'Rested' Connolly is not necessarily the retiring type

Speculation is rife in the capital about the future intentions of the St Vincent’s man

Dermot Connolly: has played a major role in Dublin’s five All-Ireland wins since 2011. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Dermot Connolly: has played a major role in Dublin’s five All-Ireland wins since 2011. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

In his 2003 autobiography, Misunderstood, Graham Geraghty talks about his retirement from inter-county football. For the first time, that is. Not to be confused with the second time, or indeed the last time. 

Long before Meath lost the 2002 third round qualifier to Donegal, Geraghty had made up his mind. He was 29, an All-Ireland winner in 1996 and again in 1999, and tired of being the centre of so much attention. 

“It was no longer a case of how much more I could offer Meath or how much more I could achieve. My family and my career were the now the main issues on the table. I had to start living a normal life...”

And with that came the speculation: “that I had retired because of threats made to my family and me from rival fans”, “that I had a blazing row with Sean Boylan” – and “it is the lies about me that are hard to stomach”. 

So Geraghty walked away, played the winter season with Buccaneers Rugby Club, and Meath, it seemed, moved on.

Until shortly before their first championship match of 2003, against Westmeath, when without much prompting or warning Geraghty rejoined the Meath panel for a training camp in Portugal.

“It finally began to dawn on me that there was no way I could just sit and watch my team-mates in action against Westmeath... my heart strings were being tugged from all angles.” 

He ended up scoring a decisive goal which helped force a draw the first day, then kicked 0-2 when Meath won the replay. He played on for another five seasons, before retiring again in July 2008, after Meath were beaten by Limerick in the qualifiers. Then came his third coming, just before the 2011 championship, and after the 2012 season, his third and final retirement from the inter-county game. 

Diarmuid has been quite quiet himself. Everybody is talking for him. So I want to respect his wishes that he doesn’t want to be the centre of discussion or debate

Geraghty certainly wasn’t the first high-profile inter-county player to walk away and come back, certainly not the last either. His team mate John McDermott had done something similar, coming out of retirement to rejoin the Meath team in 2001. Only few have come back on a thoroughly winning note.

 Mike McCarthy was coaxed out of retirement by Kerry football manager Jack O’Connor in 2009, having first walked away after Kerry’s 2006 All-Ireland win over Mayo, aged 28. McCarthy played a central defensive role in Kerry 2009 All-Ireland win, before promptly retiring again.

Continued absence

DJ Carey was also tired of being the centre of so much hurling attention, in early 1998, his sudden retirement from the inter-county game actually only lasting about six weeks. After winning three more All-Irelands and seven more Leinster titles with Kilkenny, Carey retired for good before the 2006 championship. Lar Corbett was another hurler to go and come back again, during Tipperary’s 2012 season. 

No one has yet put the ‘retirement’ word next to Diarmuid Connolly’s continued absence from the Dublin football team, although there is plenty of speculation and at least something to suggest he’s played his last inter-county game. If only for the 2018 season. 

Before St Vincent’s played Skerries Harps on Thursday evening, the opening game in the defence of their Dublin senior football title, looking to make it four in a row, the word on the streets around Marino was that Connolly wouldn’t play. Still he was listed on the match programme, at centre forward, only for Lorcan Smyth to take his place, wearing number 30. St Vincent’s won handy and are out again on April 28th against northside rivals Na Fianna, and already the word on the streets is Connolly won’t feature in that either. 

“I don’t want to add to any speculation,” St Vincent’s manager Brian Mullins told reporters after the game. “Diarmuid has been quite quiet himself. Everybody is talking for him. So I want to respect his wishes that he doesn’t want to be the centre of discussion or debate, and he’s entitled to that.” 

Truth is Connolly has always rated playing for his club every bit as highly as playing for his county. Their 2017 Dublin championship-winning captain agreed to “take a rest” during the latter rounds of Dublin’s latest Allianz Football League title success, and when asked if he’d back for the championship, all Dublin manager Jim Gavin could confess is “Please God”. 

And I have learned to deal with it, a little bit. You just have to take it play by play, and try to get on the ball, and make things happen

It’s unlike Connolly to miss the Dublin championship for no other reason than being rested, especially given his limited playing time of late, which suggests there is something else at play. He turns 31 in July, and Connolly’s playing time with Dublin in 2018 – his 12th senior inter-county season – is so far limited to his second-half appearance against Mayo in round four of the league in Castlebar, at the end of February. He was introduced on 44 minutes as a replacement for Michael Darragh Macauley. 

Their five-time All-Ireland winner was omitted completely from the 26-man panel for the following round game against Kerry, and following Dublin’s football league title win over Galway on April 1st, manager Gavin simply confirmed that he and Connolly agreed it would be better to “take a rest” from football.

An enigma 

Connolly’s entire 2017 season with Dublin, league and championship, totalled just over 200 minutes: he played the full game against Carlow in the Leinster quarter-final, that game resulting in a three-month ban for an incident with the sideline official. He didn’t start the All-Ireland final against Mayo either, but did come on at half-time to help swing the game back in Dublin’s favour. 

In June 2016, in a rare appearance at a GAA media event, Connolly spoke about having to deal with being the centre of so much attention, on and off the field: “It is very much out of my control, what other teams are trying to do to opposition players,” Connolly said. “I just have to embrace that and try to play my own game, that’s all I can do. 

“And I have learned to deal with it, a little bit. You just have to take it play by play, and try to get on the ball, and make things happen. So of course you learn, and you are more experienced... You learn and grow as you get older, I suppose.” 

Indeed in that 2016 Leinster final, Westmeath’s James Dolan appeared to deliberately ruffle Connolly’s hair during a break in play, their manager Tom Cribbin admitting afterwards that Westmeath had set out to “entice” him. 

There has always been something of an enigma about Connolly, even as he’s unravelled some of the mystery. His former team-mate Alan Brogan once described him as the most gifted, talented footballer he ever played with, though Connolly described himself differently.

“Some people are more gifted than others, but you have to work on your game, try and tweak things here and there, to be the best that you can be. And it’s pure and utter hard work.” 

The day after that 2016 Leinster final, Connolly could be found swimming in the sea, off Bull Island, something he now considers a crucial part of his match recovery. In his earlier years, Connolly might well have been recovering in a different sense. He also incorporates yoga sessions into his weekly regime, and even approaching his 31st birthday, there’s nothing to suggest he’s slacking or slowing down. 

That still potentially volatile nature, displayed against Carlow last summer, may never leave him, and instead always leaves him at the centre of at least some attention. That may not be the only reason Connolly felt like he needed a rest but it may influence how quickly he’ll come back.

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