Roy Curtis: How Diarmuid Connolly is fulfilling his potential as a player and a leader
FROM the beginning, Diarmuid Connolly offered tantalising glimpses of a very special talent.
At his best – the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final against Tyrone, the 2014 All-Ireland club final – the Dublin forward could leave his audience perilously close to rapture.
On those days he transformed the contest into an excruciating ordeal of powerlessness for his opponents and became a majestic and irrefutable Exhibit A for those who believe in the primacy of supreme ability. He was the harbour light illuminating the bay.
The Marino Waltz came so ridiculously easy to this elegant, two-footed powerhouse that it was as if he moved to a wind of music; effortlessly dominant, it seemed he could conquer the world without climbing from his hammock.
But if his were deeds that could shake an opponent to the core, there was a flip side to the wonder: Inconsistency, a pattern of responding to provocation, a sense that his genius could be too easily short-circuited by some electrical fault in his wiring.
The sense of a transcendent talent selling itself short, one who had only to realise that his ability could secure the title deeds to the Croke Park penthouse any day he wished, was laid out after that 2014 club master-class that broke Castlebar Mitchels.
On that St Paddy’s Day he not only scored what the old Dublin wizard Anton O’Toole deemed the most preposterously brilliant goal he had ever seen, for 70 minutes he waltzed with the gods, attaining a level just about as close as possible to perfection.
He was shooting 180 blindfolded every time he came to the oche, making 147 breaks with a broom-handle every frame, painting glorious Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos armed only with a tin of tomato soup and a sweeping brush.
Yet even as he gaped at the master at work, his St Vincents and Dublin team-mate Ger Brennan challenged Connolly to make that magic a template for all his days. “He is a super talent,” agreed Brennan, before adding the rider, “does he do it as often as he could? Well, that’s kind of for him to work out.”
There is a mountain of evidence since that Connolly has solved the riddle, added a new head to that natural-born brilliance. Over the past two seasons, that old vulnerability, the one that could see him morph from football deity to walking disaster zone, has disappeared.
Now 27, Connolly has matured into a towering exemplar, accepted responsibility, assumed leadership of the Dublin team, become Jim Gavin’s go-to guy.
He has become a player enlarged by pressure, a big-game reliable: Think of the buzzer-beating point from the heavens in a must-win league game in Omagh last spring, the endless YouTube highlight reel of transcendent interventions, his one-man resistance even as his team went down in flames against Donegal last summer.
And his quarter-back play from centre-forward this spring was like Tom Brady in midfield, picking his opponents apart with unrivalled vision.
He is fulfilling a destiny that has been his since the cradle.
Advocates of Michael Murphy or Colm Cooper might resist, but a compelling case can be made that, right here, right now, Connolly is the very best footballer in Ireland.
Listen to the effusive snapshots from those who have watched him grow.
Pillar Caffrey, the manager who handed him his inter-county stripes in 2007, felt the player moved into new territory when he demanded responsibility in Tyrone 15 months ago, a wonder saving score hewn from a new resolve and self-belief.
“Diarmuid, in my eyes, was always a genius on the ball. I don’t think since I’ve been involved with Dublin there has been another player like him for ability.
"There’s not two other players in Ireland who would have been capable of getting that score against Tyrone. And that’s just the genius of a man who knows how good he is and when the moment came, he stood up.”
Tommy Conroy, whose fluidly creative centre-forward play for club and county was like a 1980s forerunner of Connolly, coached St Vincents on their recent expeditions.
“Diarmuid’s a very genuine guy to be around. His temperament has improved, yeah, there’s no doubt about that. People try to target him and it’s a compliment to him. He takes it as, ‘Right if you try to target me, that’s fine, we’ll get on and try to play football’.
“Diarmuid has been immense, not alone on the pitch, but in the dressing room around the younger guys.”
Perhaps his high-profile court case — he pleaded guilty to a nightclub assault charge in what was a mortifying period — was a turning point, he subsequently embarked on an anger-management course and threw himself into voluntary coaching.
Maybe a shy young man simply needed time to grow. What is certain is that the Con Air DC11 has found a flight-path free of turbulence.
In the latter stages of the league — one sub-par display against Monaghan excepted — he made the entire machine run smoothly. High summer may lay traps, but right now Connolly is a disciple of Zen, locking himself into the contest in a way that shuts out the rest of the world.
There is no reaching for the fire alarm at the first sign of smoke. He always seems to find time. Two raking outside-of-the-boot passes in the league final indicate his import in Dublin’s pace and space strategy.
A profile of the recently-crowned NBA MVP, Golden State’s author of the outrageous Steph Curry, might have been written for Connolly.
“Defences are trained to guard against smart play. Sometimes the best way to overcome that attention is to do what an opponent would never expect.”
The conclusion was that the best in the business court risk in a way that would prove destructive for the lesser player. Separation comes in the way a star’s skill shifts the odds in his favour.
They are lurching so dramatically in Connolly’s favour that it is as if the smart money says that the entirety of summer could soon be his.