Paul Curran reckons he is the county’s greatest ever footballer when contemporaries such as Bernard Brogan and Stephen Cluxton and former team-mate Alan Brogan, never mind heroes of the past, would have stronger claims to that title.
Still, tomorrow’s All-Ireland semi-final is one game the 30-year-old is fancied to start. As his 12-week ban elapses at midnight tonight, here are 12 reasons and indications why:
- Seven points was the difference between Dublin and Tyrone in their 2011 All-Ireland semi-final, the same number of scores Connolly registered from play. In his three league starts against them since then, he has scored 0-6, 0-2 and 0-5. Jim Gavin may not pay much mind to traditions or trends but Connolly has regularly impressed against Tyrone.
- Given the manner in which Gavin has gone out to bat for Connolly, to defend his honour and character on not one but two occasions, he has shown that the player is worth the fuss. Gavin’s terse responses to questions about Connolly in recent weeks suggests either he’s still upset by how the St Vincent’s man was treated, wants to take as much focus away from him, or both.
- As Oisín McConville points out elsewhere in these pages, Dublin and Tyrone will have had to rely a lot on the quality of their A versus B in-house matches. The perception that Connolly is untested is misplaced when he’s been exposed to training games examining the mettle of the first choice half-backs. Nothing he has missed out on against Westmeath, Kildare and Monaghan will have bettered what he has experienced in St Clare’s.
- If the word in Tyrone is to be believed, Mickey Harte has been readying his team for Dublin since the start of the year. Tyrone don’t usually believe in training behind closed doors but the gates have been closed in Garvaghey. Harte may be plotting something as extreme as Donegal in 2011 or ’14. If that’s the case, long-range point-taking will be vital. There is nobody more skilled at it than Connolly, as he exemplified in the ’14 semi-final.
- Did Connolly let Dublin down? Had another player pushed Branagan would he have suffered the severe punishment he has endured this summer? Both in public and private, the Dublin camp would answer ‘no’ to the first question and ‘yes’ to the second. A starting place tomorrow might be seen as a just reward or some sort of vindication for all that he has gone through since the start of June.
- Having been black-carded against Monaghan and Kerry in the league, Connolly is on the verge of a one-match cumulative ban should he pick up another black or a double yellow card sending-off. However, there is a major question mark over the legitimacy of the one he picked up in Clones and any proposed suspension would likely be overruled by the Central Hearings Committee.
- Tyrone will surely make a point of pushing up on Dublin’s kick-outs when Kerry have shown how they can reap great benefit from it. Stephen Cluxton, then, will look to kick longer where Brian Fenton is an outlet as is James McCarthy. But it could be argued the goalkeeper has a better understanding with Connolly who has routinely been an outlet for him on the wings.
- If there is one major advantage Dublin have over Tyrone it’s experience. Dublin have enough of it coming off the bench with options such as Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn, Michael Darragh Macauley, Denis Bastick, Kevin McManamon, Darren Daly and Eoghan O’Gara. Adding another seasoned but fresh star like Connolly on the field from the off against a side who will make themselves as difficult to break down as possible makes a lot of sense.
- Eric Lowndes was one of Dublin’s best performers in Leinster but his relatively early substitution against Monaghan last day out seemed to pave the way for a straight switch with Connolly. Lowndes and Niall Scully, neither specialised half-forwards, have filled Connolly’s role since the Carlow game but it’s as if his berth is being kept warm for him.
- It’s taken for granted that Connolly is the most natural ambipedal footballer of his generation but that balance, that ability to make a defender second guess, is exactly what’s needed to keep the Tyrone half-backs in check.
- At the same time, Connolly would more than capable of taking the heat off Con O’Callaghan, who is still only in his first full season. The Cuala player could really benefit from the focus being placed on his older team-mate.
- Does Gavin believe it’s right to keep Connolly in reserve and hope that being sprung into action will see him unleash a whirlwind against Tyrone? Or does he appreciate that Connolly has been coiled long enough as it is having missed three-quarters of Dublin’s championship thus far? Connolly’s had the stick; it’s time to give him the carrot.