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battle for sam Con O'Callaghan versus David Clifford can be the duel in the crown of our Championship summer


Dublin's Con O'Callaghan takes a shot at goal despite the efforts of Jason Foley of Kerry

Dublin's Con O'Callaghan takes a shot at goal despite the efforts of Jason Foley of Kerry

Dublin's Con O'Callaghan takes a shot at goal despite the efforts of Jason Foley of Kerry

CON O’Callaghan, should he ever consider detailing his sporting life less ordinary in book form, might legitimately hire a descendent of Bram Stoker as his ghost writer.

O’Callaghan brings the natural-born instincts of a Transylvanian vampire to the football field.

Dublin’s master predator is first among even the very best of his peers on Irish playing fields in his fearless, pitiless, and unwavering focus on the opposition’s jugular vein.

As he drew Kerry blood on Sunday – cold-eyed in scoring two goals, brilliantly winning a penalty that led to a third, while also hitting the post in a ferocious onslaught of attacking menace – his searing certainty electrified Semple Stadium.

O’Callaghan’s most basic instinct the moment a target presents itself in his crosshairs is to fire the killshot.


Con O'Callaghan of Dublin palms the ball against the post

Con O'Callaghan of Dublin palms the ball against the post

Con O'Callaghan of Dublin palms the ball against the post

His high-summer credentials announce him as one of those special performers whose execution rises to meet the tumult of the biggest days.

Since 2017, he has thrived under the brightest lights, scoring six goals in All-Ireland semi-finals and finals.

The devastation he has wreaked in those marquee contests is illustrated in a total return of 6-15 in four years of relentless high achievement on the two biggest days on the football calendar.

Unplayable last Sunday, he seemed not only to invade Kerry territory but also to colonise their mind. It is a state of confusion with which many frazzled Mayo and Tyrone defenders are wearily familiar.

O’Callaghan, direct, untroubled by doubt, comet-like, a panzer tank with a velvet touch, creates an agony of doubt in his prey as he closes in with that carnivore-glint in his eyes.

With polar ice in his veins, the Cuala forward’s temperament appears refrigerated and immune to the surrounding frenzy: Panic is a debilitating emotion to which he has, apparently, never been introduced.

Remember his goals in the 2017 All-Ireland final and semi-final, a just turned 21-year-old championship freshman, effortlessly seizing the title deeds to the summer Mardi Gras, announcing himself as a talent for the ages?

Mickey Harte’s reaction to Con’s early semi-final thunderbolt, the one that effectively did for Tyrone, seemed to come from another, greyer world, one where imagination and daring should always remain subservient to rigid team structure.

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Remarkably, Harte, focused on how O’Callaghan, a centre-forward, had found space by not tracking the Tyrone centre-back, as if, one of the great Croke Park goals had somehow been born out of a dereliction of duty.

“Now, he got it in a way I wouldn’t like – by not being an honest broker and going after the man he should have done,” reflected Harte some months after the event.

A more profound philosophical truth was that O’Callaghan’s firefly capacity to light up the afternoon with a blinding flash of individual brilliance had arrived as a life-affirming vaccine against the then stifling culture of conservative, defence-obsessed game plans.

Heavyweight rivalries contain the power to carry any sport into another dimension.

Messi/Ronaldo, Federer/Nadal/, Sexton/O’Gara, Senna/Prost, Alex Higgins/Steve Davis, Magic Jonson/Larry Bird, Nicklaus/Watson, Kauto Star/Denman are among a small sample tray of intense duels that made for unmissable days of gripping theatre.


Interim Dublin manager Mick Galvin congratulates Con O'Callaghan

Interim Dublin manager Mick Galvin congratulates Con O'Callaghan

Interim Dublin manager Mick Galvin congratulates Con O'Callaghan

Prize fighting, from Ali/Frazier to Leonard/Hagler to Joshua/Fury has always been constructed on the foundations of personal animus and conflicting personality.

So maybe the most thrilling takeaway from Sunday’s epic early season duel between football’s aristocratic houses was the prospect of a late summer rematch between O'Callaghan and Kerry’s own pyrotechnic wonder, David Clifford.

How compelling would it be to look on as their billboard duels brighten to a dimension where, year after year, it lights up Croke Park like Times Square.

A rivalry within the Dublin/Kerry rivalry, one that can bleed new colour into the championship summer.

If O’Callaghan took little time to tattoo his intent onto the skin of Sunday’s contest, it was Clifford’s slow-burning elegance which fuelled a Kerry comeback that felt like a timely and important repudiation of the notion that football is set to remain a one-party Sky Blue state.

Kerry simply could not afford the hiding they were sleepwalking towards as Dublin seized an early grip.

Clifford released them from such fears.

True, Kerry looked a study in chaos when the six-in-a-row champions surged at their fortifications; but, equally, their own impressively coherent counter-thrusts exposed vulnerabilities in Fortress Dublin.

At the heart of it all, landscaping the afternoon with shoots of brilliance, were O’Callaghan and Clifford.


David Clifford of Kerry in action against Dublin's Michael Fitzsimons

David Clifford of Kerry in action against Dublin's Michael Fitzsimons

David Clifford of Kerry in action against Dublin's Michael Fitzsimons

Erupting for a combined 3-7, dappling the canvass with vivid brushstrokes, the GAA’s two brightest young jewels brought a championship shimmer to Thurles.

Each time O’Callaghan stepped into the spotlight, a soundtrack of chest-thumping green and gold palpitations was audible.

Con was a Dalkey tsunami threatening to engulf the Kingdom. But then, his back story teems with those days when he conjures wave after wave of unstoppable menace.

Just turned 25, he could fill an aircraft hangar with his plunder: Some 11 national titles (five senior and one U-21 football All-Ireland, two club hurling All-Irelands, two NFLs and a Sigerson Cup) are among 25 major team prizes.

On a personal level, he is a three-time Allstar, an All-Ireland final Man of the Match and a former Young Footballer of the Year. All of this and he is 15 years younger than the eternal Cluxton.

Clifford, who had two Allstars banked prior to his 21st birthday, has been Kerry’s anointed one since scoring 4-4 in the 2017 All-Ireland minor final.

That afternoon against Derry those in the Croke Park galleries were given something they would keep forever: A sporting poet unveiling a verse of untouchable beauty with the promise of so many more stanzas to come.

That same poise was evident in his second-half stirring on Sunday (as it was in his destruction of Galway a week earlier), three beautifully threaded points refuelling Kerry's tank of hope.

Clifford’s penalty, with the hour-glass almost emptied, brought vital psychological sustenance: It rescued his team from the badlands of another day of subjugation by opponents who have held Kerry in chains since Stephen Cluxton altered the balance of power with his unforgettable grace note in the dying seconds of the 2011 All-Ireland final.

Kerry were ambushed by Cork and their own caution in 2020, Peter Keane’s road-testing of a game plan he had devised with the aim of stifling Dublin proving shockingly ill-advised.

What made their conservatism all the more galling is that Kerry are the one county equipped with the offensive weaponry to take Dublin on in the kind of OK Corral shootouts with which their history is littered: From 1976 to 2013 to 2019.

Unleashed, Clifford, Sean O’Shea, Paul Geaney, Killian Spillane, Tony Brosnan, Darragh Moynihan and James O’Donoghue have the capacity to ask some of the hardest questions Dublin have faced during their years of splendid imperium.

Of course, the standard-setters have no shortage of high-grade ammunition of their own.

And none more terrifying than their insatiable full-forward, the cold-eyed assassin with a taste for the kind of vintage claret located solely in the jugular vein.

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