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Comment: Can Gavin persuade Connolly to return for four in a row bid?

By Declan Bogue

Dublin supremo Jim Gavin, who stands on the precipice of equalling the most successful football boss in the age of the recognised manager if he can deliver a fourth consecutive All-Ireland this September, makes no secret of his belief in leadership structures.

At the GAA/GPA All Stars Awards night late last year, he was interviewed on RTÉ television wearing his military colours and honours, pinned to the lapel of his tuxedo.

He understands the chain of command, of a group working together to achieve something. People's lives depend on it after all, and he has taken that kind of approach into his life as coach of what he likes to call the Dublin senior football team.

Therefore, the significance of the All-Ireland final warm-up last year would not have escaped him.

Despite speculation that Diarmuid Connolly was to complete his return to the starting line-up following his 12-week suspension for 'minor physical interference' with Down linesman Ciaran Branagan in their Leinster Championship win over Carlow, Gavin decided to leave him on the bench for the decider against Mayo.

In the semi-final against Tyrone, despite winning comfortably, Gavin left it until the last minute of normal time to send Connolly on with his suspension completed.

Clearly disappointed with the decision that he would not start, Connolly chose to wear a sleeveless Dublin training top and long tracksuit bottoms for the warm-up.

That may sound trifling, but it put the St Vincent's man out of sync with the rest of the panel, a rare example of dissent. Something that Gavin, with his keen nose for detail, would have been troubled by.

Trailing by a point at half-time, Connolly was brought on for the second half. There is no other logical assessment of that second half but to say that he made the crucial difference when the pressure was on.

In the 57th minute he took possession of the ball and evaded five different challenges with a mixture of feints and shimmies before curling a beautiful shot over the bar into the Canal End.

It was the point of the year, unquestionably.

And with six minutes of added on time, it was Connolly who won the free that Dean Rock converted to seal the victory.

Putting Connolly on was a risk. The only comparable situation in recent times was the case of Kerry's Paul Galvin in 2008. Handed a long suspension for slapping referee Paddy Russell's notebook out of his hands following his dismissal against Clare, he waited until the 59th minute of the All-Ireland final to reappear in the green and gold but was peripheral as Tyrone made their late push for glory.

Connolly has taken his leave of the Dublin team. Over the winter, he did not attend a number of Dublin functions and gave the team holiday a wide berth.

His minutes played with Dublin had been a growing concern. Not named on the matchday panel of 26 for the league game against Kerry, Gavin replied to queries about his absence with: "Just rested up Diarmuid today, that's all."

He wasn't present for the league final against Galway either, leading Gavin to state: "His status at the moment is that both Diarmuid and I agreed that what was best was that he would take a rest over these games.

"He has had a long number of years playing senior inter-county football, as have a lot of this group, so that decision was made in his best interests."

Right now, his future in the GAA looks bleak. In recent weeks, St Vincent's have played in the Dublin Hurling and Football Championships and he has not been seen at either game. Reports have suggested that, at 31, he is simply fed up and not interested in playing football at any level right now.

As is his right too, it must be pointed out. It is possible that after all the fallout of the Carlow situation he finds himself uncomfortable to constant amateur psychological profiles drawn on him.

His individuality has always been his greatest strength, but can be a weakness. In the drawn 2016 All-Ireland final, he insisted on taking a sideline ball off Ciaran Kilkenny, Dublin's point-guard, to attempt a low percentage shot for a point. He missed, and Mayo went down the field in the next play to level matters and force the replay.

Again, it's not something his manager wouldn't have deeply contemplated.

Gavin has shown himself to be an incredible manager. The level of detail the Dublin set-up have on opponents, and the assessment they carry out on themselves, is extraordinary. The recent recruitment of tactical analyst Lisa Fallon - who has achieved spectacular results as a member of Kerry's backroom team and also as a trusted source of advice for Michael O'Neill with his Northern Ireland side - shows how they are prepared to take in new voices and, in the meantime, absorb all they can on their rivals.

However, if he does not have Connolly or Bernard Brogan for the summer, his task becomes much, much harder.

It's at this point that a little bit of the human touch can make a remarkable strategist and thinker the complete package of being player-centred and keeping a genius - the type that can win you an All-Ireland - on board.

Or else, all of a sudden, the door creaks a little wider for the ravenous chasing pack of Mayo, Kerry and Tyrone.

Belfast Telegraph

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