GAA: CONN THEIR WAY BACK; Injury gives David and Keith chance.
For a while, in 1996 and early '97, the two young forwards, born within 16 months of each other in the mid-seventies, were hip and trendy. Scoring goals, earning rave reviews, offering promise in an era of change, they were the happening thing in Irish football.
Then as quickly as they had arrived, they were gone. Like an aircraft over the Bermuda Triangle, they simply disappeared off our radar screens.
Injury, loss of form, limited club opportunities and the spectacular emergence of Robbie Keane combined to ambush the pair Mick McCarthy once described as his millennium strike force.
O'Neill, once linked with Newcastle in a multi-million pound deal, has played ten minutes of international football in 20 months.
Connolly, tipped to break Frank Stapleton's goals record after racing to six in his first seven internationals, saw his last brief competitive appearance end in red-card shame.
Two years ago the odds on either man slipping into the shadows would have been in the same region as that quoted against Joe Dolan ever releasing on album of Britpop covers.
But in recent times the Mullingar bachelor has gone trendy, while Irish fans have heard only marginally more about Connolly and O'Neill than they have of Liam Daish, Dave Savage or Liam O'Brien.
Over the next fortnight, as McCarthy approaches the game that could be the making of his managerial career, that will change.
With the Irish boss yesterday accepting that Keane will not be ready for Wednesday week's match in Yugoslavia, O'Neill and Connolly suddenly vault to the front of the queue.
Basically McCarthy has two options: Revert to 4:5:1 and play Niall Quinn as a lone striker; or recall either O'Neill or Connolly to partner the big Sunderland target-man.
The rearranged Belgrade fixture will help shape the Group Eight jigsaw - and the forgotten men have emerged among the key pieces.
Having stalled on the grid after taking pole position, both are currently trying to kick-start their careers once again.
O'Neill's catalogue of injury problems - he broke down early in the game on his international comeback against Croatia in September - could form a special supplement of Lancet.
He played just nine times for Norwich last season, scoring only once. And he has started just six games so far this term.
However his goal in the Coca-Cola Cup last week was a timely boost for a player valued by McCarthy both for his electric pace and his direct style - both on the wing and as a central striker.
"No defender likes an opponent with pace. Robbie has it and so does Keith. They can put the defender on the back foot and thereby force them into making mistakes," says McCarthy.
The manager has not lost faith, but O'Neill could be forgiven for bringing a suit-case full of lucky-charms with him to Belgrade.
"It has been a desperately trying time," says the Dubliner, "but I really hope it is all behind me now. I am still only 22 and I am sure my best years are ahead of me."
It is ironic that injury to Keane should offer Connolly a chance to relaunch his career at both club and international level. For the former's route to teenage superstardom has taken him across the Connolly's still visible footprints.
Connolly is not as talented a player as the Tallaght tyro. The older man simply doesn't possess the same scope of gifts.
But his early career with Ireland prompted Feyenoord, who were also signing players from Barcelona and Ajax at the time, to offer him pounds 12,000 a week to abandon Vicarage Road for Holland.
If that move sent his bank balance into overdrive, it left his career in neutral. After scoring on his debut, he struggled. It didn't help that Arie Haan, the manager who signed him, was soon replaced by Leo Beenhakker.
"Shortly after Beenhakker arrived, he took me off in one game and I didn't agree with him and told him so. He told me that I would never play for his team again. He was true to his word," recalls Connolly wistfully.
His fall was as rapid as it appeared never-ending. Finally when he was sent off for stamping in the World Cup play-off game against Belgium - he accepts he deserved all the subsequent criticism - he had hit rock bottom.
As he admitted in a recent interview: "I went from people saying that I would break Frank Stapleton's record to where they were saying nothing about me at all."
Currently on loan to Wolves, injuries to Keane and Steve Bull have seen him play a dozen games. Significantly, the man who banged in a hat-trick on his Watford debut, has yet to find the net.
He recognises that his confidence needs inflating before he can hope to float like in the early days.
Inclusion in McCarthy's squad for Belgrade would be like a first gust of air.
PLAYER BY PLAYER
NAME: David Connolly
CLUB: Wolves CAPS:13
DEBUT: Portugal (29/5/96
GOALS: Six (USA, Mex, Liech 3, Ice) HIGHPOINT: Liechtenstein hat-trick
LOW POINT: Red Card in Brussels
NAME: Keith O'Neill
DEBUT: Portugal (29/5/96)
GOALS: Four (v Cro, Bol 2, Liech)
HIGHPOINT: Scoring against Croatia
LOW POINT: Constant injury problems
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Nov 5, 1998|
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