Con­nolly ab­sence will be keenly felt

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Keith Dug­gan:

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.

Ir­ish weather

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.

Un­der con­trol

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

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