Connolly the key to five in a row?

The first weekend of super 8’s filled action has past and yet it seems like no one is talking about the on-field action. Sure there were whimpers of Dublin’s 10 minute demolition of Cork while Kerry’s trouncing of Mayo caused some ripples but all talking points were put to the side and one man dominated the headlines. Diarmuid Connolly.

Social media exploded on Sunday morning when the news came through that Connolly was back, as questions marks have hung over the St Vincent’s man all season long. Will he return for the five in a row? How is his relationship with Jim Gavin? Can he still offer something at the top level? Until we see the 32 year old take the field all these questions will remain and yet there’s no guarantee Connolly will see any game time.

However, I find it extremely hard to believe that Diarmuid Connolly has been recalled to the Dublin panel just to be a squad player. Doesn’t this Dublin side have enough squad players? Of course they do, but do they have that one player who will make Croke Park erupt with the sight of them pulling on a bib to warm up? They have unbelievable talent on their bench but not as many to give the team such a lift by jogging up and down the sideline.

The way in which Gavin nonchalantly announced the homecoming of one of Dublin’s brightest stars was unsurprising while it also offered little context of the return. Gavin may have released the information on Sunday morning but that doesn’t mean that Connolly had just returned a few days before hand.  It is impossible to tell how long he had been training with the team or how long his return had been planned.

Of course Connolly’s unsuccessful venture to America has raised even more question marks over his return, the answers to which may never be fully known. In fact, it’s quite possible that the only two people in the world who know the full extent of the return are Jim Gavin and Diarmuid Connolly.

Connolly’s return got me thinking of where I had heard something like this before. Quite ironically it was the last time a football team were on the verge of immortality, the great Kerry team of the 70s and 80s. However it was the team in the opposite corner that sprung a surprise through the return of Johnny Mooney from America.

In Michael Foley’s great book about the 1982 All Ireland final, ‘Kings of September’, he recalls how Mooney had gone to San Francisco in search of work with the promise from his manager Eugene McGee that they would win the Leinster title without him and bring him home for the remaining two games of the season, “We’ll win Leinster next year. But keep training away and I’ll bring you home for the All-Ireland semi-final”.

The team photo of the Offaly team that faced Kerry in the 1982 All Ireland Final. Mooney sits third from the right in the front row.

Perhaps a similar idea has been in Jim Gavin’s mind regarding the quest for five in a row. Dublin clearly didn’t need Connolly to win Leinster, they’ll make their way through the super 8s without much bother but they may need him for the last two games to guarantee All Ireland glory, even if it is only to warm up.

McGee knew he needed Mooney if they were to stop the five in a row, perhaps Gavin believes that the Dubs need Connolly to secure it. Would he have recalled him any other year? Probably not, but he’s making sure that no stone is left unturned and that they can see out the year with no regrets or what ifs.

The same of course happened with Tyrone in 2008 when Stephen O’Neill returned to the panel three weeks before the All Ireland final against Kerry. O’Neill made an introduction when the game was just 25 minutes old and although the Clan na Gael man failed to score, he caused the Kerry defence serious problems all afternoon.

In his autobiography, Owen Mulligan recalled the meeting when Mickey Harte poised the question of O’Neill’s return to the panel. Without hesitation, Mulligan knew that it could be his place which O’Neill would take, but Tyrone would be better equipped to win their third All Ireland with Stephen O’Neill in their ranks.

Stephen O’Neill about to enter the fray during Tyrone’s 2008 All Ireland final against Kerry

I would suggest that a similar conversation has been held with the Dublin panel and that Jim Gavin would not have allowed Connolly to return if it was going to upset the rest of the squad. But similar to Mulligan 11 years ago, the Dubs know that they are a lot closer to the famed five in a row with Connolly as part of the team rather than in the stands watching on.

In the cases of Mooney and O’Neill it proved to be the right decision to recall both men to their respective panels as in ’82 Offaly defeated the great Kerry team of the golden years while Tyrone also overcame the Kingdom in the 2008 All Ireland final. If Dublin secure the Sam Maguire this season then Jim Gavin will be praised for pulling a masterstroke.

Everybody is going to have a different opinion on the return but there’s no doubt that Diarmuid Connolly is the only thing that could improve this lethal team. While he may not see much game time it certainly keeps the likes of Peter Keane and Declan Bonner on their toes and keeps the country guessing as the Dubs continue their journey to become the greatest GAA team of all time.