Former Dublin sub-goalie John Leonard (SoberPaddy.com) gives his unique perspective as a player, fan, and person on the paths that Diarmuid Connolly faces.

No Counties for Old Men

These are no counties for old men. The swell of thousands crammed into a small stadium in the south west of our craggy little Island. Chats turn to shouts turn to songs turn to roars. Body shteam rises into the pitch black of night. It is a thunderous wintery encounter. The crowds hail the emerging heroes. They salute the brave and gallant defeated. These are the nights that make our parochial rivalries soar. The Gaels are resting easy in their graves tonight.

It’s not bad streaming late night GAA matches from New Zealand. We are 13 hours ahead, so I can hack my way onto the live stream using a VPN and get the best of the action while eating my fried eggs. Not that I have the time to these days. My wife just gave birth to a beautiful healthy boy called Phoenix. We are smitten. I am intoxicated by him. He could be an All Black. But right now there are nappies, poo and baby puke that need cleaning up.

So, usually, the best I can do is scroll though twitter and get updates. What a world we live in, wha’? Modern technology at its finest. I watched Dublin play Kerry. Paul Flynn was the only man in the match day squad who was on the panel with me. I had played with 14 of the 2011 team that began these mad, magical glory days.

One name that should still be there was missing.

We all know of whom I speak.

How quickly the time goes.

One day you’re out in Croke Park on All Ireland semi-final day, warming up the greatest ‘keeper of them all.

O'Byrne Cup Semi-Final Replay 27/1/2008 Dublin Goalkeeper's John Leonard and Stephen Cluxton Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Donall Farmer | The Sports Chronicle - John Leonard on Diarmuid Connolly

O’Byrne Cup Semi-Final Replay 27/1/2008 Dublin Goalkeeper’s John Leonard and Stephen Cluxton Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Donall Farmer | The Sports Chronicle – John Leonard on Diarmuid Connolly

Before you know it, you’re looking at names of young lads half your age from the other side of the world. You’re sniffing poo covered bottoms and googling “newborn nappy rash.”

Life moves fast.

Not that New Zealand is a bad place to be. It’s like rural Ireland in the 1980’s, on steroids, with technology. Kids still cycle around pulling wheelies and getting up to mischief. The mountains are bigger. People walk about barefoot. And it is chilled. Very chilled.

It’s the kind of place where an old friend, who knows you have a history of alcohol and drug guzzling, gives you a San Pedro cactus. He also emails you links to articles on how it helps people with addiction issues. San Pedro is like magic mushrooms…only a little deeper. The experience falls somewhere between Ayahuasca and Peyote. They are mind altering and life changing plants.

I tend to digress.

The one man I was looking for on that Dublin team sheet was Diarmuid Connolly.

Like so many Dubs, I was hoping to see him back in the sky-blue jersey again. Dermo has been around a long time now. Well over a decade. He has been pumping weights since the Pillar Caffrey era; back in the days when men were men and a black card was a drinks voucher for Coppers.

They were the golden years for me. Well, they were the only years for me. I spent three seasons under Pillar trying to get to the top. I did everything I could to get into that Dublin team. I left Ireland after I graduated from college in 1998 to go to Australia for a year. It was more than five years later before I took football serious again.

When you take time for yourself, sporting teams simply move on. It is not malicious or meditated upon. I have always found football managers to be pragmatists at the best of times. If players are not available, they make other arrangements. As a player you know that you lose a little bit of their trust. It is inevitable. And with the conveyor belt of younger footballers constantly coming through, every season you miss is another man’s opportunity.

Jim Gavin said it best in the aftermath of the defeat to Kerry.

“If any player wants to volunteer their time for inter-county football, we’ll always look at them. The door has always remained open to any player who has either been with us in the past, or who wants to join us, and isn’t in the squad yet”

This is as honest and pragmatic as it gets. And there is no reason to doubt the integrity of a man as unflappable and sincere as the current Dublin manager.

So, back in the day, for me to get a chance again in my late twenties was an absolute gift. A lot of the lads I had played under-21s with were still around: the likes of Ciarán Whelan, Ray Cosgrave, Jason Sherlock were all still going strong. I had been out of my mind for over five years but still had talent and had something to prove. But the man who had come in and taken over the No.1 spot while I was gone was none other than Stephen Cluxton.

Clucko had established himself as the best in the business back in the mid 2000’s. To get to train with him after spending years reading about him online or watching him play from overseas, was in many ways as rewarding as it was frustrating. While he was an excellent keeper with an accurate kick out, I never thought he was a better shot stopper then me. I could tell by how I moved and how I made saves, that I would have been a more naturally talented keeper.

But talent will only get you so far. He was methodical and maniacally dedicated. He was always the first on the training pitch. He always took every session seriously. He rehearsed his techniques effectively, rigorously and he did not give anyone a chance to come in and get a sniff of the jersey. He had that surly temperament; quiet and unassuming but when shit got real, he exploded into action.

Who is to say what would have happened if I had stayed in Dublin after graduating college and had stuck it out? I could have taken that jersey.

I could have been that legend.

And for a legend of Dublin GAA like Diarmuid Connolly to take time away from the game at the peak of his powers, at the height of his notoriety and fame, shows just how tough it is to stay at the top. Life gets in the way; jobs, women, money and travel all take their toll. Men need to explore being men. A top level GAA star is swimming in a fish bowl. And one like Diarmuid is constantly provoked, on and off the pitch. I would have packed my bags a long time before. But then again, I am nowhere near the talent of this man.

GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin 17/9/2017 Dublin vs Mayo Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly reacts after winning a late free Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie | The Sports Chronicle - John Leonard on Diarmuid Connolly

GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin 17/9/2017 Dublin vs Mayo Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly reacts after winning a late free Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie | The Sports Chronicle – John Leonard on Diarmuid Connolly

I first met Dermo in the DCU gym in 2007. I had become a weights junkie in my quest to get any edge I could in pursuit of Cluxton and that No.1 jersey. I was squatting, plyometricing, bench pressing and ice bathing every other day. I was guzzling protein shakes and horsing creatine into me like nobody’s business.

“He’s almost as mad in the head as you are Lenny,” Ski Wade (still the scariest man I have met in GAA) told me as he paired us up for a session.

I liked Dermo from the get-go. He was quiet enough with a teak tough edge to him. As footballers you don’t have too much time to delve into the deeper sides of your personalities. I mean, I was always a philosophising, poetic c**t. But you could never let your team mates know that. There is a certain Alpha Code that is needed for teams to work. If you break down that barrier, then you move away from the soldier of war. And you want soldiers of war when you fight on the GAA pitch. 

But “Dermo” as I was introduced to him, was a tough nut. We went through that gym session easy enough. We didn’t say too much. We both spoke gruffly enough in Dublin accents. We had a laugh about one or two of the other mad yokes on the team. He took the session seriously enough and I knew that this was someone who would do what had to be done to succeed.

And in the first training matches we had, it was amazing to see how much space he could create for himself. As a fresh face he was put on the “B” team and had the likes of David Henry and Paul Griffin marking him. He was deceptively quick. A drop of the shoulder to the left, accelerate the opposite way and he’d be away. What I found more impressive was his speed with the ball.

He moved like a race horse. Defenders could barely keep up with him.

Like Alan Brogan, he was two footed and shared a similar ability to jink and weave. And like his club mate Mossy Quinn, he was extremely accurate. He was like a Marino blend of these two fine specimens of footballers. Of all the players I have played with, he would be right up there as one of the best. I would put Jason Sherlock, Alan Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly as three who all share that creative genius. They create time and space on the ball and are clinical and composed under the greatest of pressures.

Setanta Sports Irish Sports Book of the Year Awards, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, Dublin 3/12/2015 John Leonards, “Dub Sub Confidential,” was announced the overall winner at the inaugural Setanta Sports Book of the Year awards ceremony held in the beautiful Dun’s Library, in the Royal College of Physicians, Dublin. As the winner, John will receive a €1,500 cash prize, a specially commissioned trophy and €10,000 worth of TV advertising on Setanta Sports. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan | The Sports Chronicle - John Leonard on Diarmuid Connolly

Setanta Sports Irish Sports Book of the Year Awards, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, Dublin 3/12/2015 John Leonards, “Dub Sub Confidential,” was announced the overall winner at the inaugural Setanta Sports Book of the Year awards ceremony held in the beautiful Dun’s Library, in the Royal College of Physicians, Dublin. As the winner, John will receive a €1,500 cash prize, a specially commissioned trophy and €10,000 worth of TV advertising on Setanta Sports. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan | The Sports Chronicle – John Leonard on Diarmuid Connolly

In search of times lost…

Dermo holds all the answers to our questions in his head. And I would imagine it is a simple enough equation.

Does he have the hunger for it? Does he have the motivation?

There is nobody who can answer that save for himself. I have found that if you go through the paces in anything in life, the wheels come off under pressure. If you do not have a vision for your future, then it cannot happen. If his goal is not to come back and star in a Dublin jersey this year, then it is impossible for it to happen.

And let us be clear: Dublin are a much better team when he plays. There is simply no doubt about it. For all the talk of monies and financial doping in the GAA, one thing you cannot question is the difference naturally talented players make to teams. The likes of David Clifford in Kerry are impossible to coach or train. Players like Diarmuid Connolly do not come from 10 year coaching programs. They are born gifted. And they have their own burning desire to succeed. They are relentless in their own minds. Until they burn out.

When the GAA season gathers momentum later in the year, sometime during the Super 8’s, we will see the Division 1 teams battle it out for supremacy. Kerry, Mayo and the rest will both fancy putting the Dubs to the test.  What would you pay to see Lee Keegan and Dermo squaring up to each other in a packed Croke Park sometime in the sultry days of Irish summer? Wouldn’t it be nice to have the final say in that saga? The neutral observer might imagine Keegan has had the upper hand in their exchanges. I have no doubt Diarmuid would like to settle that debate once and for all.

Allianz Football League Division 1 Semi-Final 14/4/2013 Dublin vs Mayo Mayo's Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin clash off the ball Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie /// GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin 18/9/2016 Dublin vs Mayo Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly with Lee Keegan of Mayo Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy | The Sports Chronicle - John Leonard on Diarmuid Connolly

Allianz Football League Division 1 Semi-Final 14/4/2013 Dublin vs Mayo Mayo’s Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin clash off the ball Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie /// GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin 18/9/2016 Dublin vs Mayo Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly with Lee Keegan of Mayo Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy | The Sports Chronicle – John Leonard on Diarmuid Connolly

If I was Diarmuid Connolly, I would focus on this year ahead. Fuck the begrudgers, the media hacks talking shite and the ignorant keyboard warriors. I would focus on getting that passion back in the heart. It is there. It is just waiting to be lit. 

The vast majority of GAA fans want to see him back playing that attacking football that makes young boys and girls dream.

There will be time for the travel. There will be time for the women and the dollars and the rest. Come back and lead the young Dubs on the march for Sam. Some day they will want you for Dancing with the Stars. Some day they will be asking you to be a pundit. Some day you will be living in a far flung town in your forties with a greying beard, a jiggly gut and a receding hairline. Some day you will look back and wonder if it was all a dream.

Life is too short to waste. It moves too quickly to think that you can succeed being half assed about it. If you are going to take a break from it all, then take a proper break! Do it in style. Take it from someone who knows how to waste those precious prime years of your life! Commit to it.

You could go to Morocco and smoke opiates with the Desert Shamans and write a gibberish story about it. Or move to Greece and be seen pictured laughing with a cocktail in hand, open shirted on the back of a yacht, blue skies and scantily clad females akimbo. Or maybe head to Africa and live off the land eating berries and hunting with a bow and arrow.

I could go on…

Or you could remain in dirty ould Dublin town. Knuckle down and get ready for the greatest battle with yourself. Stay and fight and win your place back at the heart and soul of this Dublin team. The true fans are waiting. The best in the business want to take you on. Are you ready to cement yourself into the annals of history? Do not let a summer in Boston swanning around, be the last chapter of your footballing legacy.

You are much too good for that.

 

John/Sober Paddy,

March 2019.

 

If you enjoyed John’s article, you might like to read Johnny Magee’s “I Should Thank Éire Óg For Beating Us“.

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