Seán Moran: Connolly's return is good karma for Dublin's march on history
Different considerations around recalling the player but Jim Gavin did the right thing
Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly wins a late free which Dean Rock converted to seal victory in the 2017 All-Ireland final against Mayo. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The late Anthony Foley was only shortly into his appointment as Munster rugby head coach when he became a bit impatient with the constant questioning and speculation about new signing Tyler Bleyendaal, whose transfer from New Zealand had become entangled in uncertainty because of a neck injury.
“We as a club need to look after the player and it’s not a piece of meat we are dealing with; it’s a human being, so there is a human side to this that we need to manage, and that is what Munster is about, it’s about the people.”
This came to mind at the weekend when news emerged with the same enigmatic brevity as one of those war-time radio messages: “Diarmuid Connolly is back training with us.”
Even by Dublin manager Jim Gavin’s standards this was a minimalist media approach. The news that Connolly, arguably the most box-office footballer in the country, was after the guts of three years returning to inter-county activity had been held back from the routine, post-match press conference on Saturday evening and delivered the following morning on the official county website’s DubsTV.
Its casual inclusion in a series of team updates was like dropping a small match into a big tinderbox.
There was an immediate blaze of reporting and speculation and discussion, all of which rather distracted from Dublin’s, late big win over Cork and the longer-term significance of getting three of last year’s team back from injury: Jonny Cooper, Eoin Murchan and James McCarthy, who had left the Leinster final before half-time with an apparently worrying knee injury.
The idea of settling in seven words an issue that had consumed the media for so long probably appealed to Gavin but what about the actual substantive issue of Connolly’s return?
It’s an issue that has been running through the year and certainly the summer. Although nothing actually happened until last weekend it has been noticeable that normally reliable sources had been heralding the player’s rejoining the panel at various stages.
There had been mixed messages from among those who knew him best: he wanted to come back; he’d never come back.
Gavin was continually answering questions on the subject and his response after the destruction of Louth in the Leinster quarter-final in May was typical: “So we’ve always had an open-door policy and if guys are playing well and we ask them, and they want to commit to the Dublin football team then we’d be delighted to have them.”
Of course we know that Diarmuid Connolly recently wasn’t committing to the team. He was off to Boston to play out there until a visa glitch delayed any potential arrival until after the registration deadline. So any return to the Dublin panel would have been a matter of out-reach as well as an investment of optimism in the player’s ability to add value to the team.
The lingering impact of his performance in the second half of the 2017 All-Ireland final during which he was introduced as a replacement after a summer of suspension further faded last year when Dublin won a first All-Ireland in 23 years without Connolly playing a part.
Since then there have been no championship matches and just 16 minutes (all of 17 months ago) of league football as well as long-running sagas of intrigue and speculation. Dublin wanted him back but he wanted a break from it all and the sense was that he had more on his plate to deal with than football.
He has always been a complicated character, discipline a seemingly constant, threatening spectre rather than a matter of focus and self-control that others manage to master.
His short fuse has been relentlessly lit by opponents and if his most fervent advocates appear to miss the fact that this is life at the top level and other similarly put-upon forwards resist the temptation to retaliate, he himself has never looked for indulgence or felt sorry for himself in public.
For someone who generally avoided media – only relenting when made captain of St Vincent’s in order to promote his club – he is bracingly direct in interviews, a welcome contrast to the well-drilled bromides that typify the genre. In an interview in 2016, he was dismissive of the idea that he was a constant target.
“We’ve spoken about this before. It’s part of the game. It’s a physical game. Opponents go toe to toe with each other. I wouldn’t call it targeting as such. If it’s within the rules of the game, fair enough. If it’s not, then it should be dealt with by the officials. That’s all we are asking for really, isn’t it?
“At the same time isn’t it a testament to your own skills that somebody needs to step out of line to curtail you. That’s a compliment really and that’s the way you look at it.”
Nonetheless, the prospect of his losing his temper in a big match is one of the things to be factored in when weighing up the pros and cons of his return.
From Jim Gavin’s perspective there is the attraction of putting the whole business to bed for a while and also the hope that Connolly might locate his ‘A’ game in the weeks ahead – and he has at least as much history of producing on big occasions as he does of getting into trouble – but overall, there is also something admirable about the Dublin manager’s decision.
It can’t have been great for the player to lose out so publicly on his planned trip to Boston. There had been difficulties for him in his life and being under constant scrutiny with the possibility that his football career would tail off rather than coming to a natural end.
For all the controversies and self-made difficulties, there is as with Blyendaal, “a human side” to this. . For a whole variety of reasons that’s a positive thing.