O'Connor is all-white
Lilies star primed for Faithful County clash after shrugging off injury woes
WHEN Tomás O'Connor produced a high-fielding tour de force in a televised qualifier against Laois last July, some sunshine supporters may have asked from under which rock Kieran McGeeney had unearthed this swashbuckling full-forward with the blond mop.
After all, while O'Connor had started Kildare's first two encounters that summer against Wicklow and Meath, he had been confined to the briefest of cameos in their Leinster semi-final defeat to Dublin.
Suffice to say, the Clane powerhouse was no household name ...
He is now, and not just as the offspring of his namesake, Tomás Connor, who helped Offaly to the most celebrated All-Ireland ambush in Gaelic football history.
Thirty years on from the demolition of Kerry's five-in-a-row destiny - as Tomás Jnr prepares to take on his father's native county in this Sunday's Leinster SFC quarter-final - GAA fans far beyond the Curragh Plains know all about Kildare's not-so-secret weapon.
"It amuses me," says former Kildare manager John Crofton. "With himself and Hugh Lynch, there is a misconception that they somehow came through the junior set-up in Kildare. Okay, in Tomás's case, he did come back via that route - but he wasn't 'discovered' through the juniors. He was there - and very visible - as an 18, 19 and 20-year-old."
So what happened? In a word, injury. O'Connor may not possess the most famously wonky knees in Kildare, but he was among the first in their dressing-room to succumb to the cruciate curse.
"I was involved with Padraig Nolan in 2005, and then I played under John Crofton as well -- I played championship under both," he recalls.
"Then I ended up tearing my cruciate and tearing cartilage. I had five operations on the right knee ... I was basically two years or more out.
"I tore the cruciate and then I came back eight months later or whatever and tore cartilage straight away, and that took me a long time to get back. I ended up tearing cartilage two more times, and then I tore PCL, the posterior cruciate, in my left knee. I never got that operated on, but that set me back a while as well."
O'Connor is now 25, approaching his prime, as he contemplates Kildare's latest assault on those elusive Leinster and All-Ireland titles.
Hard to believe it is almost seven years since he made his senior championship baptism, appearing as a half-time sub in a qualifier defeat to Sligo. That game signalled the end of the management line for Pádraig Nolan, who also managed the Kildare U21s in this period.
Nolan had parachuted the 18-year-old O'Connor into his senior squad on foot of his performance off the bench in the Leinster U21 final replay defeat to Dublin.
"When I took over Kildare, I took over an ageing team," Nolan recounts. "Effectively speaking, any young fellas I could see potential in, I was bringing them into the senior panel - to let them develop. I would have felt Tomás had what it takes. A fine fielder, plenty of pace, a good attitude.
"He would have been looked on as a midfielder at that stage. He was going to go to America and I persuaded him to stay around."
It's no surprise that O'Connor's first two Kildare managers highlight the same standout quality in his game.
"What he had then - and still has - is an incredible leap for a ball from a standing start," says Nolan. "A tremendous ability to get airborne from a standing position," echoes Crofton who, in 2006, started the youngster at full-forward in Kildare's two SFC qualifiers against Cavan and Derry.
"I've had a good leap my whole life - I think it's maybe just in me," says the man himself.
As Crofton points out, though, there is far more to his game than being the blunt weapon of aerial bombardment: "What you can't measure from the stand, but opponents will measure fairly quickly, is his pace.
"He has a very deceptive gait. If a ball is kicked into space, left or right, he will arrive first. He was doing it in my time ... whether it was five metres or 50 metres, he was the paciest I had."
Moreover, the former boss hasn't noticed "any dilution" of his explosive speed since he eventually made it back from his injury hell.
O'Connor's protracted 'Battle of Wounded Knee' began in 2007, and it would be 2010 before he made his way back into McGeeney's senior panel.
In the intervening hiatus, he briefly dallied with the idea of retracing his father's footsteps by hopping across the Offaly border and hooking up with Walsh Island.
He considered the switch because he wanted to play inter-county football and "the option at the time was to play with the Kildare juniors ... because my parents were both from Offaly, it was something that I could have done. But I said no, I'll stick with Kildare."
His patience ultimately paved the way to a senior recall. He had a bit-part role in 2010 during Kildare's roller-coaster ride to the All-Ireland semi-finals, making several substitute appearances, while his one start (against Derry) lasted barely eight minutes before injury ended his day.
Last summer was different, though. Starting with the 'back-door' eviction of Laois when he scored one goal and played a pivotal role in the prologue to another, O'Connor has firmly established his place as Kildare's ball-winning pivot in the inside line.
Hindsight might suggest that being dropped for the Dublin defeat kickstarted the player's second coming. "I said 'right, I have to make the position mine, so this is the game to do it'," he recalls, harking back to that Portlaoise encounter. "I think I've started every championship and league game since."
Who knows where last year's campaign might have ended if O'Connor's quarter-final 'goal' against Donegal hadn't been wrongly disallowed for a square ball. He quickly bats away suggestions that the new square ball dispensation should henceforth be renamed the 'Tomás O'Connor Rule'.
One word best sums up his own current role in the Geezer game-plan -- unselfish. An eye-catching statistic from Kildare's last competitive outing, the Division 2 league final victory over Tyrone, is that he didn't actually kick the ball once.
If you include Kildare's league opener against the same opposition, he only kicked the ball once in two outings against Tyrone.
"I tend to give it off quite a bit," he says, "but I can score - I have scored five points in the league as well."
Crofton reckons he can score even more, suggesting he is "nearly too unselfish. He is looking to offload, which is great, but he is looking to offload even at times when - with his pace and power - I think he should be turning and driving for goal. He can kick with both feet as well."
Maybe this summer will see O'Connor expand his repertoire. The land of his father could be in for a rude awakening in Portlaoise on Sunday.