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The making of King Con

'He's a physical specimen now and can do things that other players can't' - Dessie Farrell

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Dublin’s O’Callaghan celebrates his first goal against Mayo earlier this month. Photo: Sportsfile

Dublin’s O’Callaghan celebrates his first goal against Mayo earlier this month. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Rob Hennelly of Mayo collides with Con O’Callaghan of Dublin during the semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile

Rob Hennelly of Mayo collides with Con O’Callaghan of Dublin during the semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

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Dublin’s O’Callaghan celebrates his first goal against Mayo earlier this month. Photo: Sportsfile

In a summer to remember, Con O'Callaghan's double whammy of goals to outfox Lee Keegan and break Mayo hearts has been the headline-hogging high point thus far.

Yet it was another less celebrated cameo that encapsulated even more clearly the new 'King Con' of 2019: stronger, more powerful and dynamic, outrageously resilient too.

It came in the 11th minute of a routine Super 8s win over Roscommon, when Brian Fenton's measured pass from halfway was met by the soaring O'Callaghan, just beyond the 'D'.

But it wasn't just the spectacular catch above his head that made it special: it was the crash-landing on his bent right leg that made you wince for a second ... until you spotted Dublin's No 15 rise in the same seamless movement, turn away from Seán Mullooly, hop the ball once and then pop it over the bar.

Effortless. And yet anything but.

Specimen

"It was a model for a cruciate, wasn't it?" muses Dessie Farrell, who managed O'Callaghan to an All-Ireland U21 title in 2017. "Look it, he's a physical specimen now and he can do things that other players can't do. I thought he was hurt the way he landed there, for sure, but it's just a mark of his athleticism.

"Even the hit he took against Rob Hennelly (in the All-Ireland semi-final) ... that was a big bang, a huge impact. Obviously it shook him, but he dusted himself off and went again, where a lesser man may have had to be substituted at that stage."

Now, you could argue that - on another luckless day - that awkward landing against Roscommon or hard collision against Mayo could have wreaked some physical devastation.

But what cannot be disputed is the Cuala man's incredible conditioning and how this - allied to his natural talent, predatory instincts and relocation to the full-forward line - has made him almost unplayable at times this summer.

Ask Mullooly. Or Keegan, for so long Mayo's go-to man-marking pest.

It would be misleading to claim that the O'Callaghan of 2017, the scorer of those wonder goals against Tyrone and Mayo, was a physical lightweight. Anything but.

Yet photos of the 2019 model, those bulging biceps complemented by a more austere, shaven-headed look, have revealed a player who, at 23, appears to be approaching his frightening physical peak.

Earlier this summer, remarking on the power of O'Callaghan, Alan Brogan told SportsJoe.ie: "I think he has a gym out the back in his house."

An urban legend?

"I haven't heard that one," says Farrell. "But it wouldn't surprise me. Like, a lot of players nowadays would have gym kit ... it's one of the things that amuses me, when they talk about the size and physicality of Dublin footballers, and they're talking about the resources and the facilities.

"A lot of these fellas are banging away on their own in the back shed or in the bedroom. You don't necessarily need plush or top-class facilities to be developing yourself physically."

Farrell surmises that O'Callaghan's "stronger" and "more explosive" make-up is at least partially due to the inevitable ageing progression.

But he expands: "I think it's been well documented that Con has obviously done a huge amount of work on his own - in terms of his physical being. And that doesn't surprise me, because I think that's indicative of his attitude just generally.

"Even with us, he was a real student of the game," the former U21 manager adds. "Con was definitely one of the most diligent. And not alone would he do it on his own, he'd end up maybe having some private sessions ... the likes of Mick Galvin would have brought him out fairly regularly for one-to-one kicking.

"You can talk about commitment, dedication, but there has to be an innate, organic hunger, a desire to be the best that you can be. And he has that in overdrive."

One of the curiosities about Con is that he stands 5'11" - relatively short by inter-county standards - and yet is such an accomplished fielder.

"He's a great aerial threat," says John Divilly, his manager at UCD. "Five foot eleven but, by God, he's all there. And he's not afraid to use it."

Especially now that he's reverted to the inside line. "That's where we would have played him at U-21 level," Farrell explains, "because he just has that explosive pace and if you can get any decent quality ball into him ... and it doesn't have to be perfect, he's a great scrambler and can take out a lot of dirty ball as well. It can be nightmarish for defenders if they're isolated in a one-on-one situation."

Havoc

In truth, there is so much more to the O'Callaghan package that brute ball-winning force. After all, here is a dual player who has wreaked club hurling havoc for Cuala in back-to-back All-Ireland campaigns, while seamlessly switching codes to accumulate national titles at U-21 and senior level for Dublin, and in the 2018 Sigerson Cup for UCD.

He has tallied 4-9 from play this summer - underlining what Farrell describes as "a ruthless streak in him - he likes to go for the jugular when the opportunity presents itself."

But this doesn't equate to selfishness. "Con will give it to the best man," says Divilly, citing his All-Ireland final goal assist for Niall Scully last September as the perfect example.

The ex-Galway defender reminds us that O'Callaghan is also a "fantastic freetaker" (recalling his six-from-six in the 2017 Leinster final against Kildare) who is spared that duty with Dean Rock or Cormac Costello on call.

"He's a team player, number one, but he's not afraid to go and grab the game by the scruff of the neck. That's what he's done in all the big games," Divilly concludes.

None bigger than tomorrow ...