GAA Football

Monaghan's running man: From the track to the field, Karl O'Connell making up for lost time

He may be one of Malachy O'Rourke's go-to men in a Monaghan outfit not short on star turns but, as Neil Loughran finds out, Karl O'Connell hasn't had a traditional journey to the top of the inter-county game...

Karl O'Connell's rampaging runs from deep have been a feature of the Monaghan side that has won two Ulster titles since 2013. Picture by Philip Walsh

THIRTY seconds – that’s all it took. A beautifully weighted ball in from Stephen Gollogly bounces perfectly into the chest of Christopher McGuinness.

Beneath a scorching summer sun at St Tiernach’s Park, the men in Saffron jerseys are caught cold in the heat. McGuinness, facing the Antrim goal, lays off quickly as a steam train chugs straight down the track to his right.

“It was a hot day and I remember Dessie Mone telling myself and Kieran Duffy on the half-back line not to be making any silly runs for 10 or 15 minutes, just so we got up to speed with the game.

“But then, when I got up that far, it was too good to turn down so I said ‘frig it’, I’m going on here…”

That was May 27, 2012 and this was the first 30 seconds of Karl O’Connell’s Monaghan career.

Not a ball kicked in League or even Dr McKenna Cup before, Eamonn McEneaney rolled the dice and threw him in at the deep end.

“I was training all year and just couldn’t get on. Next thing I got a chance...”

Taking the ball on the run from McGuinness, he burned past Mark Sweeney and careered into acres of grass towards the goal at the town end, the gap widening with every gallop.

As he neared the end line O’Connell slowed up and cut back inside Sweeney, the goal now at his mercy.

His initial effort was brilliantly saved by Chris Kerr at full stretch but landed back at the feet of O’Connell and he fired into an empty net.

A roar of “come on”, a single fist pump, and quickly back to base.

Scoring a first minute goal on your Championship debut is a big enough deal. Doing it at Clones, the home of Monaghan football, surely that’s the stuff that boyhood dreams are made of?

For some maybe, but not Karl O’Connell.

This was no wonderkid announcing himself on the big stage, a county’s worst kept secret finally given wings at senior level. O’Connell was 23 when he made that lung-bursting run.

Up until six years earlier he had never played a game of Gaelic football. Despite attending a GAA-mad school at ‘The Sem’, St Macartan’s College, it just wasn’t on his radar.

Instead, O’Connell dipped his toes in other disciplines.

He has always loved soccer, and could chat away for hours about the heyday of Serie A during the 1990s.

“Myself and my friends were big fans then. Every time I see anything about that time, all I think of is George Weah’s goal for AC Milan against Verona. Unreal,” he says, recalling the Liberian striker's majestic pitch-length run and finish in front of a stunned San Siro 22 years ago.

Then there was athletics. His brother Ciaran was a talented 800m runner, representing Ireland in his pomp during the mid-2000s.

The younger sibling, perhaps unsurprisingly for anybody who has witnessed his explosive raids from deep, was more suited to the sprint distances when he joined Ciaran at Glaslough Harriers.

“I probably started that when I was about 11 or 12.

“I’d have done anything from the 100 to 400 metres really, but I preferred the 200 metres and the long jump. At the time I didn’t really take it serious, I was happy enough with what I was doing and I didn’t really want to go on any further.

“Ciaran would have trained away on his own a lot of time and it just didn’t go that well with me. He was doing very well at the time but I just thought it looked very lonely, and that I’d rather be involved with a team.”

Rugby also got a look-in, but O’Connell had no ambitions to emulate another fleet-footed flyer from the Farney County.

“I played a bit with Monaghan Rugby Club… I was more or less thrown onto the wing and told if the ball came my way to go with it, and if I could put a tackle in well go ahead. But most of the time boys were just bigger than me and they’d trample over me.

“It’s a good set-up though, I enjoyed it. Davy McGregor was the coach, I had a lot of respect for him. I played a few senior games, I found it very hard to say no to him.

“But I was never going to be Tommy Bowe.”

And then, after some gentle persuasion from close friend Ronan McNally, who had seen O’Connell’s form on the track, he was convinced to come down to the field in Tyholland and try out.

Now 17, Gaelic football did not come naturally at first.

Big names like Bernard Brogan, Lee Keegan, Brian Fenton, Conor Gormley and Eoin ’Bomber’ Liston may never have played minor at county level, but O’Connell laughs at the notion of being listed in such esteemed company.

“I was still only getting my bearings around the game then.

“I was late to it, so it took me a while to get into the swing of things. A lot of people helped me - Eoin McNally from Tyholland, for example.

“When I couldn’t get the basic stuff sorted, he was there for me. No matter if it was picking the ball off the ground, looking up after a solo, standing a man up to tackle him.

“Dwayne McCarey was the minor trainer at the time, those two boys took me in, gave me their time and I have to thank them for that.

“I suppose it really kicked in with Declan Loughman when he managed us in 2006. He’s a county legend, and himself and Colm Donnelly helped me a lot, showed me what it meant to play for Monaghan.

“It was Declan who gave me the belief that, you know what, I might be able to play.”

O’Connell hasn’t looked back since.

Now 30, he is one of the go-to men on Malachy O’Rourke’s side, playing a key role in the 2013 and 2015 Ulster Championship-winning campaigns, earning himself an Allstar nomination in the latter.

Living in Dublin in a house also shared by Monaghan team-mate Colin Walshe, O’Connell works as a recruitment consultant at Building Staff Solutions.

As a former electrician bitten by the recession, now specialising in the rehabilitation of the construction industry, he has seen his fair share of boom and bust – just as Monaghan football has in the past decade.

O’Connell well remembers the first time O’Rourke gathered the players together at the Hillgrove Hotel. When he left, the hairs were still standing on the back of his neck.

But now they all stand at a crossroads. Now entering the sixth year of the O’Rourke regime, last August’s horribly one-sided All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to the all-conquering Dubs prompted a reflection session like no other.

“You probably disappear off the radar from family and friends for a few days... it’s the best way. You want to be left alone with the people who you share the heartache with.

“You probably talk about it a bit but after a while there doesn’t be much said. Come the second day, third day, fourth day, whatever day it is, it kind of takes a back seat.

“You realise it’s done and there’s nothing you can do about it, though the alcohol probably helps that feeling.

“To be honest though, I find it easy enough to switch off once I’m away from football. Outside of it, I’ve no interest. If I wasn’t playing I wouldn’t follow it. I don’t watch it, believe it or not.

“When it’s over, you catch up on the rest of your life and the things you maybe parked for months but at the same time, when we’re in the middle of it, I love the commitment, love being involved in it.”

Back at it now and feeling fresh, the car-pool up to Cloghan is in full swing. All-Ireland finalists Mayo are first up, travelling to Clones this weekend.

If that doesn’t get the juices flowing, and help put a forgettable 2017 firmly in the rear-view mirror, then nothing will.

Clontibret sharpshooter Conor McManus remains Monaghan's main scoring threat heading into the National League. Picture by Philip Walsh

THE VERDICT

THIS is a potentially huge year for Malachy O’Rourke and so many of these Monaghan players who have spent time on the road together.

Expectations were high after the Ulster Championship successes of 2013 and 2015, but the end of the National League last year brought perhaps unprecedented levels of optimism.

The Farneymen were flying. Wins over Mayo and Kerry either side of a bizarre low scoring draw with Cavan set the tone, and on the last day of the Division One campaign they led the all-conquering Dubs by six 11 minutes into the second half.

Crucially, with the returning Jack McCarron in sensational form, O’Rourke at last looked to have a free-scoring alternative to Clontibret sharp-shooter Conor McManus.

Young Conor McCarthy was also starting to showcase his outrageous talent on a more consistent basis when afforded the opportunity. The omens were good.

Then, for one reason or another, it fell apart. Talk of an Ulster final date with Tyrone was abruptly ended by Down before the Dubs finished them off in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

McCarron left his best form behind him in the League, failing to sparkle in the summer. At times in their first clash with the Mournemen, they looked completely one dimensional, while their renowned defensive solidity eluded them.

The Dublin defeat might even have hurt more. Barely a glove was laid on their vaunted opponents who coasted to victory.

Monaghan players have spoken publicly about the fact they had missed a trick by coming out so defensively.

Some fresh ideas, and perhaps fresh legs, are required in 2018. The gap to Tyrone in Ulster has widened, while there is now a yawning chasm separating Dublin and most of the chasing pack.

Last year Monaghan went hell for leather at the League and it cost them come Championship, and O’Rourke has indicated he will reconsider that approach ahead of a busy year that could prove make-or-break for many of this group.

Barry McGinn missed most of last year with a cruciate injury but his return for the League is a big boost to the Farneymen. Picture by Colm O'Reilly

ONES TO WATCH

THE long-serving Stephen Gollogly followed fellow veterans Paul Finlay and Dick Clerkin into retirement during the off-season, although the Carrickmacross man had been more of a fringe player as Malachy O’Rourke starts to look towards the future.

Ballybay’s Dessie Ward started the first and last Championship games of last summer, against Fermanagh and Dublin, and will hope to become a regular starter this year.

Conor McCarthy has been flagged up as one to watch for a couple of years now and, used largely as a super-sub in 2017, showcased why he is so highly regarded. Big things are once again expected this year.

Barry McGinn, another member of the Ulster U21 title-winning Farney team of 2016, missed the whole inter-county season with a cruciate injury but is expected to be back for the start of the League.

Having the Doohamlet man back would be a boost to the forward division, while young David Garland served notice of his potential at times during the Dr McKenna Cup.

A star at minor and U21 level, as well as with his club Donaghmoyne and school Patrician, Carrickmacross, Garland bagged 1-4 in the victory over Queen’s University.

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