Diarmuid Connolly tells Roy Curtis about criticism, hard work and turning 30
"If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don't bother analysing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he's a good man." – Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Diarmuid Connolly enters the room – a corporate suite in the concrete and glass bluff that looms above the coliseum where he is artist-in-residence – with the effortlessly transformative force of a midday sunbeam.
The fluid dazzle of Dublin’s Gulfstream jet instantly illuminates the aerie, alters the temperature.
There are 41 people in this Croke Park penthouse and, immediately, discernibly, as one, they morph into his audience. The Marino Brando is here, a muscled matinee idol, a hypnotic parcel of charisma.
Conversations stop, as if the sheer force of Connolly’s personality has weighed down on some mute button. Eyes are flicked to HD-mode, eager iron-filings magnetically drawn to the GAA’s brightest, most recognisable deity.
Is there another footballer or hurler who, by the very ordinary act of walking through a door, could metamorphose the mood music in such an extraordinary way?
The atmosphere is charged, reminiscent of the forbidding gale that announces Roy Keane gusting into your orbit.
It is that strange, intoxicating frisson of anticipation and danger that comes with walking the rim of Mount Etna in the very hour the geologists have warned of an imminent eruption of flaming magma.
On the field – the only place we know him – Connolly is a contradictory symphony of brilliance and volatility, a high-voltage genius, whose mood can gyrate like a rodeo rider.
His is the greatest vein of pure talent Dublin has ever known.
Operating on an entirely different rung of class, Connolly can hold an arena in a clamp of delirium, a fountainhead of panache towering over the summer landscape.
Armed with supernatural vision, a rope-dancer’s poise, he is among that tiny elite for whom the game – on the good days – seems less a challenge than a celebration.
Connolly is capable of deeds that are beyond any other performer on the Croke Park stage.
Yet his critics see a Shakespearean hero doomed by a fatal flaw.
They point to the hair-trigger morph from football god to walking accident zone: the flurry of red and black cards which disfigure the landscape of his accomplishments.
He is a Liverpool supporter (“the only time I read about sport”) but there is a touch of Manchester United’s Eric Cantona to his career: Gorgeous artistry, poetic lyricism cohabiting with the shortest of fuses.
Darragh O’Se mischievously encouraged opponents to “pull his tail and see if he will hiss back at you.”
Even John O’Leary, no green-eyed rival, but an All-Ireland winning Dublin captain, believes the younger man’s capricious temper is a roadblock on the road to immortality.
And so, the audience in Box 686 watches him enter their airspace, wondering if he might spit dragon-fire.
Connolly has dressed his veined biceps in a crisp white tee-shirt beneath a collarless blue button-down shirt. Skinny black jeans and white trainers complete his uniform.
His face reads like a postcard of his movements: The bronzed jawline, evidence of a recent golf trip to the Algarve. The sheen from his clear eyes and dark hair evidence of an elite thoroughbred oozing athletic wellbeing.
Those expecting some broody inhabitant of a film noir world will leave the room disappointed.
Connolly doesn’t curl his lip into an anti-hero snarl. He is warm, engaged, considered, intelligent, humorous, makes eye-contact when answering, his left-hand an expressive baton conducting the orchestra of his thoughts.
And he passes the Dostoevsky test.
His laugh – neither a nervous tic nor a vacuous affectation – bubbles up from a spring of authentic cordiality.
Connolly does three sets of interviews before his only one-on-one conversation, with this correspondent. In a short 15 minute chat, he laughs freely nine times.
We talk about Lahinch (his mother’s home place) and the source for the gorgeous Atlantic vista on his Twitter profile.
It is a peaceful, solitary, picture, hinting at a desire for escape, a metaphor maybe for a world away from the suffocating controversies that pursue him as zealously as his old foe, Lee Keegan.
“Yeah, you know there’s times I wouldn’t mind being invisible. Well sometimes.
“Look we were down on the pitch there a while ago and kids asked for a picture and that was great. I would never ever refuse to pose for picture with a kid. It’s an honour, really.
“But some people might lack savvy. You might be out with your girlfriend or your family or friends and they won’t leave you alone. It is only a minority, most people are really decent and respectful, but it can be very intrusive.”
Earlier he had challenged any notion that he is a graduate of the school of dark arts, a cynical force.
He was black carded in his last two league games (once, in error) and has been red-carded in the last two summers. He is relentlessly provoked, targeted, greeted by opponents with their most goading trash talk.
And he admits – with a hint of regret – that “a rush of blood” sometimes persuades him to respond.
His manager Jim Gavin suggests Connolly is judged differently by referees, commentators and All Star selectors (entering his 11th summer as Dublin’s keystone he has just two awards).
Gavin – famous for his stoicism – was furious when his marquee forward was overlooked for the 2013 All Stars.
Connolly declines the invite to self-pity: “I can’t think like that. I just can’t. I can’t let All Stars, Footballer of the Year awards motivate me.
“My Mam would be the kind that reads (the criticism). And she might worry about it. She might say something to me and I’d say ‘Mam you are not doing me any favours here.’
“Look if I retired today I’d be pretty happy with my lot (six All-Irelands and 14 Leinsters between club and county), but I’d like to think there’s more out there.
“I’m already being written off, I’m 30 this summer. You want to get the best out of yourself, try to be the best player you can be.”
At his best – the All-Ireland club final of 2014, against Tyrone in 2011, Kerry in 2013, recent days of enchantment – he brings a unique authority to the battlefield.
Those raking outside-of-the-boot passes that land on a dime, an understanding of angles that would baffle Pythagoras. He is a Supreme Court justice issuing a final ruling.
And yet, he acknowledges, he can sometimes drift to the margins of a contest.
I read him a quote about Steph Curry, the outrageously gifted NBA star: “One downside to Steph is that he sometimes loses focus, because everything is so easy for him.”
Connolly nods in agreement: “Yeah I find that as well.
“Alan Brogan said to me a couple of years ago you do the hard stuff really well because it comes easy, but the easy stuff is really hard to you.
“I thought back on it and I thought ‘what does he mean by that’.
“But then I looked at my performances. And the games where we are 20 points up, they are not the times when I seem to have my best games.
“It is something I have worked on.”
One thing that infuriates him is the notion that he takes his gifts for granted, that he reclines on a hammock between games while others are toiling furiously to improve.
“I could kick the ball over the bar with my left or right foot probably from the time I was 12 years of age where most lads, maybe, couldn’t.
“But I have honed that. I have kicked thousands and thousands of balls over the bar with both feet.
“Steven Gerrard talks about talent being nothing without hard work. So many guys I’ve seen who worked really hard got places you would never expect.
“Of course it is an advantage to have natural talent, but the hard work is key. You won’t go far without it.”
The day he felt it all click like no other was in the All-Ireland club final three years ago, a contest he transformed into a colourful Mardi Gras, a showcase for his outrageous repertoire of superior aesthetics. It felt, for all the world, like an out-of-body experience.
“I don’t know if it is what you are born to do. But a lot of sports people say, you get into that flow state, when time stands still, time stops.
“That day, the time went really, really quickly yet while you had the ball it went really slowly, like slow motion. It was weird, really weird feeling.”
He plays the recording in his mind, is briefly lost in the moment, shakes his head at the madness of it all, then lets out a laugh, long and hearty, a window to his soul.
And somewhere in the heavens, Dostoevsky arrived at a verdict, and delivered his emphatic seal of approval.