We Hardly Knew ye

Despite the many controversies, Connolly was the most gifted footballer of his generation

Dublin’s answer to Ciaran McDonald and Maurice Fitzgerald announced his inter-county retirement aged 33.

LAST UPDATE | 1 Oct 2020

diarmuid-connolly-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly celebrates at the final whistle of the 2016 All-Ireland final.

DIARMUID CONNOLLY WAS called up to the Dublin squad for the first time in early 2007 under Pillar Caffrey.

Even then, as a skinny 19-year-old, Dublin knew they had a prodigious talent on their hands. 

His first night with the seniors involved a gym session in DCU. Dublin coach ‘Ski’ Wade introduced Connolly to sub goalie John Leonard and asked him to show him the ropes. 

“Who is he?” inquired Leonard.

“Diarmuid Connolly – the most talented footballer in the country is who he is,” came the reply. “Unbelievable talent. Bit of a head case though…He has a few issues, but not as bad as you, Lenny.”

Leonard wrote in his autobiography: “Ski looked at me with a glint in his eye. You must be good if Ski is vouching for you, I thought to myself as I looked at the skinny little youngfella. 

“And you must have problems if they think you are like me.”

There were initial discipline issues to iron out and it took a couple of years before Connolly truly announced himself on the scene as a superstar of the game.

Bernard Brogan’s recently released book highlighted how Pat Gilroy helped mould him into the top class forward he became. Gilroy had a similar impact on Connolly, even if the clubmates clashed during the early days.

Gilroy sent Connolly home from a La Manga training camp in January 2009 for missing an early morning session. After their 2010 Leinster semi-final hammering to Meath, when Connolly failed to make an appearance, he left the panel.

“Me and Mr Gilroy had a bit of a falling out,” he recalled on the Hill 16 Army’s podcast a few years ago. “In hindsight, it [dropping off the squad] was probably the wrong thing to do.” 

He made just one league appearance in 2010, but returned “with a bit between my teeth” in 2011, showing the world his undoubted star quality as Dublin climbed the summit and delivered the Sam Maguire for the first time in 16 years. 

It was the first of the six transcendent seasons Connolly enjoyed for Dublin between 2011-16. During that spell he won four of his six All-Ireland medals, two All-Stars (2014 and 2016) and his scoring rates sky-rocketed. 

diarmuid-connolly-lifts-the-sam-maguire Connolly lifts the Sam Maguire for the sixth and final time as a player. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Of the 29-171 he posted for Dublin in league and championship, 26-135 of that tally arrived during those six years where he scaled heights few others could dream of. As things came together for Connolly, the Sky Blues started to dominate on the field.

With St Vincent’s, he guided them to five Dublin crowns, Leinster glory four times and All-Ireland twice. Perhaps his greatest day for the Marino outfit arrived on St Patrick’s Day in 2014, when he single-handily tore the Castlebar Mitchels defence to shreds.

If you were to design an ideal modern-day footballer, he’d be the prototype. Tall, strong, athletic, deceptively fast and beautifully balanced, Connolly could make the ball talk with either foot. On his best days in Croke Park, you could barely keep your eyes off him as he glided across the ground.

There are few players before or since as aesthetically pleasing on the eye. He was a proper baller in the mould of Maurice Fitzgerald or Ciaran McDonald, but didn’t mind doing the dirty work either. 

The funny thing is, with parents from Kilkenny and Clare, hurling was his main sport growing up. In the mid-to-late ’90s, the Connollys would often frequent Jones Road for the glory days of Ger Loughnane’s great Clare team – a side he loved to watch as a youngster. 

He played a bit of soccer too with Belvedere and Home Farm up until his late teens. No doubt if he’d have prioritised either code he would have thrived in them too. 

Before long, Gaelic football took hold. During an interview with The42 in 2016, he recalled his nerves when he first joined up with Dublin.

“When you’re a young lad coming into a dressing room with massive leaders like the Ciaran Whelans, Alan Brogans, Coman Goggins, Stephen Cluxtons, these guys. You’re trying to learn, that’s what you’re trying to do.

“You’re kind of a little bit overawed. It’s your first time training with a Dublin team. It’s your first time running out in Croke Park with 80,000. It’s a completely different experience I suppose.”

diarmuid-connolly-chases-sean-cavanagh Diarmuid Connolly chases Sean Cavanagh during his debut season for Dublin. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Connolly always scoffed at the notion that the game came easy to him and he was a God-given talent.

“Sometimes it might look easy to some people, but it’s hard work. If you see the training we put in, if you see the hours we put in in the gym and on the training fields.

“There’s no such thing as a natural athlete,” he stated.

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

As a top-level GAA star swimming in a fishbowl in his native city, he had his off-field battles – many of them self-inflicted. 

A little bit like Paul Galvin, once he got the reputation of being a hot-headed player, it was hard to shake off. His temperament meant opponents would relentlessly try to wind him up. Get Connolly sent off and it would significantly increase your chances of beating Dublin or St Vincent’s.

After the 2016 Leinster final, when James Dolan ruffled Connolly’s hair after winning a free and found himself put in a headlock and dragged to the ground, Westmeath boss Tom Cribbin admitted that his players were instructed to target him.

“We needed a whammy,” said Cribbin. “We have to be fair. We have to be honest. We were hoping to try and entice him. Sure that’s what most teams do.”

It wasn’t limited to inside the white lines. After he was sent-off for pushing Marty Boyle in the face and chest during the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final, Eamon McGee got a hold of his number and told him they’d back him up in if he appealed the dismissal before the final. 

Dublin did appeal and Connolly’s red was rescinded for the decider. But McGee held onto his number.

“Any time I was on a night out after that, I’d get a notion in my head to ring him and abuse him,” McGee wrote in his Irish Daily Star column in 2016. “He eventually stopped answering my calls, and then he unfollowed me on Twitter.”

In 2016, he shipped a red card after for attempting to strike Lee Keegan with his fist as they grappled on the ground in stoppage-time of the drawn All-Ireland final. Connolly’s appeal went all the way to the DRA before he was cleared on the morning of the replay. 

diarmuid-connolly-with-lee-keegan One of the many Connolly-Keegan battles. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

For all Connolly’s genius, he was often prone to eruption if the right buttons were pressed. Keegan knew how to press those buttons better than most. The pair squared off in five gladiatorial bouts during the height of the Mayo-Dublin rivalry between 2012 and 2016.

There were the ripped jerseys, cards of every colour, off-the-ball wresting, great goals, alleged media witchhunts and Twitter campaigns. 

In many ways it summed up the spiky rivalry between the counties. Their on-field relationship was incendiary, but Keegan held the Marino man in high regard off it. 

“I have nothing but respect for Diarmuid Connolly as a player,” he said.

“If you look at his record, it is one of the best out there. It’s complete competition, we are there to win.”

Connolly’s red card against Carlow in June 2017 turned out to be the beginning of the end for him in the Dublin jersey. He was set upon by three Carlow players on the sideline and as he appealed a decision pushed linesman Ciaran Brannigan in the chest, an infraction for which he received a 12-week ban.

Though he returned to help turn the tide in Dublin’s favour as a half-time sub during that year’s All-Ireland final, Connolly wouldn’t enjoy a sustained run in the Sky Blues team again.

He spent the summer of 2018 in Boston before a visa issue prevented him from returning Stateside in 2019. After a 17-month exile, came Jim Gavin’s surprise decision to recall Connolly into the Dublin panel for their five-in-a-row tilt.

In his book, Brogan admitted he was deeply frustrated when Connolly was selected ahead of him on the All-Ireland semi-final matchday panel despite having not been involved in training for most of the year.

Speaking after the 2019 final replay, selector Declan Darcy explained the thinking behind Connolly’s recall: “I think first and foremost it was really important for us, the care of Diarmuid.

“To bring him back into the group was the right thing to do Things weren’t going really well for him probably outside of football and I think he needed football, he needed structure and whatever about whether he was to function within our group or not. 

“He had soldiered long and hard for us and he deserved that right to come back in and I think it was a really good thing for him to do. No matter whether we won an All-Ireland, I still think it would have been the right thing to do because we were looking after one of our own and he needs to be in our family.”

diarmuid-connolly-in-the-team-huddle Connolly talks in the Dublin huddle before his return against Tyrone. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Connolly’s last act in the Dublin jersey came as a half-time replacement for the injured Jack McCaffrey in the replay victory over Kerry. 

A historic five-in-a-row was completed that afternoon at senior level for the first time in the GAA’s history to cement Connolly’s legacy.

Despite the various controversies that arose over the course of his career, he was a totemic figure in the most dominant team of all-time and go down as the most gifted footballer of his generation.

One thing is for sure, it was never boring with Diarmuid Connolly around. The bright lights of the championship will shine a little dimmer without him.

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