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Friday 30 September 2016

Connolly must meet challenge

Leinster's pretenders don't have the players to successfully adopt the Donegal system

Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly strikes over a majestic point during the first half of last Sunday’s Leinster SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly strikes over a majestic point during the first half of last Sunday’s Leinster SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Years ago, before a training session with Dublin in St Vincent's grounds off the Malahide Road, a young fella playing hurling for Ardscoil Rís on an adjoining pitch was pointed out to me by someone.

The young lad was Diarmuid Connolly.

Even then, as a secondary school student, he was cultivating a reputation around Dublin as being a young man with rare talent in both codes and when he came into our squad as an 18 year-old, he made you immediately aware of it.

He was slightly raw mind, but there aren't too many inter-county forwards as balanced with regard to kicking off both feet as Diarmuid was even then. And none of them were as quick as him.

The thing people don't realise about Diarmuid is how strong he is.

Irony

He's as powerful as any man you'll meet on a football pitch and he has a very good tackle technique, too.

He can win kick-outs, he gets dispossessions, he tracks back and works as hard as any player out there.

But obviously, it's what he does with the ball in hand that puts him up there with the very best.

The irony of that first half point in Croke Park on Sunday was that he mishandled a simple pass from Kevin McManamon, immediately beforehand, which kind of sums him up in a way.

Diarmuid being Diarmuid, he composed a movement of genius in three parts to make up for it.

First, the chip lift into his chest to save time bending over and being lined up by an opponent.

Then, a 180 degree turn with one spring off his right foot, whilst evading Harry Rooney's grasp altogether.

Finally, the pièce de résistance; the sweetly-struck shot with the outside of his right foot.

As a team, we often talked about percentages, taking the right option, giving it to the man in the best position.

All the usual stuff.

For him, that's actually a percentage shot, despite its high level of technical difficulty.

In fact, I'd back Diarmuid to do something like that in a big match more often than I would him to take a comparatively simpler score in a rudderless game where the result was already decided.

Or, the Leinster Senior Football Championship, to give it's proper title.

If I had a criticism of him - and admittedly, it's not a particularly sharp one - it's that he's inclined towards the extravagant, whilst sometimes overlooking simpler, more mundane duties.

It's almost like he gets bored with the easy stuff.

But maybe that's what happens when you have that sort of talent.

He executes some really special things whilst looking like he's using only the minimum effort required, almost with a whiff of nonchalance about it.

And when you have that languid style and make a mistake, it gives off the impression of someone who is disinterested or not fully tuned in.

Personally, I think it's something to do with being challenged.

You want the best out of Diarmuid Connolly? Give him a challenge.

The bigger the challenge, the better we see from Diarmuid and now that he has two Man of the Match performances in-a-row under his belt in the early rounds of this year, I can see him taking it on to another level.

I often thought he was a couple of half decent performances in the Leinster Championship away from winning Footballer of the Year.

It was a stroke of genius and I assume, a very deliberate one, by Jim Gavin to make him vice-captain when he came in as manager at the end of 2012.

It was a pleasure playing with Diarmuid.

And I'd consider it a shame now if he didn't go on and win more All-Irelands, All Stars and at least one Footballer of the Year.

Otherwise, it was pretty bleak day in Croke Park on Sunday, not one that provided much hope about the ailing entity that is the Leinster Championship.

Here's the problem.

As good as Dublin are right now, the more relevant truth is that the rest just aren't up to much.

If, for the sake of experimentation, you transported Meath, Westmeath or Kildare into any of the other three provincial championships, you'd need a decent imagination to build an argument for any of them making a final.

That's hardly Dublin's fault.

Maybe Kildare and Westmeath had an eye on Dublin and that influenced how they played but for them to play each other and not have a decent cut was disappointing.

If these game-plans were designed with Dublin in mind, they were misguided.

Whoever it is that beats Dublin will do so by being inventive and brave and doing it with purpose and belief.

Sitting back and trying to hit them on the break isn't going to work any more. Dublin have learned those lessons. Several times.

And the goals they conceded against Laois almost guaranteed a clean sheet for Stephen Cluxton against Meath last Sunday.

Meath were decent in the first half but sat deep in the second and Dublin were happy enough to let them chase the ball.

It's not saying much about the entertainment value that anyone who was there would have been quite happy for the referee, Rory Hickey, to blow it up with 15 minutes left.

The thing I don't understand is why these managers seem to think that just because it worked for Donegal, so it will work for them.

Smooth

To play like that, you need really strong ball-winners and finishers up front. You need smooth ball-carriers coming out of your half-back line, fellas who can take scores themselves.

So they're on a hiding to nothing because bar Donegal and maybe Tyrone, any team who sets up like that against Dublin has no chance this year.

And think, for a second, of the poor players.

Putting in six months of effort, having to play a way that goes against your instincts, and then losing like that.

No wonder more and more fellas are turning their backs on inter-county football.

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