’s in which he took possession from a seemingly innocuous position in midfield and just took off, accelerating through the middle of the Sylvester’s defence and taking a return hand pass from Tomás Quinn which he volleyed into the net from close range.

He made the score – the deconstruction of an entire defence – look pitifully easy. But it isn’t just about trying to close Connolly down: it is about trying to deal with his unpredictable flair for exploding into developing attacks from the periphery.

“Nobody is unmarkable but when he is in a system, I think especially with the likes of Vincent’s where they are patient enough and good enough to wait for him to be available and he knows they will wait for him....you can’t literally stay with a guy all of the time,” McEntee explains of the dilemma Connolly poses for all defences, club and county.

“And Vincent’s are patient: they work the opportunity and when the time is right, he moves in the knowledge that he is going to get the ball. Now, he still has to do the right thing with the ball. Obviously he got the goal against us but a lot of his points were kicked from 45, maybe 50 yards out. And that is hard to stop. So it is difficult to prevent him.”

The other problem that Connolly poses is that he is not typical of any of the traditional forward roles.

“It is not as if he is buzzing around all over the place. His movement his clever and he gets the ball in the right areas. And in that regard, it is hard to keep him out of the play. If he was a target man, fair enough. But he is not. He doesn’t go for kick outs in general. They don’t kick long ball into him in general. He makes the right move at the right time.”

Club finalists

Think back to last November: Dublin were All-Ireland champions and after the roulette of the club championship, Vincent’s and Ballymun Kickhams – beaten All-Ireland club finalists in 2012 – were the last two standing. It took a last-minute point from Connolly to earn St Vincent’s a second day out.

In the replay, he got involved in an altercation with Philly McMahon which saw the Dublin team-mates earn red cards close to full time. McMahon’s reaction to the punishment suggested that he felt more sinned against than sinner.

Connolly missed the semi-final win over Tyrrellspass, the Westmeath champions, but before the Leinster final, Portlaoise captain Brian McCormack publicly echoed what was often heard on the terraces: “For me, Diarmuid Connolly has probably been the best footballer in Ireland over the last two years”.

Temperament and consistency were the two elements which Connolly had to master. After Dublin’s 2011 All-Ireland win, Connolly was both white hot in the league –- three goals against Armagh – and frustratingly volatile, earning a double yellow dismissal against Mayo.

“His talent is undoubted but it is important that he gets the consistency and he has really been trying to work hard at it,” said Pat Gilroy, Dublin’s manager, during the league.

A tendency to meet provocation in kind didn’t do Connolly’s image any favours and for every incandescent moment, it wasn’t difficult to point to a negative equivalent.

Gilroy called on referees to protect players like Connolly who are habitually provoked by the opposition after his player was sent off early in the second half of the Leinster semi-final against Wexford.

Court case

“He’s a human being and we all make mistakes. There’s a number of our guys have issues in that area and they have dealt with them very well.”

Connolly’s run of consistency this year has been achieved despite the undoubted stress of a court case arising from a 2012 altercation in a Dublin city bar. He pleaded guilty to assault: he offered an unreserved apology to the victim, who accepted it; donated money to charity after the victim refused compensation, underwent anger management and agreed to the court’s wishes that he commit to voluntary work by coaching youngsters at GAA.

Connolly has always been a deeply reticent public figure. As an exceptional talent in both hurling and football, his name was known around Dublin GAA circles since adolescence and he emerged in Joe Canning’s era of hurlers, losing an U-21 hurling final to Canning’s Galway back in 2007.

But he has never done an in-depth television or radio interview and is pointedly subdued in the very occasional man-of-the-match interviews in which he has participated.

Apart from his flamboyant turns on Gaelic fields, Connolly has kept himself to his own company. So the court case offered him a vivid if unwelcome insight to the profile and attention that comes with being one of the most skilful footballers in the game.

Last year’s All-Ireland triumph was like a reawakening for St Vincent’s in that it was the most suitable salute imaginable to Kevin Heffernan, the godfather of the club who died in January 2013.

And because Connolly essentially took over that final, bossing a senior All-Ireland club final in a way more readily associated with an U-10s game, it also seemed to mark the full maturation of an extraordinary talent whose name belonged in the rarefied company of former Vincent’s greats. He has managed to keep that lit in the succeeding months.

On Thursday, he became the first St Vincent’s man to win an All-Star since Eamon Heery did so back in 1992. Most observers felt it was overdue but no matter: the signs would suggest that Diarmuid Connolly’s best days are ahead of him.

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