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Saturday 16 December 2017

'I had my head in my hands for last free'

Dublin's latest attacking prodigy reflects on a season in which he won three All-Irelands

Dublin star Con O’Callaghan at the announcement by Sky Sports that it is partnering with the GAA on three major grassroots initiatives which will see the broadcaster invest a total of €3m over five years. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin star Con O’Callaghan at the announcement by Sky Sports that it is partnering with the GAA on three major grassroots initiatives which will see the broadcaster invest a total of €3m over five years. Pic: Sportsfile
Con O’Callaghan evades the tackle of Mayo’s Colm Boyle on his way to scoring Dublin’s goal in the first minute of the All-Ireland SFC Final at Croke Park on Sunday

The temptation is to ask Con O'Callaghan what he has planned for next year.

"I didn't sit down at the start of the year and say 'I think I'm going to win this' or 'I think I'm going to win that,' he explains, meaning we can at least cross prophecy out on his list of confirmed talents.

"I just took them as they came. Lucky enough to do them all."

"I had a brilliant year personally," he accepts, "but the teams I've been part of have been pretty special as well."

Where to start picking over it all?

One of his three All-Ireland finals?

Hurling? Football?

The Tyrone goal? The Mayo goal?

"Clarke's a particularly good shot stopper," he says of his most recent strike.

"So we did a bit of preparation on him in the lead-up to the final. And we said 'yeah, you have to keep the ball literally on the grass or you're not going to beat him, basically.

"So I dropped it and just tried to keep it low."

The one against Tyrone, he admits also, "did give me a bit of confidence to go at my man.

"I said it before the final that if I got the ball early doors, I'd just go at my man and take him on one on one and see what happens."

Denied

If it all seems the straight-forward fulfilment of potential from a sporting wunderkind, it hadn't actually been so straight-forward prior to 2017.

In 2014, Con was the main man on the Dublin minor team that was beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final by Donegal.

In 2015, he was a member of the Cuala hurlers denied a Leinster title by Oulart The-Ballagh.

Just a few months later, he emerged tearful from the Dublin Under 21 dressing-room in O'Connor Park after Dessie Farrell's team had been beaten by Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final.

"You lose an awful lot more," he says, employing a phrase Jim Gavin gave up using a couple of years ago.

"At underage we lost a lot more than we won. And even with the club, we got to a Leinster final last year.

"It's always that bit sweeter when you overcome adversity to win."

By that stage, he had already had an introduction to senior-dom.

"That's stuff that you dream of," O'Callaghan confirms of his three minute cameo in Dublin's 2016 league-opener against Kerry in Croke Park, to date his only participation in that particular competition.

"I got called up last year for the O'Byrne Cup and just seeing some of the lads that you've been looking up to, like the year before and previously, that's brilliant as well."

"They're very welcoming. The older lads would even make a serious effort, just to get to know you.

"If you wanted to do extras with them, they'd be very good."

"So you get used to it straight away and there are a couple of bonding sessions and we just had a bit of craic with them, you get used to it."

He got his Championship debut in 2016 as a late substitute for Paul Mannion but the rest of summer was a Con-free zone.

And the upshot of his club hurling and Under 21 football All-Irelands was that O'Callaghan began the summer devoid of League time, the practice ground for summer starters.

"If you don't get that, you're being thrown straight into Championship and it might be a bit daunting," he points out, having shown precisely no signs whatsoever of being daunted at any stage.

"But because we lost the League, it was a fresh start. And the manager actually laid it out that there would be a fresh start.

"I just said I'd give it everything I have and see if I had a chance of getting in."

From there, it's been remarkable. Roy of the Rovers stuff.

A starting spot in the most potent attack in Ireland aged just 20.

A Leinster title, an All-Ireland title.

Two superb goals in the biggest games of the year.

And although still to be confirmed, All Star and Young Footballer of the Year awards to come.

As it happens, he didn't see Dean Rock's free sail over the Mayo bar.

At that stage, O'Callaghan had been subbed and he found the end of the match too tense to watch.

"I wasn't watching the match, to be honest. I had my head in my hands, looking at my feet.

"But although I didn't watch, I backed Dean."

"We probably thought that it might get blown up a little earlier," he says, "but thankfully the ref blew his whistle."

And with that, Con O'Callaghan could sit proudly atop one of the most successful seasons any GAA player in verifiable memory has put in.

It's tempting to ask him to compare the sensations but it seems also that O'Callaghan has gone from each of his triumphs into another one without any real pause for consideration.

"Look they're both incredible and they're both things that you dream of,

"The one with the club is special because you're with your brothers, your cousins, lads I would have grown up with, my managers from underage, so there is something special there," he explains.

"But then being able to represent your club playing for the county is also incredible.

"And," he adds, "it probably hasn't sunk in that I've just won an All-Ireland there as well."

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