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Thursday 27 June 2019

Club or county guess work

April vacuum is filled by comeback rumours

Diarmuid Connolly in action for St Vincent’s last Friday
Diarmuid Connolly in action for St Vincent’s last Friday

An inescapable reality of 'Club Only April' is that most non-partisan bystanders are only interested in how these weeks impact on the inter-county scene.

So it was with the weekend just passed. Buried beneath the acres of newsprint devoted to the comings-and-imminent-goings of John Delaney, the admittedly shrinking GAA coverage focussed not so much on club results but some of the high-profile participants.

In a nutshell, here is what we learned …

3Diarmuid Connolly and Rory O'Carroll are back starting championship matches for their clubs, heightening the long-simmering speculation that they might rejoin Jim Gavin's Dublin panel.

3Cillian O'Connor (below) has made his Ballintubber comeback off the bench after knee surgery in December, fuelling hopes that he'll be fit for the start of Mayo's search for the Holy Grail, chapter 68.

3Odhrán Mac Niallais (below right)has fallen out of love with football and won't be playing for Donegal this summer.

These stories resonate beyond county boundaries because of the names involved. Most non-Dubs would struggle to tell you the margin of St Vincent's victory over St Brigid's on Friday night, but they'll know that Connolly played … and at centre-back, merely adding to the mystique.

Ditto with Kilmacud Crokes' opening SFC defence against Ballymun on Saturday. They won't have been in Parnell Park - citing the perfect excuse, with the game live on TG4 - but their interest will have been piqued by the presence of the prodigal one wearing No 18.

They'll have spotted O'Carroll's slimline inter-county physique, even though he hasn't played for Dublin since September 2015. They will have been struck by several of his confident contributions, driving out of defence.

Ring-rust

On the debit side, they'll have noted how he was turned by Dean Rock for an early point; how Ted Furman took him for 0-2 after entering the second half fray at full-forward; and also how he was beaten along the end-line by Rock as his former county colleague created a goal chance that Anton Swann fired over. But hints of ring-rust are perfectly understandable.

Did we say former colleague? How about future?

This will become apparent over the next few weeks, but Gavin may well have seen enough to convince himself that this three-time All-Ireland winner is ready for the rigours of inter-county, over three-and-a-half years since he left it and subsequently headed for a new life in New Zealand.

The fact that Dublin's most apparent weakness during the league happened to be in the one position O'Carroll had made his own will only intensify this debate.

Of course, no one (in the media, at least) has yet asked the man himself if he fancies a comeback. Or, for that matter, whether Connolly really wants all the fuss and even intrusion that would accompany his return to the goldfish bowl. O'Carroll is 29; Connolly turns 32 in July. Again on the assumption that Gavin comes calling, this is a big decision for both; but the potential prize is a tantalising one.

Cillian O'Connor is not a similar case study: his absence is purely down to injury, and Mayo's all-time leading scorer was never going to walk away from unfinished business, especially while still a month shy of his 27th birthday.

But not every player is consumed by Sam Maguire dreams, especially when this amateur pursuit has become professional to the point where, for some, it becomes joyless.

Which brings us to Mac Niallais. Behind that languid demeanour lies a prodigious talent, one that Declan Bonner would love to call on this summer.

Maybe he's not your typical inter-county obsessive - he previously opted out in 2017. And there are unique circumstances: the 26-year-old was a close friend of Gaoth Dobhair colleague Mícheál Roarty, one of four men tragically killed in a traffic accident last January. As Mac Niallais told the Donegal Democrat: "You wake up every morning and it's still hard to believe that it happened … it puts life into perspective."

Yet his rationale for opting out might set off the alarm bells far beyond Ballybofey. "I kind of have no real interest in football at the minute," he said. "The last few weeks even training with the club I haven't really enjoyed it and I just don't have the hunger and the desire to give the commitment to Donegal."

Fading

Growing up, football was "everything" to Mac Niallais; now that is "fading away a bit". It's a stark admission and begs the question: how many others feel that way?

"Football in the last few years, a lot of people say, it's not the way it used to be played and it's not enjoyable any more - that's part of it too," he added. "All in all, I'm just not really mad to play football and get out there and commit. The commitment levels with Donegal or with county teams are through the roof."

That won't change any day soon, so expect more 'quit' than 'comeback' stories in the years ahead.

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