"He absolutely takes off down the Gerry Arthur stand side" - Finlay recalls O'Connell's blistering Monaghan debut
'There's nearly an unwritten contract there… a sense of duty I suppose' - Karl O'Connell.
On the outside, we call them outstanding and outliers and wonder how they're still going this late in the day. In Monaghan, it's what they do.
Karl O'Connell describes it as an 'unwritten contract' and Paul Finlay, who played for 14 years himself, says he did it because it was what's expected. That's the deal. The light doesn't die.
"It's what they've always done. It's what you do in Monaghan," he says.
Conor McManus hailed his fellow ageless compatriots after their shoot-out win over Armagh.
With 71 years between them, no less, almost 30 of those having been spent playing for Monaghan, it's safe to say that Darren Hughes and Karl O'Connell don't owe their county a thing.
"They've two or three kids at home," said McManus, "and they're still journeying into play for us, three, four, five nights a week.
"That is what it's all about."
Darren Hughes does not stop.
This is a man who milks 80 cows in the morning and evening, that's the day job, before heading into Monaghan training in the night-time. It may be a stereotype to say that farmers are tougher than the rest but there's no denying the fact that, in Darren Hughes' case, the stereotype rings true.
He epitomises the Monaghan spirit.
Karl O'Connell is built a little differently in the sense that, as is widely known, he only began playing football at the age of 17.
He played rugby and soccer before that, was a sprinter too, unsurprisingly, but having made it onto the Monaghan senior team within six years of taking up the game for the very first time, he's been there ever since.
He's gone onto become one of their greatest stalwarts.
Paul Finlay will always remember O'Connell's debut. How could he forget it?
Having never played for Monaghan in either the McKenna Cup or the League, Eamonn McEnaney saw fit to throw him in from the start for the first round of the Ulster championship in 2012. Do what you do.
O'Connell didn't come in quietly. Within seconds, he'd announced his arrival to the inter-county scene, legs pumping, defenders flailing, like a bull tearing down the streets of Pamplona.
"From the throw-in, he gets the ball on the stand-side," recalls Finlay, "his first championship game bear-in-mind, and he absolutely takes off down the Gerry Arthur stand side.
"He sprints down to the goals and buries the ball in the back of the net a few seconds later."
Some things don't change.
On their run to this Saturday's All-Ireland semi-final, O'Connell has invariably been Monaghan's man for the crunch moment. He has been shooting, blazing, rampaging up and down that right hand wing like he hasn't aged a day.
His direct route runs have opened Derry, Tyrone, Kildare and many more defences too but crucially, and maybe this comes with experience, he only goes when Monaghan really need him to.
"Karl came onto the scene in 2012, having done a lot of running in his younger days.
"He glides across the ground, he's one of those natural runners and it just doesn't look like he's taking much out of himself doing what he does - we all wish that we had that in our lockers.
"But it's not just the athleticism, it's the heart, the desire," says Finlay.
There's no doubt about that.
"The way he won those balls against Kildare and Armagh," Finaly continues, "the very fact that he's still there says it all about those traits that he has. He's been monumental so far."
Every season hasn't been like this one - he's blossomed this year - he's found a new lease of life - obviously been managed really well, and he's come to this championship in great form," he continues, "flying fit and it's great, and from a guy that probably thought about retiring from an inter-county set-up a couple of years ago."
"It's great credit to Karl."
Is there another man, at his age, performing better in the GAA currently? I highly doubt it! https://t.co/hs1tlK64cu
— Colin Walshe (@cwalshe7) May 27, 2023
"It's unbelievable the levels he's getting to at this stage of his career. Some of the key plays he's coming up with, and these possessions he's winning, they're huge, they wouldn't be where they are without him."
O'Connell was once quoted as saying, in an interview with the Irish News, that, given his late arrival to Gaelic football, his early days were 'comical'
"I'd say a lot of people were looking at me in those first few trainings saying 'what is this boy at here?” he told The Irish News.
"I'd be going to solo the ball and either it would drop behind me from not hitting it or I'd be bouncing it over my head."
Well there is no denying the fact that his late ones have been magical...
Watch the latest episode of The GAA Hour here.
- Paddy Bradley lifts lid on Paddy Carr’s resignation and why he and Aidan O’Rourke took over Donegal
- David Moran opens up on injury nightmare that caused three lost years with Kerry
- Former Derry underage star Callum Brown makes decision on AFL future