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‘One of the greatest privileges of my life was training with Matt Connor’

40 years ago this summer the Offaly legend gave one of the greatest individual displays ever witnessed in Croke Park.

Genius WeekThis article is a part of Genius Week, a series of features reflecting on sporting genius in its many different forms.

Below, Kevin O'Brien takes a closer look at the artistry of one of the greatest Gaelic footballers of all-time - Offaly's Matt Connor.

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matt-connor-offaly-1761984 Offaly legend Matt Connor in 1984. Source: © INPHO/Billy Stickland

THERE'S A SCENE at the end of the 1980 Leinster final that captured the essence of Matt Connor. 

Offaly had just ended Dublin's six-year reign in the province, winning by 1-10 to 1-8 in Croke Park. It completed a remarkable football and hurling Leinster double for the county, and also avenged the two-point loss they suffered at the hands of Kevin Heffernan's side 12 months earlier.

Connor, only in his second season on the Faithful's senior panel, scored 1-7 (1-4 from play) of Offaly's total that afternoon. Eugene McGee's carefully nurtured side were knocking on the door in previous years, but there was something about the way Connor took an experienced Dublin outfit apart that instilled genuine belief their time had come.

He was only 20 but was already being talked about as one of the greats of the game.

When the final whistle went, the RTÉ cameras were fixed on Connor who had just won his first provincial medal. Overjoyed midfielder Gerry Carroll jumped on his back to celebrate, but the Walsh Island man looked almost embarrassed.

He shook off Carroll and offered an outstretched hand to Fran Ryder, the Dublin centre-back who was standing beside them.

Screenshot 2020-06-03 at 11.55.27 a.m. Source: GAA.ie

It summed up the modesty of Connor, who had every right to jump around and bask in the glory of Offaly's achievement, particularly after such a fine personal outing. 

Speak to any of his former team-mates or opponents about Connor and before long they'll mention how humble he was and remains to this day. There were no airs or graces about the player many put down as the greatest Gaelic footballer of all-time.

"He was so unassuming and humble," former Offaly team-mate Sean Lowry tells The42. "I never saw him injured, I never saw him giving out or losing the head. He just got on with the business and he was a super, super talent.

"I suppose maybe that's the family thing. You can't get egos in big families or they wouldn't be long taking you down out of it. He was just that kind of a guy.

"The hardship he used to get in matches and everyone trying to mark him. But Matt was a big fella, he was 6'2 and he wasn't small. People don't remember that either. But he was so powerful and such a two-footed player. He just could do anything."

When McGee would introduce new players to the panel, he'd often single out Connor for criticism at training.

"I never liked it," Connor remarked in Michael Foley's book Kings of September. "I always thought he picked on me. Maybe he was trying to make a point about no-one being bigger than the team. I never thought I was bigger than anyone, but I wasn't going to answer back anyway."

It served a purpose. If McGee was willing to regularly single out Offaly's most gifted player and he refused to bite back, other panellists could hardly complain about harsh words being directed at them.

"He was a gentleman on and off the field," says Kerry legend Pat Spillane. "He was a complete sportsman."

His career ended when he was just 25 after a horrific car crash just outside Tullamore on Christmas Day in 1984 that left him paralysed from the waist down. Connor's list of achievements in the game remain scarcely believable for a player who was struck down before his prime. 

CWW_UlgXAAAdcgs Source: Matt Connor tribute game programme

For five seasons between '80 and '84 he was the top scorer nationally across all competitions. He finished top of the championships scoring charts from '80 to '82. In 161 senior games for Offaly he scored 82-660 and was held scoreless on just four occasions. 

Lowry doesn't recall a huge amount of hype following Connor as he rose through the underage ranks in the county, but once he joined the senior set-up his talent was undeniable.

"I'm not so sure whether he was coming through as the great white hope that he did become," he says.

"You could see his talent a mile away. One of the greatest privileges of my life was actually training with Matt Connor. Because, you know yourself, in training you do things that you probably wouldn't chance in a championship match or whatever.

"Matt was no different. The things he used to do in training!"

He was extremely reliable from placed balls. "As good a free-taker as I’ve seen," Micheal Ó Muircheartaigh said on the late Weeshie Fogarty's Terrace Talk programme in 2001.

But there was far more to Connor than his ability to score.

"He was a genius," wrote Seamus Darby in his autobiography. "We won’t ever see a better forward than Matt. Everyone loved him, even fans of opposing teams. He rose above county boundaries because of the class he brought to the game.

"For a big, strong man, he had the grace and balance of a ballerina."

Connor 5

(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

Much of his aesthetic appeal was rooted in his capacity to make his art look effortless. It's a trait all great athletes share.

He was a gorgeous player to watch in full flight, beautifully balanced and equally adept on either foot. He had a long and lean frame, was a fine fielder of the ball and possessed great pace, while he also had the core strength to hold off defenders in an era when forwards weren't anywhere near as protected as they are now.

Screenshot 2020-06-03 at 11.06.20 a.m. Connor plays on as he's fouled against Kerry in 1980.

There were two subtle talents that separated Connor from the other great forwards of his era. The first was the remarkable power he generated in his shots.

Connor and Offaly goalkeeper Martin Furlong often had legendary battles on the training field.

"Martin Furlong would say the only thing he was ever afraid of was Matt Connor from 14 yards," laughs Lowry. "Because he used to hit the ball so hard and Martin would be in the goals in training.

"Matt could maybe hit 20 shots on him and he'd cut the hands and arms off you. That's what Martin Furlong always said, it was the only thing he was ever afraid of." 

Perhaps his greatest asset was his ability to dance past defenders.

With a simple shake of the hips, Connor would leave the tightest man-markers in his wake to the delight of the Offaly support. His two-footedness and vision made it impossible for defenders to predict what side he'd turn onto.

He'd spin, twist and turn like a ballet dancer gliding across the stage, contorting his body in a manner that left a path of destruction in his trail.

Connor 3

(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

"He'd be well suited to the modern game with his skill but even Matt himself would say he can't believe the room they get now compared to our time," says Lowry.

"You were tightly marked and Matt probably had two fellas on him or shadowing him so he didn't get any room. And he thinks now there's a lot of room there. A lot more room.

"He'd definitely (thrive), sure he had the skill, he was a two-footed player so he always had the advantage. He had the balance, size and pace, there's nothing else you needed really. And then he was lethal in the finishing stakes. When it came to that final one. I was on the receiving end of Matt a good few times in club football. 

"Okay, playing with him is brilliant but playing against him is a nightmare. Because all he wanted was just to flash and that's it. We were playing Walsh Island one day with Ferbane and I think we were going fairly well.

"Then in one minute flat, we were gone. He finished us off with a marvellous goal and that finished us. We lost momentum as he just got a goal out of nothing." 

He claimed three Leinster titles, an All-Ireland, a hat-trick of All-Stars and six Offaly SFC medals, but Connor always said it wasn't the medals or glory he enjoyed most about the game, rather excelling himself as a footballer.

matt-connor-and-paudie-lynch-1981 Matt Connor shoots under severe pressure from Paudie Lynch in the 1981 All-Ireland final. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Three weeks after that Dublin game 40 years ago, Offaly faced Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. That was the day he truly made the GAA world sit up and take notice.

The kid from Walsh Island gave an almost mystical display against Mick O'Dwyer's all-conquering Kerry side. He scored 2-9 of Offaly's 4-10, with Carroll (2-1) the only other Faithful player to trouble the scoreboard as they ran out of steam by the end. 

That remarkable individual showing brought Connor to 22-135 from 29 games in 1980, making him the first footballer or hurler to reach 200 points in a calendar year.

Kerry prevailed by five points and beat Roscommon in the final to complete the three-in-a-row, but many Offaly players cited that performance as the foundation for their All-Ireland victory two years later. 

He touched the ball just 12 times in the game yet 2-3 of Connor's tally came from play, including a brace of thunderous finishes past Charlie Nelligan. 

Connor 1.1

(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

Sitting in a subdued Kerry dressing room after the game Ger O'Keeffe described him as a "wizard", while reporter Donal O'Carroll wrote in the following morning's Irish Independent that Connor gave "a tremendous exhibition of gutsy attacking play".

Connor 2

(Click here if you can’t view the clip above)

Pat Spillane scored 2-2 that day but his abiding memory is of the torrid time Connor handed out to his brother. 

"He was a natural, he had lovely balance and was a great finisher," says Spillane.

"Lovely free-taker too. He was just a lovely player. It was my brother Mike he gave the roasting to in the semi-final. 

"He was one of the greats and that was it. His exhibition in the All-Ireland semi-final against us in 1980 where he scored 2-9, was one of the finest individual displays by anyone ever in Croke Park.

"It was just unbelievable, he was unstoppable. Class act. In terms of forwards, he's in my top five forwards of all time."

Connor's enforced retirement after the '84 season was a tragic blow for Offaly and Lowry still recalls paying a visit to his parents in the immediate aftermath.

"It was a tough time for everyone. I was in Mayo at the time and we came down and I called out to them (his parents). Ah they were heartbroken.

"Country people, lovely salt of the earth people. I knew them anyway. Everyone was heartbroken for him. I don't know what to say really. His parents were just the finest people and you couldn't meet better.

"I actually enjoyed the chat with them that day. We had a cup of tea. I was just heartbroken for them.

"He was probably coming to his peak. It knocked the stuffing out of Offaly, I suppose. It definitely did."

Spillane adds, "His footballing career was taken at his prime. What he did show afterwards in his job (as a Garda in Tullamore for 40 years), his performances after were probably greater than his performances on the field because he showed resilience.

"He was just great. Life went on and the resilience he showed on the field, he showed off the field too since the crash." 

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Kevin O'Brien

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