Connolly absence will be keenly felt
In the giddy minutes (city euphoria, Mayo returned to Virgil’s Mourning Fields), just after Dublin won their third All-Ireland in a row last September, the television cameras caught an on-field exchange in which Diarmuid Connolly happily reminded a team-mate that this was their fourth title now.
The St Vincent’s man was actually mistaken; it was five and his team-mate held up his hand to confirm that fact. Connolly shook his head, incandescent with delight and clearly mouthed “Five!” in amazement. His confusion in the moment was understandable.
For the previous six years, Connolly’s life as a peerless attacking footballer had been a blur of accomplishment with both club and county. Even in Dublin’s lone conspicuous championship failure of the Jim Gavin era, the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Donegal which shines more brightly in its isolation, Connolly cut a dauntless sort of figure, at one stage threatening to haul his team back into the game all by himself.
Although there was nothing surprising about it, the official confirmation this week that Connolly will n
ot feature for Dublin this summer left the All-Ireland championship feeling that bit smaller.
Freewheeling talents are rare. One of the brightest, Crossmaglen’s street-kid Jamie Clarke, will be moonlighting as a New Yorker when the 2018 All-Ireland championship officially starts in the Bronx on Sunday.
Leitrim are expected to win but when those American trips are already tricky for Connacht visitors without the nightmare scenario of Clarke released from the claustrophobic restrictions of the Ulster championship theatre and remembering what it is like to play the game for fun.
But while Clarke’s championship will be brief, Diarmuid Connolly’s seems likely to be non-existent. That’s everybody’s loss and because of it, Dublin’s push for a fourth brilliant summer has become a more difficult proposition that ever.
It already feels like a long time has passed since Dublin edged out Mayo in that nailbiting All-Ireland final. The weather has had much to do with that; official Met Éireann reports reveal that it rained in Ireland for 200 days straight after that final l with a daily average rainfall of 10 feet.
The Irish car industry faces a dilemma now: does it continue with the push from diesel to electric or simply cut its losses and start selling the real future mode of transport: rubber dinghies.
Sooner or later, all opposition parties will realise that their agonising over appealing manifestos and election-winning slogans are unnecessary: all they need to do is offer every citizen a weather allowance: a monetary compensation just for living under these skies.
Back in 2010, Michael ‘Moneyball’ Lewis took a whistle-stop tour of Europe to write a series of Vanity Fair dispatches about the continent’s more crackpot economies.
It meant spending time in Ireland to fire off a riveting account thrillingly immune to the kind of patter Irish public figures like to inflict on American writers. (Example: ‘I ask several Irish politicians if they speak Gaelic, and they all offer the same hedgy reply: “Enough to get by.” The politicians in Ireland speak Irish the way the Real Housewives of Orange County speak French.’).
Inevitably, he had one unforgettable exchange with a taxi driver while here, who told him what an African passenger had said of the Irish weather. The African visitor said: “I don’t know why people live here. It’s like living under an elephant”.
Of course, in Africa they may have blue skies and sunshine. But they don’t have the All-Ireland championship. The big show is one of the great consolations of the season we gamely call “summer” and just like that, it has pitched its big sprawling tent on the village green again: in town for fourth months only.
One of the consequences of living beneath an elephant (besides SAD, lack of vitamin D etc) is that the details of previous All-Irelands become vague and distilled. By Christmas, the theory was general all over Ireland that Mayo would have won the All-Ireland had they not lost Donal Vaughan to a red card in the second half. It’s a neat summary but based almost entirely on supposition.
The theory conveniently forgets the fact that Dublin also lost a player in the same incident: both teams were down to 14 men. And it was after those dismissals that Mayo had their high-voltage moment, with Lee Keegan’s goal rendering the stadium – the world – fervent in the belief that the team had the right stuff. Mayo led by 1-15 to 1-13 after 63 minutes.
You can hold a weekend conference in Trinity jam-packed with highly detailed theories on why Mayo didn’t win it from that point. But it is incontrovertible that the winning of it for Dublin was greatly enhanced by two key contributions from Connolly, who did not start the final and who was sent into the game when it was a furnace.
The first of those was his point in the 57th minute, when he kept control of the ball while somehow waltzing through the over-vigilant policing of Keegan, Kevin McLoughlin and Tom Parsons.
Connolly had already won the free but the whistle hadn’t sounded and he managed to maintain his balance and hold the ball out in that exaggerated style of his before thumping a point that must have sent a cold shiver of terror through the Mayo rearguard.
The score wasn’t a winner or anything; the teams shared a 1-16 scoreline after 73 minutes and Mayo, remember, had possession of the ball in the fourth of six minutes of injury time.
Those minutes are still nerve-wracking to watch even when you know the result because the game and the season were that finely balanced. But when Connolly took it upon himself to drive at Mayo in the 75th minute, the fear of giving him the space to kick another outrageous point surely created the circumstance in which he was fouled.
That, then, was Connolly’s closing scene: holding the ball, smiling, signalling at his team-mates to be cool, that everything was under control. Then Dean Rock’s icy free; the choke-tackles across the field; the final whistle; Dublin’s reputation as serial-winners gold plated; Mayo awash with a new kind of sorrow.
The condensed version doesn’t tell the full story though. The Mayo back room will have sat down and watched the replay of that final with a cold, judgemental eye and they will see that there were glimpses of space and opportunity through the tension and tiredness when they could have wrestled Fate and forced it to their liking. They will know they had chances. And that alone will bring them back to this championship with the same aptitude and appetite and the belief.
Dublin’s grip on this period of football has been tantalising because it has never had the vice-like quality of Kilkenny’s hurling teams at their most imperious.
It’s not that hard for the other contenders to convince themselves that with the right training and tactics, and maybe a touch of light hypnosis, that this can be their year.
You can bet right now that in Kerry, in Tyrone and elsewhere, they are training with that conviction. It is going to be a long football season – and maybe, after everything, the summer when Mayo finally get out from under the elephant.
In Africa they may have blue skies and sunshine. But they don’t have the All-Ireland championship