In the preeminent sports movie of a generation, Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino gives what is simply known as the ‘Inches Speech’.
“You know when you get old in life, things get taken from you. But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out that life is just a game of inches. So is football.
“Because in either game life or football the margin for error is so small (…). The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in every break of the game, every minute, every second.”
The real world invigoration of the ‘Inches Speech’ was no more apparent than when Dublin survived a vociferous Mayo onslaught and warriors lay strewn across the hallowed amphitheatre of Croke Park. Among the triumphant Dublin heroes was Diarmuid Connolly, and it’s about time that we gave him his due.
We all know of the events of June. Connolly was given a twelve-week suspension for his physical altercation with sideline official Ciaran Brannigan during a Dublin demolition of Carlow. No-one needs reminding of the exhausting ‘Free Dermo’ campaign which followed. Not for the first time, Connolly’s name was dragged through the mud.
In what feels like a yearly occurrence, we wrangled over his availability for the latter stages of the championship and debated on whether the loose cannon could be trusted with his place on a team that continued to act as the GAA’s juggernaut. On Sunday, all of those criticisms were vanquished as Connolly finally transcended his image and became what Dublin truly needed from arguably the most gifted footballer of his generation; his waxing into a leader.
As conspiracy theorists mooted potential changes to Jim Gavin’s starting XV for the final, Connolly became rooted to the bench while Eoghan O’Gara became the outlier. However, in a forward line that stagnated at times during the opening stanza of the final, Connolly was sprung with Kevin McManamon at half-time, replacing the duo of O’Gara and Paddy Andrews.
While Ciaran Kilkenny remained manacled by Connolly’s arch nemesis Lee Keegan, the 30-year-old began spraying ball from the centre of the field, quickly releasing an unshackled Dublin forward line. The influence this had on proceedings cannot be understated as scores began to emerge, often with great ease.
He sat back like an NFL quarterback alongside Brian Fenton and James McCarthy, who were free to take pop passes from onrushing inside forwards converting three second-half points between them. With quick ball reaching the corners, Paul Mannion racked up four second-half points all on his own while Dean Rock kept ticking over. Mayo never died off, despite the plethora of All-Stars and fresh legs that kept bull-rushing towards them. As they maintained their lead, dodging the ambush, Connolly upped it a level.
In taking the ball from outside the western front that ran along the 45-metre line all day, he dropped his shoulder, riding three tackles. As Joe McQuillan raised his arm to signal an advantage to the St Vincent’s club man, he scored what should go down as one of the superlative individual scores of any championship. It was one of those scores that didn’t receive the scream it deserved from the Hill, probably out of the crowd’s bewilderment as much as anything else.
— The GAA (@officialgaa) September 17, 2017
While we are used to magnificent shooting from Connolly, the resultant leadership he found within himself, became one of the inches that Mayo could not overcome. Calmly and coyly, the Dublin middle three, spearheaded by Connolly, ushered the football across the blanket that shielded the Davin End.
In picking their one-on-one battles, avoiding trouble and targeting flagging bodies, Dublin maintained possession in their most dependable players, rooting out any possibility of a resultant counter attack. At the other end, young unheralded substitutes like Conor Loftus and Stephen Coen found themselves in difficult territory, bottled up as they boldly tried to emerge with a score.
Rather than turn the ball over in an equivalent situation, Connolly took charge of the game with the exception of one wayward shot at glory after the 73rd minute. Even with the waves of match-winners in Dublin’s midst, it was clear that upon gaining possession on halfway, there was no longer a thought in Connolly’s mind to delegate responsibility for the ball. Rather, he would put his head down, eating up over twenty metres of ground as he collided mano a mano against the exemplary Chris Barrett, forcing Joe McQuillan to make a difficult situation which could decide the All-Ireland final. The rest is history. Connolly’s legacy cemented.
Mayo played a near perfect game and what will go erased is the remarkable fact that Jim Gavin was outplayed tactically by Stephen Rochford. Bringing Diarmuid O’Connor off the bench as the man to elongate Mayo’s early game intensity to the dying minutes was a gutsy and well-executed call and for the most part Mayo found themselves winning the elusive 50/50 calls and balls.
Things broke their way for the most part, including going long from kick outs and not having to deal with Jack McCaffrey after he damaged his knee in the opening five minutes; all until Cillian O’Connor hit the post with immortality at stake. It’s not as simple as saying that Mayo bottled it in that miss, or Vaughan’s red card, or even David Clarke’s muffed kick out. The ball rapping off the post left the door open, but it was up to Connolly to take it from there.
Instead of shrinking in the moment, the two-time All-Star embraced it and made the circus that follows him worthwhile. You may have issues with his past, but perceptions of Connolly may change from here if he can continue to show this level of maturity.
Dean Rock’s mettle in converting the subsequent free may be the moment we see replayed in every montage until next June, but it was the inches Connolly fought for and the calmness he demonstrated throughout the final stanza that closed out championship 2017.
Garbh Madigan, Pundit Arena