Tuesday 7 February 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# Return of the King
'If you call Diarmuid Connolly a maverick, I'd take that maverick every day of the week'
Unpacking the St Vincent’s star’s sensational return to the Dublin squad.

Dermooo Eoin Lúc Ó Ceallaigh Eoin Lúc Ó Ceallaigh

“THERE’S A LOT of talk about that going around and has been since. But I saw nothing at stake for myself and nothing at stake for him. Everybody was talking about a gamble you were taking. I could see no gamble with a player like that. I mean, he’d walk onto every team in the country and ours is no exception really.”

Those were the words of an All-Ireland winning manager on the surprising mid-summer return to the county panel of one of the most gifted players of a generation.

But 17 years before Jim Gavin nonchalantly announced Diarmuid Connolly’s shock comeback with Dublin, it was DJ Carey’s return to the Kilkenny squad that set tongues wagging across the country.

In the winter following Kilkenny’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway in 2001, Carey was involved in a car crash that left him nursing a serious neck injury. His recovery dragged on well into the following year and just as he was getting over that problem, a burst appendix caused Carey to effectively rule himself out of representing Kilkenny in the 2002 championship.

The Cats scraped past Wexford in that year’s Leinster final in a game where they failed to raise a green flag and a number of their forwards had underperformed. Brian Cody saw enough that afternoon and extended an olive branch to Carey, but warned him he would have to be as fit and hurling as well as everyone else if he was going to play.

The 31-year-old was back action with his club Young Irelands by that stage but there were serious question marks hanging over his return to the Kilkenny panel. After almost a year outside of the inter-county bubble, would he be able to rediscover his previous heights at the business end of the All-Ireland series?

“After the Leinster final, we weren’t great. The forwards weren’t great but we’d scraped through,” recalled Henry Shefflin in a 2003 documentary on Carey’s career.

“To hear a few days later that DJ was coming back was a major lift. It was a great morale boost for us all.”

DJ Carey DIGITAL INPHO DJ Carey during the parade before his comeback game with Kilkenny in the 2002 All-Ireland semi-final. INPHO

Cody added: “Nobody wanted to see this was the end of DJ Carey. The more often they can see DJ Carey playing, from a hurling point of view, I’d say the better for everybody.

“He wasn’t saying, ‘I’ll come back, just give me the ball and I’ll score it for you.’ He was saying to everybody with the way he was training, ‘I’ll come back and I’ll work like a savage to get the ball and I’ll give it to you and we’ll work together.’”

It proved to be a masterstroke by Cody. Carey was thrust into the starting line-up for the All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary, setting up Jimmy Coogan’s goal and scoring four points of his own. Kilkenny’s winning margin? Four points. His tally, allied to the lift it gave the Kilkenny supporters in Croke Park, was the difference between the old rivals that day.

DJ Carey 8/9/2002 DIGITAL INPHO DJ Carey celebrates scoring his goal in the 2002 All-Ireland final. INPHO

“They may come and go, but there will only ever be one DJ Carey and you can talk about all the greats you like,” remarked RTÉ co-commentator Cyrill Farrell during the game. “It’s been a pleasure to see the man in action again.”

By the time the final against Clare arrived, Carey was in full flight. It took him three minutes of the final to rattle the back of the Banner net. He’d finish with 1-6 to his name as Kilkenny lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup for the 27th time in their history.

It was Cody’s second All-Ireland title as manager and his decision to coax Carey back into the frame went down in history as one of his greatest moves. Remarkably, Carey was awarded an All-Star that winter, despite playing just two games for the Cats in the entire season.

DJ Carey and Brian Cody 8/9/2002 DIGITAL INPHO DJ Carey and Brian Cody celebrate the All-Ireland win. INPHO

Six years later, Mickey Harte confirmed the sensational return of Stephen O’Neill to the Tyrone squad three weeks before the All-Ireland final against three-in-a-row chasing Kerry.

Following two seasons blighted by injuries, O’Neill underwent knee surgery at the end of 2007. Complications arose during his rehab that prompted the talented forward to announce his inter-county retirement at the age of 27.

But as the showdown against the Kingdom approached and with Paul Galvin free to play following his three-month suspension, Harte felt he’d need a card up his sleeve. Keen to avoid causing discontent in the camp, he broached the issue with his players.

Before he put the decision to a squad vote, Harte ran it by Owen Mulligan. A two-time All-Ireland winner at that stage, Mulligan had lost his place on the team during the season. If he’d return, O’Neill would jump ahead of the Cookstown man in the pecking order.

Mulligan recalls: “It was Harte who came to me first and said, ‘We’re going to bring this man back, what do you think of it?  It’s not only for this year, it’s for the next four or five years.’

“I said, fair enough – go for it,” says Mulligan.

“I remember phoning Raymond Mulgrew – a club mate of mine. I said what number are you? He said, ‘I’m 23′ and I said, ‘Well you’re 24 now!’” he laughs.

Tom O'Sullivan and Owen Mulligan James Crombie / INPHO Tom O'Sullivan and Owen Mulligan tussle during the 2008 All-Ireland final. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The squad didn’t vote unanimously in favour of O’Neill’s return, but with a Celtic Cross on the line they knew what the former Footballer of the Year could add. 

“Don’t get me wrong, there were players that voted against it,” admits Mulligan. “But the majority voted for it. I wasn’t getting on (the team) but I voted for Stevie O’Neill to go in there because he’s an exceptional player.

I played with him all my life and I knew he was a game-changer and he’d win games on his own. So I would have gone down to 23, but Tyrone had a chance to win an All-Ireland.

“You have to weigh up the pros and cons. I got on that day, but the boys that didn’t – at the end of the day, would you rather have two All-Irelands or three? That’s what I thought. It’s three All-Irelands instead of two. That’s the way you have to think about it.

“So that was the craic, but at the end of the day he came on, he didn’t have the best of games, I don’t know – the rumour is that he didn’t take the All-Ireland medal. But at the end of the day, Stevie O’Neill, you know what he’s like.

“He got Player of the Year two years before that. He should never have dropped out. I think it was for personal reasons.”

Mickey Harte gets ready to bring on Stephen O'Neill Cathal Noonan / INPHO Mickey Harte gets ready to bring on Stephen O'Neill in the 2008 All-Ireland final. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

O’Neill arrived onto the field just 25 minutes into the final as a replacement for the injured Colm McCullagh. He failed to score but drew a yellow card off Aidan O’Mahony shortly after his introduction and was heavily involved for Tommy McGuigan’s goal that helped the Red Hand to a 1-15 to 0-14 victory. 

The winners write the history books and Harte’s call ultimately proved to be the right one. O’Neill would go on to line out for Tyrone until his second retirement in 2014.

11 years after O’Neill, Connolly has become the latest star man to be recalled late in the day for an All-Ireland bid. The move sent shockwaves reverberating around Ireland when Gavin divulged it last Sunday on Dubs TV.

It’s a fascinating move but the timing is strange, to say the least. Two weeks earlier, Connolly had packed his bags and headed for Dublin Airport ahead of an expected summer in Boston.

When he was denied entry to the States due to an apparent issue with his ESTA visa, the 32-year-old faced the unenviable prospect of spending the summer kicking his heels around Dublin with the Drive for Five hype set to hit fever-pitch.

His missing out on the trip to Boston became a huge news story and it was hardly the easiest thing for Connolly to deal with.

Diarmuid Connolly Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Diarmuid Connolly in action for St Vincent's during the 2019 Dublin SFC. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“It got some coverage,” agrees his former team-mate Paul Flynn.

“He was going to the States as we all know. There was a good few lads, from what I heard, that their ESTAs or their visas, or whatever didn’t allow them in. (President) Trump must be putting his foot down in regards to that.

“But for him not to go to the States and a couple of days later to come back into the (squad), it was a surprise to everybody. Apart from obviously himself and whoever was involved in it.”

Everyone has an opinion on his return. Some believe that Gavin felt sorry for the forward after the very public news of his ill-fated summer in the States. Colm Cooper, among others, reckon there’s a good chance he won’t see a minute of action in this year’s championship.

Maybe Gavin senses Dublin need to pack a better punch off the bench, with Bernard Brogan, Paddy Andrews and Eoghan O’Gara seemingly out of favour and Cormac Costello failing to impress in his last two games.

Or perhaps he’s using it as a smokescreen to deflect from the five-in-a-row talk that will only become louder over the coming weeks. 

“I don’t know the answer to that,” says Flynn when he’s asked about Gavin’s motives.

Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly celebrate Ryan Byrne / INPHO Paul Flynn and Owen Mulligan were speaking at the NOW TV Super 8’s preview event.. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“One thing I know for certain, when you’re out of the squad, you’re out of the loop. So I’m only guessing the same things myself. I’m intrigued to see how it all plays out, but I don’t know.

I played against Diarmo recently in a club game, but he was just in third gear, he was just like so fit, so strong, he’s on. I don’t know, I just think he can play. I know how good he is.”

Flynn knows Connolly better than most, having soldiered alongside him on the same half-forward line for years. The pair shared a light-hearted moment after they beat Mayo in the 2017 All-Ireland final.

The TV cameras caught Connolly mouthing ‘four’ to Flynn as he ruffled his team-mate’s hair. The Fingallians ace was quick to remind Connolly that he now had in fact five All-Ireland medals in his collection.

“He’s a great teammate,” continues Flynn. “He’s been a great teammate of mine for years now. We would have had a really strong relationship on the pitch as much as off it. He played 12 and I played 10 for years. Or I played 10, he played 11.

“So we were always working with one another on the pitch. Great memories of playing and going to war with Diarmo. I’ve a really strong relationship with him on the pitch, but off the pitch as well, I’d often play golf with him and we’d be really tight.

He is remarkably good at golf. He drives the ball 350 yards, and that’s not even an exaggeration. I remember playing with him in one of his first-ever games of golf, out in Hollystown.

“We used to go out on a Monday. He wasn’t good, but I remember looking at his swing and going, ‘He’s going to be good’, which annoyed me,” he smiles. “Now he is very good.”

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Flynn doesn’t believe Connolly’s return will cause any disharmony in the squad, pointing to Rory O’Carroll’s comeback following the league after a three-year hiatus as an example.

“I think in fairness, the squad have always been very strong-willed in terms to people coming and going. You could arguably have said the same about Rory who came in.

“But the collective will on the squad has always been strong, and if people felt if whoever coming in was going to add to the overall group, then they were always open-minded to it.

“I’m sure deep down there were some guys who were asking themselves questions, but you’d never let that show in their emotions or their actions.”

Diarmuid Connolly Gary Carr / INPHO Connolly after featuring off the bench against Tyrone in the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final. Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

To come back into the Dublin set-up after such a lengthy spell of the inter-county game is a tall order, but if anyone is able to get back up to the pitch of things quickly it’s Connolly.

A true superstar of the game, his undoubted talent has been overshadowed by rumours and gossip during his 17-month absence. Connolly’s rise to stardom may have been a great buzz at first, but his career arrived under the spotlight of the social media era, where every controversy became magnified.

He’s had his difficulties and made his mistakes off the field, which have been well-documented at this stage, but Gaelic football was certainly quieter without him.

It’s hard to imagine he would make a commitment to return to the panel without some sort of assurance from Gavin that he’ll get game-time if he’s performing to the required level in training.

“It’s a massive ask,” says Mulligan. “I know he has the physique and build. It’s a massive ask for a player to come in and play championship football straight away.

There’s people saying, he mightn’t get on – he’s brought in for a reason. The players had to agree to this. Jim Gavin wouldn’t have just brought him in on his own accord. It has to be a player decision.

“He’s 32. It’s a no brainer. If you can get that man pulling in the same direction, he’s some asset to any county. He’s a class act. I don’t know if he will get on but at the end of the day he’s a game-changer. It’s a big ask after 18 months to play county football but he’s a machine so we don’t know.

“Now, he mightn’t get on in this championship, but he’ll be there for next year hopefully. 

“O’Neill and Connolly are two similar players – they can win you a game, they’re game-changers. So I would have voted for Stevie. I’m sure the Dublin players, some of them wouldn’t have voted. There were big names that didn’t vote for Stevie. That’s always going to remain in-house.”

Diarmuid Connolly Ryan Byrne / INPHO Connolly takes flight against Mayo in the 2016 All-Ireland final replay, Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

One thing is for sure: Gavin made an exception for an exceptional player, just like Cody did with Carey in 2002 and Harte did with O’Neill in 2008. 

Even the strictest of managers will make room for a maverick if he’s talented enough. 

“There’s always different personalities and different clashes,” Mulligan continues.

“I think you have to have the messers, and the sensible ones, the older boys who will keep you right. Myself, I was lucky to have Chris Lawn and (Peter) Canavan and boys like that.

If you’re a game-changer and a match-winner, we had some talent in our squad, but at the end of the day, if you call Connolly a maverick, I’d take that maverick every day of the week.

“That’s the sort of footballer he’s like. When I heard he was coming back, I was saying, ‘Shit’. He just made Tyrone’s chances harder. But you can’t wait to see that man on the field, even if it is for next year. That’s why you pay for the ticket to go to Croke Park.”

Not all of the adjustments Connolly will have to make are physical. He’ll have to fit back into the Dublin ruthlessly efficient system, where the good of the team is placed above all else.

Diarmuid Connolly celebrates after the game Ryan Byrne / INPHO Connolly salutes Hill 16. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“If I was to come into a panel at that point of the year, I would definitely not play,” Flynn admits.

“But Diarmo is just different. He’s such a talent. I just think he will get game time. I think it would be very hard not to play him if he’s fit and he’s showing well in training.”

He may not return as the same player he was when he bent the All-Ireland final to his will two years ago.

But he is back – not better than ever, maybe not even as good as ever – just back, and for now, that’s enough.

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