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Henshaw, Connellan, Sheehan: how three friends from a little Irish town made sports careers around the world

From Leinster to Luton and St Kilda, Coosan’s finest have come a long way from kickabouts in the back garden.

Henshaw, Sheehan and Connellan all making their way in sport.
Henshaw, Sheehan and Connellan all making their way in sport.
Image: INPHO/PA

WHEN ROBBIE HENSHAW and Ray Connellan were kids growing up in Coosan, they didn’t have to look far for a sporting figure to aspire to emulate.

In their pocket of Athlone, Alan Sheehan was the marquee name. Three doors down from Henshaw’s home and just up the road from Connellan’s lived a teenager who knew the trial circuit of English soccer clubs.

In 2003 Sheehan put pen to paper with Leicester City. When he made trips back to their Westmeath home town, the future Leinster rugby player and future St Kilda AFL player were keen to soak up all the information they could about his sporting way of life.

“We used to look up to Alan because he was a professional soccer player,” recalls Connellan.

“We used to call up to his house whenever he was home.

“He was only about 19, we’d be knocking on the door and his mum Ann, who’s sadly passed away, she used to come out to answer.

“She’d pretty much open the door, look at us and tell us go out the back garden.

“We’d take Alan on in two-v-one in soccer. He used to just kick us around the garden, he was a hard nut!”

“The kickabouts in the garden, there would have been a bit of shin hacking, we always had great craic,” laughs Henshaw.

“We always admired the way he played and we admired what he was doing as a young teenager across the water and making a living out of it. That did drive us a little bit I suppose in terms of being ambitious.

“We always wanted to be like him but in terms of football, I don’t think I ever thought I’d play at a high level. I always backed myself as a rugby or Gaelic player.”

They have all found their own sporting path: 24-year-old Henshaw in Dublin, 31 year-old Sheehan in Luton and 23 year-old Connellan in Melbourne. Three products of a Westmeath community where sport has always been a passion.

Blackpool v Luton Town - Sky Bet League Two - Play Off - First Leg - Bloomfield Road Luton Town's Alan Sheehan Source: Martin Rickett

Connellan describes Coosan as ‘a kind of country neighbourhood in Athlone, not remarkably big or anything’.

But when they were young, the traditional sporting pillars all stood proudly around them.

Athlone supplied the Gaelic football, representative of a strong local culture in the game with powerhouses like Garrycastle in the town and St Brigid’s across the river in Roscommon.

St Francis was their soccer club, Buccaneers the outlet for rugby, and then at schools level, Marist College provided a platform for Connacht rugby and Leinster Gaelic football.

The national school in Coosan offered an introduction to Gaelic football, Michael Lydon the teacher guiding them and helping to roll out future county players like Dessie Dolan and Doron Harte.

They all flourished.

“I was always playing three sports, Gaelic, soccer and rugby,” recalls Henshaw.

“Ray was the same. We were just keeping as many going as possible until we’d to branch off and focus on one and getting the best of one of them.

“Like all teenagers back in the day, we just played as much as we could with our mates.”

Soccer consumed Sheehan from the start. By the time he was 12, his talents had alerted those outside the county boundaries. His father Michael figured that affording his son the opportunity to play in the leading league in the country was the best exposure for his development.

So for four years he ferried Alan to Dublin to line out for Belvedere FC.

“Once a week for training and every weekend,” outlines Sheehan.

“(We’d) stay for the games and then come back down. I probably owe him everything for me being over in England.

“Not many dads would give up every weekend for four years for their son. I’d speak to him nearly day over here. I’d be forever in debt really.”

He had his first trial with Aston Villa when he was 12 and committed to Leicester City when he was 17.

Over the subsequent 14 years, Sheehan has lived a nomadic existence in English football. It may be a tour of the lower leagues away from the brightest of lights but he explains why the adventures have been rich.

“I was at Leicester for four and a half years, then Leeds for two years. Then Swindon, Notts County, Bradford and then Luton.

Soccer - Coca-Cola Football League One - Leeds United v Nottingham Forest - Elland Road Alan Sheehan (right) in action for Leeds United (file pic) Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“I suppose people don’t really know that it’s mentally tough as well as physically tough. It’s a game of opinions and you learn just to keep your head down.

“I wouldn’t be one of these guys that would be happy to just sit there, I’d rather go and play football wherever I can. I could have been happy to just sit on the bench but that was never me.

“I was probably in League One for eight years. Last year was my first season in League Two. It is competitive, especially when you’re in Luton, probably the biggest team in the division so everyone wants to have a pop, like it was with Leeds in League One.

“They’re always very competitive leagues. I’ve always been lucky and blessed to play with big clubs. I never really thought about going back to Ireland as I’d options here.”

He likes life at Kenilworth Road. Luton Town are currently third in League Two; Sheehan has been a regular in defence.

He freely speaks of the heartbreaking conclusion they endured last season when an own goal deep in injury time saw Blackpool knock them out in the second leg of their play-off semi-final, but this campaign has already offered fresh hope.

Source: Hatters Edits/YouTube

On the opposite side of the world, Connellan has a season put down adjusting to what was an alien game. He was ushered into the Westmeath senior football ranks as a teenager before the chance of an Aussie Rules trial was lobbed at him and he heard whispers of interest from St Kilda.

Ray Connellan Ray Connellan in action for Westmeath against Kildare in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The plan was to stay focused on his English and Geography studies at NUI Galway, with the aim to pursue secondary school teaching, before that interest became more concrete by Christmas 2015.

In June 2016, Connellan and Kilkenny hurler Darragh Joyce both went to Melbourne and knew on the plane home that a contract was potentially in the offing.

Then Connellan hit a roadblock, fracturing his leg at the end of that month in a Leinster semi-final with Westmeath against Dublin. Any doubts about his AFL career being in jeopardy were fleeting.

“When I injured my leg that time, it didn’t really concern me in the sense that was my dream going to take a bit of a dent here. I immediately contacted St Kilda, said what happened, and they were absolutely fine.

“It was probably the best time I could have got a bad injury because I was coming over to deal with the best of the best in a professional environment and they’d monitor it.

“They understood that I wanted to play in my last year but at the same time once I got over here, I realised what a big deal and what a big business this is. It made me appreciate all the more how understanding they were about the situation.”

This year has been spent playing in the Victorian Football League with St Kilda’s affiliate club Sandringham. Halfway through his rookie contract, Connellan has relished the experience.

“Once this came up, I’d a chance to chase after something and go on an adventure. There’s been days over here where I’ve left training and thought I’m living such a good life.

“You do get that pinch yourself moment. The expression ‘living the dream’ is an understatement.

“I was a little bit surprised at how I settled and the lack of homesickness. Maybe for the (first) week after my parents were here, there was a little bit but I’ve settled in brilliant.

“I met up with all the Irish boys over here, we’ve all got really friendly. That’s just given you that extra dimension. I’m loving every minute of it.”

It’s only five years since Henshaw was captaining Marist to a Connacht Senior Schools Cup title against Sligo Grammar School at the Sportsground in Galway.

Robbie Henshaw celebrates with the cup Robbie Henshaw celebrates Marist College's 2012 Connacht Senior Schools Cup win. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Since then he has established himself at both Connacht and Leinster, won 29 caps for Ireland, touched down for that significant try that helped topple the All Blacks in Chicago, and then toured with the Lions to New Zealand this summer.

Henshaw lined out for two years for the Westmeath minor footballers but when Connellan saw him on the schools rugby pitch, he started to fully realise his friend’s explosive talent.

“I just remember a few of us would be watching him playing when he got into Senior Cup and it was quite obvious that he was by far and away better than anyone else out there. It was clear that he was going to do well. But I don’t think anyone could have predicted it would go so well so quickly.

“Our families were friends before we were born and everyone’s kind of got that mate that they just sit beside since day one really. He’s one of the most modest, down to earth people you could come across.

“He just loves spending time with family. Every chance he gets, he’s back in Athlone.

“Normally when he’s back there, there’s people asking him to come down to the rugby club or the GAA club to meet people, and he finds it very hard to say no. It is a credit to him and it hasn’t fazed him.”

Robbie Henshaw celebrates winning Robbie Henshaw toasting Ireland's win in Chicago. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sheehan and Henshaw are second cousins but family links do not make him hesitate in singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to the megawatt star of Coosan.

“He turned to the rugby and took off, went from strength to strength. Now he’s a regular in the Irish team and probably one of the best centres in the world.

“Everyone’s very proud of what he’s done. He deserves everything he gets because he’s such a down to earth lad.

“I’d wish him all the success. He’s just a regular fella when he comes back but he’s obviously a hero to everyone in the town.”

They are products of the sport-crazed environment they were reared in. Connellan watched his older brother David forge a rugby career and feature for Pro D2 outfit Aurillac in France.

Another brother John was brought over on trial to sample life with English soccer clubs but instead opted to return to nail down a spot in the Westmeath senior forward line.

John Connellan John Connellan in action in the 2015 Leinster semi-final against Meath. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For all of Henshaw’s advances, it is the progress of contemporaries like Connellan and Dundalk’s Robbie Benson, who played a couple of years above them with St Francis, which fill him with most pride.

Benson already has an EA Sports Cup medal to his credit this season and the prospect of adding an FAI Cup medal next month. Henshaw has closely observed his magical nights experiencing league triumphs and the glamour European outings, like that rocket to the net against Poland’s Legia Warsaw last August.

Source: Sea TV/YouTube

“Robbie (Benson) was always known as one of the best footballers from Athlone. I’ve always been following him closely when he was with UCD to see how he was doing.

“To follow him now and to be able to see him play at a high level justifies all the hard work that he’s put in. He worked hard with injuries through the years I know and it’s great to see him get the rewards.”

“He’s gifted,” says Connellan of Benson.

“I remember playing Gaelic football and he was special. I was playing in goal at one of the Cúl Camps one time, Robbie took a shot and it broke my arm!

“I was only about 10 years of age, he always had a powerful shot. Very talented and an absolute gent. Just really humble.

“He’s actually a genius as well, he studied actuary in college. His father Ray was heavily involved in the soccer club St Francis that myself and my brother John played in.”

Robbie Benson Dundalk's Robbie Benson. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Months before the 2017 Lions touring party was announced and before St Kilda had signed any Irish men, Connellan and Henshaw joked about the potential for their sporting lives intersecting in June.

Henshaw urged Connellan to give the Aussie Rules life a shot. His natural athleticism and speed gave him an advantage, with personal tutorials from the Leinster centre helping him get used to the oval ball.

“It’s definitely an unbelievable sport, I admire it,” says Henshaw.

“He had all the physical attributes, he just needed to get the change from the round ball to the oval ball. We did a good bit of practice before he went out.

“It’s all off the back of hard work and he’s been patient as well. He’s been recognised more and more over there now.”

In late May as the Lions made their trek to the home of the All Blacks, Connellan went out to the airport in Melbourne to briefly catch up with Henshaw as he waited on a connecting flight.

Then in June, he waited for his brother Dave to fly over from Ireland and they headed to New Zealand to meet up with their sister Emer, who works as a vet in Invercargill at the tip of the South Island.

They all got to see Henshaw in action in Dunedin against the Highlanders, meeting him afterwards and appreciating the fortune at their careers intersecting far from home.

Robbie Henshaw Robbie Henshaw in action for the Lions against the Highlanders. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

This afternoon at the RDS Arena, Henshaw sets off on another European journey with Leinster.

Sheehan and his Luton Town team-mates take on Stevenage, aiming to complete their next League Two assignment.

Connellan will be bound for Melbourne again soon and ready to throw himself into the exertions of pre-season.

In Coosan, they all dreamed of lives in sport. Now they’re taking flight around the world.

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