Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey, the man who handed Diarmuid Connolly his Championship debut, has admitted the forward’s mid-summer recall was “bizarre, a circus, unreal, a surprise”.
Yet the bottom line for former Dublin manager Caffrey is that it was the correct call because the St Vincent’s man is no “ordinary guy”.
Caffrey, who handed Connolly his debut for the drawn game against Meath in June of 2007, described the 32-year-old as the best player he’s managed.
Connolly didn’t make the Dublin 26 for last weekend’s Super 8s encounter with Roscommon though with qualification to the semi-finals now secured, he could feature against Tyrone on Saturday week. It would mark another incredible chapter in the story of the maverick forward who reportedly failed in his bid to play in the US this summer due to visa issues.
Asked why Connolly didn’t simply return to play for Dublin last spring, Caffrey said: “I’m not privy to that. And bizarre, a circus, unreal, a surprise, you can throw out any of these words that are attached to the whole saga of Diarmuid Connolly.
“But from a supporter’s point of view, from a Dublin fan’s point of view, it’s great he’s back in the fold.
“Because at the end of the year when it’s done and dusted and the trophies are all handed out, the only thing you want to be sitting at a counter discussing with anybody is: ‘Look, did we give ourselves the best chance?’ And I think bringing Rory O’Carroll and Diarmuid Connolly back into the fold, late and all as it was, I think all the boxes were ticked in terms of: ‘Yeah, we’ve given ourselves the best chance’.”
Caffrey shrugged when it was put to him that Connolly will have to be mentally strong to switch from preparing to play club football in Boston to potentially featuring in an All-Ireland semi-final or final.
“I don’t claim to know the guy intimately,” said Caffrey, who managed Dublin to four Leinster titles between 2005 and 2008, and worked with Leinster’s inter-provincial team. “I managed him, I gave him his debut. All I know is he’s the best footballer that I ever had in my dressing-room, I’m talking club level, county level, Leinster level. Never had a better talent. So we’re not talking about an ordinary guy here.”
Connolly didn’t feature at all in this year’s Allianz league or the 2018 Championship and only appeared briefly as a substitute in last year’s league against Mayo.
His return after so much time out could frustrate some Dublin players, particularly the fringe performers who may be relegated down the pecking order by his availability. “It’s a good question but do you know what, they’re always upset,” said Caffrey of the players between 16 and 26 on the panel. “And 26 to 35 are even more upset. While you have to consider everybody, we’re in the business end of things now. Dublin are trying to do something that has never been done by any team in the history of the game. I think Jim made the decision for the team and if Diarmuid Connolly can force his way up the pecking order, it will turn out to be a great decision.”
So far this summer, they’ve breezed through their five games with 88 points to spare in total though Caffrey isn’t convinced they will stroll to the five-in-a-row. “The way their Super 8s group panned out is as expected but I would be very concerned that Kerry are coming, and they are coming at a rate of knots. With the new batch that are coming in, they are going to match and surpass Dublin for pace eventually. Whether it happens this year or not, I’m not so sure but they are coming and when they come they will take over. Donegal to me are probably the most impressive team in terms of what they have done and the football they have played. Michael Murphy, pound for pound, is the best player in Ireland this year.
“They probably don’t have as many weapons as Kerry have, but with Murphy, McBrearty and McHugh, you’d go watching them every Sunday.
“So I think Dublin are going to have it all to do to win this All-Ireland.”