Thursday 27 October 2016

Con on a mission to make mark in Sky Blue

Dublin footballer Con O’Callaghan who received his EirGrid GAA U21 Footballer of the Month award for March, at the Herbert Park Hotel in Ballsbridge yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Dublin footballer Con O’Callaghan who received his EirGrid GAA U21 Footballer of the Month award for March, at the Herbert Park Hotel in Ballsbridge yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Con O'Callaghan has been lauded and applauded many times over this spring, but the rookie Dublin footballer knows all about the swings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The last few weeks, for example, have contained trauma on the double.

Recently turned 20 and already a member of Jim Gavin's senior Sky Blue panel, O'Callaghan was in the Herbert Park Hotel yesterday to receive his EirGrid U21 Footballer of the Month award for March.

So far, so positive ... but the second half of April contained the twin disasters of All-Ireland semi-final defeat for the Dublin U21 team that O'Callaghan had spearheaded to a Leinster title; and then the early-summer gut-wrencher, with Cuala, of being dumped out of the Dublin senior football 'A' championship.

The U21 defeat to Mayo had been symptomatic of a roller-coaster campaign for Dessie Farrell's Dubs - they trailed by six points at half-time and then led by four well into the fourth quarter before faltering within sight of the line, losing to an injury-time free.

"Really disappointing, that match," says a rueful O'Callaghan. "I watched the match a few nights ago. Looking back when we are four points ahead with a few minutes left, it is hard to watch that and know the outcome. You think we are in control ..."

Then came last Thursday night's ten-point trimming by St Jude's, thus condemning Cuala to the 'B' championship after just one outing.

"A really disappointing performance for us," he echoes. "That would be a motivation - that I have to do something, that I have to push on."


And, by that, he means trying to leave his imprint with the Dublin senior footballers this summer.

His ambition is admirable, when you factor in the depth of more established forward options at Gavin's disposal. Just think of that snaking Sky Blue queue of hit-men, in no particular order: Bernard Brogan, Paddy Andrews, Paul Mannion, Dean Rock, Kevin McManamon, Cormac Costello, Eoghan O'Gara.

If that sounds overly crowded, O'Callaghan has sometimes ventured out to half-forward - but then is anyone going to dislodge Paul Flynn, Ciarán Kilkenny and/or Diarmuid Connolly?

"You won't get a jersey easy," he readily agrees. "I'll be looking to push forward this year but it is good challenge for me. They are the top footballers in the game at the moment and if I can challenge them in any way, it's a good experience.

"I obviously want to do as well as I can now, I'll be looking to drive on - but I kind of have to play it by ear and see how I'm progressing."

The positive auguries for O'Callaghan are (a) Gavin has never been shy about promoting youth and (b) his U21 track record. In four games this spring he amassed 3-24 - 3-13 coming from open play.

Still, his senior experience remains on the thin side - three O'Byrne Cup starts last January, crowned by a 1-2 haul against DCU, and then at the end of that month a brief league debut (off the bench) against Kerry.

After that, the U21s consumed his football focus ... but now he's back on board with the senior squad ahead of their Leinster SFC defence, starting in Nowlan Park on June 4. As a graduate of the Dublin development squad system in both codes, the UCD Commerce student is well positioned to comment on the outside perception that the capital is churning out young talent on the back of endless 'moola' from the Sports Council, sponsors and all the rest.

He doesn't buy it.

"I'm not sure what grants they get from the Sports Council. We just go out and play in our facilities," O'Callaghan says.

"We just train on a normal club pitch; we don't have anything special. We just train in Innisfails with the seniors, and wherever we could get with the 21s - it was St Anne's (Bohernabreena), DCU, it was nothing major. We trained in a normal gym. People say a lot, but I don't think we have any special advantages."

So, forget about special treatment: where did his own grá for the game stem from?

"I got into it real early from my dad (Maurice). He would have been managing up in Cuala and would have played a lot of Gaelic," he reveals. "So I just always loved Gaelic, from about the age of four. I played with my brother's team, he is two years older than me, and was in the development squads and developed from there."

That brother happens to be Dublin senior hurler Cian O'Callaghan, with whom he shared a Cuala dressing-room as they qualified for last year's AIB Leinster club SHC final.

By then, though, O'Callaghan the younger - a dual county minor in 2014 - was already coming back from another double-whammy.

"I tore my patella tendon in sixth year, so I was out for about 11 months," he recounts.


On his return, he plundered 3-6 as the Cuala junior 'A' hurlers romped to a county final victory last September.

But then came the sting. "I got banned for ten weeks," he says, going on to explain: "When I was minor I played for the senior hurlers ... I didn't think I'd have to be regraded. But then I went up and played the junior championship, and subsequently I found out I wasn't allowed play!"

The original 12-week ban was subsequently reduced to ten, and O'Callaghan got back to doing what he does best. Leaving his mark on the pitch.

As he aims to do now for Dublin.

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