06 September 1991
Martin OConnell - destined for greatness
by Jimmy Geoghegan
Every team should have one. Most successful teams possess one and those who dont wish they did have one. They are the players which can be called upon to occupy any position; to dutifully fill in at a moments notice for an injured or out-of-form colleague. Some call them utility players, while others refer to them as useful additions but they are generally regarded as invaluable assets to a side which finds itself suddenly in a crisis. One of the best known of this rare footballing species is Martin OConnell- Meaths Mr. Versatility.
In his long established career as a footballer, OConnell has just about played in every position on the club and county teams - right back, left- back, full-back, midfield, half-back and, even on occasions, full-forward.
The variations in positions is a testament to the variety of skills which the St. Michaels man possesses in his footballing armoury.
It is however, as Meaths wing-back that OConnell has established himself as one of the finest footballers in the country, earning the praise of fellow players, supporters and journalists who have all recognised the remarkable talents which the player possesses, modest and self-effacing himself, OConnell plays down the contribution he has made to the recent remarkable resurgence of football fortunes in the Royal county.
At 28 the St. Michaels man is at the peak of his career. At an age when the two priceless qualities of youth and experience blend in a subtle powerful mixture which acts as a willing ally to the natural talents which the player possesses. Such talent was recognised very early in his career.
OConnells present position as one of the most widely respected players in the country was one which was not achieved overnight. His fledgling football career started at the early age of eight, making his way onto the under age teams of his local club Carlanstown - who, in 1980, were to amalgamate with Kilbeg to form OConnells present team, St. Michaels.
Even at such an early age OConnell was not a tall figure among his peers. He remained relatively small until well into his teens but even the diminutive size of the boy OConnell could not shroud the immense talents which were finding expression on the playing fields of Meath. As height began to gradually accompany this talent the blonde, curly-haired youngster attracted interested glances from those who saw something a little different - a little special.
While most of his contemporaries were still involved in under-age competitions the blond youth was being gradually thrown in with the big boys. At 15 OConnell was a substitute on the Carlanstown team which won the Division 3 championship in 1978 when they defeated Rathmolyon by 2-4 to 0-5 after a replay.
Gradually he made his way into the side becoming a permanent member of the local senior team, while county selectors could be seen huddled on the sidelines watching nondescript Division 2 and 3 League games in the middle of winter, taking mental notes of the midfielder, sometimes attacker, sometimes defender who amazingly appeared to feel comfortable in any of these positions. It wasnt long before the call came. The letter slipped through the door asking him would he like to play for the county minors - the blond bombshells inter-county career was underway.
OConnells qualities as a footballer are those which many good inter-county footballers possess. There is the strength, good catching agility, the vision, but OConnells game is imbued with that extra edge, mainly the marvellous anticipation, the skill to intercept the long dangerous ball sent in to an awaiting half-forward or forward and in so doing frustrating many well laid attacking plans. Then there is the fiery determination - the willingness to work hard at his game, the unwillingness to give up in the face of impossible odds - the mark of the Meath player in the brave new world of the Boylan era.
Today OConnell is as much a part of the Meath set-up as Boylan himself. Both emerged on the scene approximately at the same time. OConnell the eager young player about to embark on a long journey on the rough seas of inter-county football, Boylan drafted in on a temporary basis as Meaths new manager. Boylan was known more in the county as a hurler who had played for years with Meath. He was just going to be a stop-gap until they got someone more permanent: what would he know about football anyway?
Meath were then a team floundering in mid-stream, once a great and respected power but now reduced to scratching around the bottom of the first division or in the second. Winning an OByrne Cup was deemed an occasion for celebrations. But unknown to OConnell and Boylan and ORourke and Lyons and the rest, it was a time when the first glimpses of light of a new golden day could be seen, however faintly, in the east.
And as it turned out, Boylan did know quite a bit about football. He was quick to recognise the talents of the 20year-old OConnell who had already served his apprenticeship in the inter-county scene in the Meath minors, Under-21s and even a run out or two with the juniors. OConnell was about to become part of the new era when he was drafted into the senior squad for the League campaign 83/84. The following summer the St. Michaels player began his championship career when he lined out for the Royals against near neighbours Westmeath in the first round.
It was a mixed start for the young OConnell - Meath won but the young half-back was to sustain a broken bone in his finger. It was one of the first of many injuries OConnell was to suffer in the rough and tumble world of club and inter-county football. Later he was to see his career burdened by such knocks, as a broken collar bone, cracked ribs, groin strains and pulled ligaments.
The litany of war wounds is perhaps the best compliment which can be paid to OConnells determination to get that ball at whatever cost to his own physical well being. It is said that OConnell will miss Mass before he will miss training as he constantly seeks to maintain his fitness at the level needed to compete with the best in the game.
This year this burning determination was most graphically and dramatically seen in the last dying moments of the fourth contest between Dublin and Meath to decide who should go into the second round of the championship. It seemed all over for Meath - a sad sight as the belief began to solidify that we would never see these players in Croke Park on All-lreland day again. It was the last dying moments not just of a game but of an era.
Meath had problems everywhere and Dublin were leading by three points. Loud whistles were coming from the hill. A ball, which appeared to be trickling out over the Meath endline, would have wasted a few more precious moments. It looked like a certain dead-ball. But OConnell didnt see it like that as he tigerishly chased after it and just barely prevented it from going wide. His pass to colleague Mick Lyons was to initiate a protracted passing movement which was to involve eight players and end with Kevin Foley crashing the ball to the net for an unbelievable equaliser for Meath. A moment later David Beggy got the winner - incredible.
Afterwards OConnell recounted how he had just man aged to prevent the ball from crossing the line with only millimetres to spare. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights in OConnells career which has seen him capture almost every honour the game of Gaelic football has to offer- two All-lreland medals, in 1987 and 1988, two All-Star awards in 1988 and 1990, five Leinster medals, 2 National League 2 Railway Cup medals, not to mention the Junior and Intermediate championship medals won with St. Michaels.
The nature of OConnells versatile and schizophrenic like footballing life is reflected in the fact that while playing for his club OConnell is usually seen in the midfield position, while with the county he is usually in the familiar number 7 shirt - usually anyway. He has often had to fill in at full-back and midfield for Meath as well. In the 1986 All-lreland semi-final against l~erry, the twenty-three year old OConnell was posted in at full-forward. Meath, at the time, were on the verge of the big breakthrough but a mix-up in the Royal goalmouth allowed Ger Power in for an easy, morale-crushing goal and Meath lost by 213 to 0-12. Neither was it a great day for the young OConnell who only managed a point but a very valuable experience had been gained.
The value of OConnells wide dispersals of talents have being enviously recognised by opponents - particularly opposition managers who know the value of a multi-talented player in their squad. Dublins Paddy Cullen has long admired the Meath players varied skills.
"He is an excellent all round player, probably the best Meath player over the past few years. He is a great natural footballer but he works very hard at his game. He is also a very solid defender who will never miss a ball and he will play in any position. Some players will say I cant play there or I dont like playing in that position but thats not the case with Martin OConnell and you cant ask any more than that," said the Dublin manager.
The fact that Martin OConnell had grown into a player to earn plaudits will, perhaps, not come as a surprise to those who know his background which is steeped in football. One of his grand-uncles, Bill Dillon, played for Meath in the 19~0s while another uncle, Tom Dillon, played for both Meath and Louth in the early fifties.
With such a background it is perhaps not surprising that Martin OConnell has such a reservoir of skills which he will no doubt continue to display in his customary wing-half position or midfield or full-back or full-forward or ...?
Taken from Hogan Stand
6th September 1991