Connolly’s must seize chance for All-Ireland greatness

Dunedin Connollys must seize chance for All Ireland greatness
Dunedin Connolly’s celebrate winning their third All-Britain title in a row

All-Ireland Club JFC Quarter-Final Preview

By Damian Dolan

The time is now if this group of Dunedin Connolly’s players are to fully deliver on their potential, and bring an All-Ireland title back to Scotland and the city of Edinburgh.

Now battled hardened and well attuned to the demands of club championship football, Dunedin step purposefully into the tournament for a third consecutive year, when they take on Donegal and Ulster champions Red Hugh’s on Sunday.

Sights, and expectations, have never been higher. For full back and captain Dan O’Brien, it’s high time the British champions truly announced themselves on the All-Ireland stage.

“We’re under no illusions; we know this is a golden period for Dunedin’s at the minute and we really do need to take full advantage of that.” O’Brien told the Irish World. “We have to make hay while the sun shines.”

Dunedin’s thrilling victory over London intermediate champions Neasden Gaels in this year’s British final cemented the Scottish club’s standing at provincial level.

 

It saw them emulate John Mitchel’s feat of winning three provincial titles in a row (2013-15).

But the Liverpool club twice went on to reach the All-Ireland final, in 2015 and 2009, only to lose out by a point on both occasions, and if Connolly’s are to be mentioned in the same breath as that Mitchel’s team then they must now transfer their All-Britain dominance to the club championship.

But there’s also a more personal motivation for O’Brien.

“This could be last chance saloon for some members of the squad…..you want to win it for those guys,” added O’Brien.

“Guys like Frank Molloy, Ronan McGurk, Alan Ward and John Dolan have soldiered for years for Connolly’s, before the club won its first British title (2009). Now we have four.

“Us newer guys, we want to give them something for all their years of service.”

Knocked out by Donegal champions Naomh Colmcille last year, Connolly’s do have one All-Ireland scalp to their name. They beat Laois’ Rosenallis in the quarter-finals in 2016, before coming up against a good St Patrick’s Rock team.

Dunedin Connolly’s captain Dan O’Brien

St Patrick’s was a game O’Brien missed, having broken his hand just days prior, while he regards last year’s defeat to Naomh Colmcille as an “opportunity missed”. Sights this year are understandably “set high”.

The club set its stall out way back on 2 January. Twenty-eight players turning up for a meeting at which the team’s three goals for 2018 were clearly outlined; defend their Scottish title, retain the British championship, and there are no prizes for guessing what the third target was.

“We’ve got two of those three scratched off and now we’re going all guns blazing to try and get that third one,” said O’Brien.

“We have experience in this competition, but we haven’t played many games. Red Hugh’s have come out of a Donegal championship and then through a very tough Ulster championship.

“These guys are going to be flying and willing to give their all. We have to respect them (Red Hugh’s), but they have to respect us too.

“They’ll have done their homework with us having played Naomh Colmcille last year…..we just have to go out and give it our best shot.

 

“We’re representing the whole of the UK. We’re going back to Ireland and we want to showcase the high standard over here.

“There’s maybe a few misconceptions back home that the standard goes down when you leave Ireland. That’s certainly not the case.”

Sunday will be Dunedin’s third consecutive All-Ireland meeting with Ulster opposition, after being comprehensively knocked out at the semi-final stage by St Patrick’s Rock in January 2017 and last year’s narrow loss to Naomh Colmcille.

That experience of playing Ulster teams will hopefully stand to Connolly’s.

“They like to get men behind the ball and we’ve worked on being patient when we have the ball, and how we can break that down. There were a lot of lessons learnt,” added O’Brien.

Stranglehold

Dunedin’s stranglehold on the Scottish senior title was continued with a 3-9 to 1-8 victory over fierce rivals Glasgow Gaels, with Warwickshire’s Sean McDermotts and Cuchulainns of Yorkshire seen off on route to an All-Britain final clash with Neasden.

Victory over the Londoners sealed a third British title in a row – an achievement O’Brien describes as “unbelievable”.

It comes nine years after the club won its first All-Britain title, when they defeated a John Mitchel’s side, which earlier that year had gone on to reach Croke Park.

“I don’t think anybody in the club would have thought that in nine years time we’d have won another three, and that we’d do it all in a row,” said O’Brien.

“The hunger is built around the guys on the team. We’ve got really strong characters, guys who never shy away from a battle. That’s what they love more than anything else.”

Aware of Neasden’s attacking threat, spearheaded by 2017 Down All-Star nominee Connaire Harrison, Dunedin backed their defence.

“We knew they had very good forwards and a game plan, but we utilised our strength. We knew we had some very good man markers and we got all of our matchups right. That’s credit to our management team,” said O’Brien.

That management team is led by former player John Dolan, who took over the Bainisteoir’s bib from Alan Ward, with the Sligo native ably supported by player/coach Sean Malee and Niall Considine. Something akin to Liverpool FC’s fabled boot room.

It also comes from a shared ethos and a pride in pulling on the Dunedin Connolly’s jersey, passed on by the team’s core group of players, and quickly embraced by its newest arrivals.

“Every year that you’re here the jersey means that little bit more to you. When you first come over you join a GAA club just to stay playing football and make some friends, but as the years go by these people become your football family,” said O’Brien.

“It becomes your actual club and not just your adopted club. That’s where we’re really lucky at Connolly’s.”

Provincial Council of Britain Chairperson Paul Foley presents the cup to Dan O’Brien

That core group, for O’Brien, is Dunedin’s “main strength”. O’Brien himself is coming up on six years with the club and says that while he may don the armband, he’s just one of 15 captains on the pitch.

“We’ve a really strong set of lads with lots of character and there’s no way they’re going to go out onto a field and not give it 100 per cent,” he said.

“We click as a unit and then every year we get little influx of one or two [new] players, which is really important. And we’re on a bit of a run that those new players have all been top quality.

“Conor McCann (Armagh) and Tony Dever (Mayo) have come in this year and they’ve been two very serious players for us. They’re big men and they’ve stood up in every single game.”

That pride for the jersey extends to the club’s ladies team, which enjoyed All-Britain success this year on their way to reaching an All-Ireland semi-final.

An incredible, and timely, British championship winning double to mark both the ladies’ team’s 20th Anniversary year, and 30 years since the men’s side was formed.

If the ladies team’s All-Ireland quarter-final win over Na Gaeil was the “icing on the cake” on a memorable year, the men reaching Croke Park would be the “cherry on top”.

It’s already been a historic 2018 for Dunedin Connolly’s, but the best could be yet to come.


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