By Damian Dolan
If Dunedin Connollys have a point to prove on Saturday in Edinburgh, then it’s nothing compared to the fire burning inside of their captain Dan O’Brien.
Forced to sit out the club’s All Ireland semi-final defeat to St Patrick’s Rock at the start of the year, having broken his hand just days before the biggest game in the club’s history, O’Brien is a man on a mission.
It was a bitter disappointment for the Carlow-native, after last year helping the club end John Mitchels monopoly of the All Britain and to a historic first-ever club championship victory, when they defeated Rosenallis of Laois.
O’Brien cut a frustrated figure on the sideline that day in Tyrone, as he could only watch on as St Patrick’s inflicted a nine-point defeat on the Edinburgh side.
“That’s given me the fire to go as hard as I can this year to try to prove a point, as it has all the lads,” said O’Brien. “We strongly believe that we let ourselves down in that semi-final.
“Standing on the sideline when the team weren’t really fulfilling their potential was very frustrating. Watching football is a lot harder than playing, especially when you feel like you could have contributed.
“On All Ireland final day, watching The Rock in Croke Park, you got the feeling in your gut of what could have been, so this year we’re going to make sure that there’s no ‘what could have been’.”
O’Brien has been as good as his word so far, leading the club to a thirteenth Scotland title in the last 15 years, and to back-to-back All Britain championships with victory over Sean McDermotts in the final.
It’s not been all plane sailing, though. They needed extra-time to see off Glasgow Gaels to retain the Scotland championship.
They were beginning to hit their stride when they eased past St Nick’s and St Colmcilles in the All Britain, but were given a run for their money by a McDermotts side looking to end their 32-year wait for a British title.
“We were two points down with five minutes left [against Glasgow Gaels], but our manager Alan Ward changed a few positions. We just started to win dirty ball around the middle of the field and two of our forwards turned up with massive scores for us,” said O’Brien, who is in his fourth year with the club.
“McDermotts really put it up to us, but a little bit of quality in our forward line managed to get us over the line.
“We knew that McDermotts were in their 60th year and they have a lot of homegrown players, so they had that incentive.
“But we knew that if we fronted up and won the forward battle we’d have the quality to get over the line, and that’s what happened.”
Former Mayo senior panellist Sean Malee kicked 1-9 (5f) in a display O’Brien describes a “phenomenal”.
The Mayo influence is strong within the side, with Malee forming part of an all-Mayo attack alongside Frank Molloy and Damien Keane, while in the full back line there’s Brendan Parsons, a brother of Mayo panellist Tom, and Conor Horan in the half back line.
For O’Brien, though, it’s the vigour added by the club’s new additions, such as wing back Thomas Fitzgerald, centre forward Alda Matassa and goalkeeper Tony Harbinson, which has been one of the key factors behind Dunedin’s march to another All Ireland quarter-final.
He also points to last year’s All Britain success, which ended Mitchels four-in-a-row hopes. Signalling as it did, a change in the natural order within Britain. Well beaten “by a much better team” in John Mitchels in the 2013 final, Dunedin crashed out to the Liverpool side again the next year.
“The two times Mitchels made it to the All Ireland final, they beat Dunedin along the way, not surprising then that Mitchels have been the bar by which Dunedin have measured themselves against.
“Last year Cormac O’Gara (former manager) took us aside and said ‘this is our time, let’s go for it’ so we gathered ourselves and went hell for leather,” said O’Brien. “It paid off by beating John Mitchels in extra-time, and that lifted us.
“We’re now the best in Britain and we’ve only gained confidence from that, and we’ve tried to carry that into this year.”
At the helm this year is club stalwart Alan Ward, who has taken over the reins from O’Gara, with O’Brien likening him to Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.
“Alan’s a very clever man when it comes to football, tactically. He’s constantly working with his players. “He’s always in your ear, on the pitch and in training sessions,” said O’Brien, for whom corner back Fintan Kearney is an example of that.
In and out of the team last year, Kearney “came to the fore” in the All Britain final and is fulfilling his “potential”. Something O’Brien credits Ward for.
O’Gara may have moved on, but the management team has been augmented by former player Robbie Howe, who was forced to retire this year with a hip injury at the age of 29. O’Brien describes him as a “huge inspiration”.
“He’s as passionate as any of us and loves the club. He’s another reason why we want to do well – we want to fulfil the potential that he sees in us,” added O’Brien.
Favourites throughout the year, Dunedin will assume the unfamiliar guise of underdogs at Granton Road on Saturday, as they look to replicate their victory over Rosenallis. Naomh Colmcille will be a major obstacle however.
“The Donegal championship is very tough to win and then they beat Tattyreagh St Patrick’s, who were favourites, in the Ulster semifinal. They’ve been underdogs the whole way through, but have beaten everyone put before them,” said O’Brien.
“We’ll respect them, but they’re going to have to respect us.” Dunedin Connollys and O’Brien have a point to prove.