Updated: May 18, 2019
Many would argue that the return of Diarmuid Connolly is key to Dublin’s 5 in a row bid. Another school of thought suggests it’s Rory O’Carroll that we need more.
What’s at the top of your wish list for 2019? World peace? Win the lottery? A factory accident involving Donald Trump and a gang of rogue Oompa Loompas reclaiming orange? How about Brexit the stage musical?
Or the return of Rory O’Carroll to the Dublin full back line?
Now you’re talking.
From Christchurch, Dublin, to its counterpart in New Zealand, you’d have a long way to walk before finding a Dubs supporter who thought Rory O’Carroll’s return from the antipodes was a bad thing.
O’Carroll was a brilliant full back.
In 2010, under Jim Gavin’s management he won an All-Ireland Under 21 Football Championship and was named on the team chosen as the best 15 players at Under-21 level between 2005 and 2010. With three All Ireland medals (2011, 2013, 2015) and two All Stars to his name, Rory O’Carroll owes nothing to anybody.
His departure to New Zealand following his 2015 All Ireland Final tour de force performance on Kieran Donaghy was met with consternation by Dub’s fans.
Beyond the initial wailing and much gnashing of teeth lay the most imponderable of questions: who was going to put manners on Donaghy? And how could we replace him?
In truth we haven’t.
Neither Philly McMahon nor Jonny Cooper are traditional full backs. Nor is Mick Fitzsimmons, even though all three of them have put in magnificent collective and individual performances to hold the full back line over the past four years. Aided and abetted by Cian O’Sullivan’s outstanding game intelligence as a sweeper, Dublin’s fantastic four have handled almost every challenge thrown at them since O’Carroll’s departure.
And yet there lingers a hypothesis in GAA circles.
Dublin are vulnerable under the high ball.
Whether Dublin are more susceptible than any other to the most dangerous pass in Gaelic football is a matter of some conjecture.
But if you’re Mickey Harte, James Horan or Peter Keane, you’ll search high and low for a chink in Dublin’s Championship armour.
There’s evidence to be found.
Dublin conceded goals to Galway and Kerry in the All Ireland semi finals of 2018 and 2016 respectively. A long, high diagonal cross to Damien Comer, who fish hooked the ball to the net brilliantly with a punch, made the Dublin full back line look very ordinary. Even worse was Paul Geaney’s goal in 2016 – a calamitous high ball error more worthy of the Keystone Cops than All Ireland champions.
In the recent National League, an under-strength Dublin full back line failed entirely to deal with a high, diagonal ball against Roscommon. A disquieting 3 pointer ensued.
Monaghan’s Stephen O’Hanlon scored a stunning goal by catching over Jonny Cooper’s head when the sides met in Clones. It was the turning of the game. All that remained was for Conor McManus to apply the coup de grace with a well taken mark – once again from a long, diagonal, cross-field ball.
Tyrone too found joy in the NFL.
In a long awaited move to finally choose football over trench warfare, Mickey Harte’s Disney-inspired plan to ‘let it go’ means Dublin will no longer have to play around the Red Hand’s ultra defensive sweeper shell. Long, early ball to Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane is the new vogue.
Down south, perennial rivals Kerry have always utilised the fear lȧidir up front. Bomber Liston and Kieran Donaghy were two of its greatest exponents. In 2019, Kerry plan to use returned AFL star, Tommy Walsh, to play the same role. And at 6’2”, you can also expect das wunderkind David Clifford to wreak havoc in the air.
Division 2 Champions, Donegal, have arguably the best full forward of his generation in Michael Murphy. If evidence from the National League is anything to go by, he’s been given the imprimatur from Declan Bonner to dominate the square instead of roving to midfield.
In short, every major contender to this year’s All Ireland title is building a game plan to unhinge the Dubs at their perceived point of greatest vulnerability.
To Jim Gavin, this will be reading like a Puccini libretto.
So too, does Kieran Donaghy.
The Star destroyed many a full back line in his day, but the one player he never quite managed to outwit was his nemesis, Rory O’Carroll.
This is what Donaghy had to say about him in a recent interview on Off The Ball:
One of the best full backs around. Jim Gavin’s got to bring him in right. He’s just too good.
He was a good guy that would bring it to you hard on the pitch…he was a tough bit of stuff, trust me, but I would say if he gets two months into him, he’d be some option for Dublin come the summer.
Quipped the good humoured Donaghy: What touch do you need to be a full back? Just go out and kill all around you and Rory’s well able for that!
While O’Carroll isn’t exactly blessed with the silky smooth footballing skills of a Paddy Christie (on Dubs TV, O’Carroll once joked that if there was one thing he could change about himself it would be to ‘kick the ball’), he is intelligent, strong, and titanium tough. He’s a streetwise brawler with unflappable cool and a flashing smile.
Rory O’Carroll is the Bruce Willis of the Dublin full back line.
That Jim Gavin would invite him to rejoin the squad is not a done deal. That O’Carroll would choose to rejoin the squad is not a done deal either.
Rory is his own man.
When he’s not giving Tedx Talks on social constructionism, the former arts student and social worker is known for his independent thinking.
I’m open to the idea I could play again and I’m open to the idea I may never play again, said O’Carroll soon after parting for New Zealand. O’Carroll creates his own reality.
The temptation for Jim Gavin to bring O’Carroll back into the squad will be strong. Gavin will be acutely aware of the high ball threat and O’Carroll’s proven ability to handle it.
As long as he can find match sharp inter-country form and fitness, O’Carroll presents an obvious solution.
Will he rejoin the squad or won’t he? That’s the question on every Dublin fan’s lips.