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Is Diarmuid Connolly Too Harshly Judged Within The GAA?

Is Diarmuid Connolly Too Harshly Judged Within The GAA?

Dublin footballer Diarmuid Connolly is a deeply divisive figure, and his upcoming battle with Mayo's Lee Keegan in the All-Ireland final replay is one of the most eagerly-anticipated and discussed individual rivalries in recent GAA memory.

One day in the gym at DCU, Ski Wade came up to me. He gestured over to a skinny young guy I didn't recognise.

'Lenny, show this lad the ropes, will ya? Take him through the programme and routine you do.'

'No problem, Ski,' I answered. 'Who is he?'

'Diarmuid Connolly - the most talented footballer in the country is who he is.'

'Oh yeah?'

'Yeah, unbelievable talent. Bit of a head case, though...he has a few issues, but not as bad as you, Lenny.'

Ski looked at me with a glint in his eye. You must be good if Ski is vouching for you, I thought to myself as I looked at the skinny little youngfella. And you must have problems if they think you are like me.

John Leonard, 'Dub Sub Confidential'

'Diarmuid Connolly Has Hair Ruffled, Gets Westmeath Player In A Headlock'. That was one headline after an incident earlier this summer where Connolly grabbed James Dolan from Westmeath and pulled him to the ground after Dolan ruffled his hair.

Technically true, yes, but the wording portrays an image of an aggressive Connolly using violence to respond to the light-hearted playfulness of his opponent.

Dolan ruffles his hair to try and piss him off and Connolly has the natural response of anyone who doesn't want their personal space invaded. Not the greatest tactical move, obviously, but not exactly an extremely harmful one. Dolan is fairly unscathed.

But nothing sums up the targeting of Connolly by opposition teams more than the manner in which three Westmeath players immediately surround him, two of them dragging him away by his shirt.

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Let's imagine it had been Philly McMahon who had done the hair ruffling, and Connolly had been the player dragging his opponent along by his collar. And let's consider what the reaction would have been then.

"But it's Connolly. Look at what he has done in the past."

OK, then. Let's look at that.

In 2011, Connolly was sent off against Donegal in the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park for what was essentially a shove on Marty Boyle of Donegal. A strike, yes, if hardly a knockout punch to the face. But what determined Connolly's fate in this instance was always going to be Boyle's reaction rather than Connolly's action. Boyle goes down, grabbing his face, which Connolly hadn't gone near. Connolly sees red.

The Central Hearings Committee overturn his four week ban and he starts the All-Ireland final. His contribution in the final moments of that game is key, holding onto the ball intelligently before passing to Kevin McManamon who wins what turns out to be the winning free.

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In 2012, Connolly kneed Ciarán Fitzpatrick of Kildare in the head during an O'Byrne Cup match. The Leinster Competition Controls Committee examined footage of the incident and decided not to press any charges. Yes, it doesn't look particularly good - but the footage isn't particularly conclusive, either. And isn't it the job of bodies such as the Leinster CCC to make judgments on the guilt of relevant parties, and our role as outsiders to accept their objective reasoning?

In 2015 Connolly was sent off for striking Lee Keegan in the All-Ireland semi-final. Famously the Disputes Resolution Authority cleared him to play in the replay in the early hours of the morning on the day of the game, letting him off on a technicality in a split decision that one member of the panel described as "fundamentally wrong". RTE analysed the incident after the game...

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...but their cameras didn't capture perhaps the most telling angle of the incident. That came from a fan's amateur footage (credit Aodán Ó Lorcáin):

This footage clearly demonstrates that Keegan essentially did something similar to what Connolly did against Westmeath - only apparently with more force and, importantly, unprovoked. He grabs Connolly around the neck and drags him down to the ground. Connolly strikes out, once (as we see in the RTE footage), at Keegan. But there was little attention paid to Cillian O'Connor, who quite evidently avails of the opportunity to lay a dig into Connolly's midriff as he lies on the ground.

What sometimes gets dragged into a debate about Connolly's reputation is the 2014 court case he faced after pleading guilt to committing assault causing harm and fracturing his victim's eye socket in the process. Connolly was spared a criminal conviction and a jail sentence after apologising unreservedly and paying a compensation sum to his victim that was far greater than any fine the court would have imposed for the act. He complied with the court's wishes thereafter, which included 80 hours of coaching children GAA.

We tread into dangerous territory as a society when we allow ourselves to surpass the judgments of a court and place upon an individual our own high-minded assumptions or presuppositions on who they are as a person or what their motives may be when they step onto a football pitch, based on a few shreds of television footage here and there or a couple of over-the-top headlines.

John Fogarty puts forward an interesting argument in the 'Irish Examiner' this week on why Connolly has only won one All-Star award, calling Connolly's performances "mercurial" and dismissing the belief that it is an "anomaly" that Connolly has only one award. He hypothesises that Connolly's act in grabbing a sideline ball off Ciaran Kilkenny in the drawn final this year and kicking the ball wide (when simply recycling possession could have won them the game) was out of a desperation the player feels to add to his All-Star collection. It is an interesting theory, whether one might agree with it or not.

What might such a desperation come out of? Perhaps a knowledge that, given his talent, he should have more Allstar awards. Perhaps a simple determination to prove to everyone, to himself, that he is capable of fulfilling his supreme potential.

Or perhaps out of a willingness to win an award against the wishes of all those who ignore the beautiful things he can do with a football, the way he lights up a match with one delicate turn of his body, dummy or pass; the way he can transfix a defence with one change in pace or direction.

Against the wishes of blind ignorance, lazy assumption and a refusal to, in the midst of a downpour of hatred, step for just a moment outside the comfortable parameters of groupthink.

SEE ALSO: Lee Keegan Hysteria Has Now Escalated Into #ThingsLeeDid

Conall Cahill

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