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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 21 April 2021

The Galway starlet living his Premier League dream

Aaron Connolly chats to The42 about his emergence as a top-flight regular and his hopes for the future.

Connolly made his Ireland debut as a sub versus Georgia last October, before starting against Switzerland three days later.
Connolly made his Ireland debut as a sub versus Georgia last October, before starting against Switzerland three days later.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

AARON CONNOLLY IS not short of self-belief.

Prior to start of this season, he had a meeting with newly appointed Brighton boss Graham Potter that felt significant.

The Galway native was 19 at the time and has since turned 20.

The previous 12 months had been mixed. On the plus side, scoring goals consistently for Brighton’s U23 side had convinced the club to reward Connolly with a new three-and-a-half-year contract.

On the same day news of his new contract was confirmed, the young striker was loaned out to Luton, who were playing in League One at the time.

Yet the move did not go as well as Connolly would have hoped. A hamstring injury meant he did not actually officially link up with his new club until April, two months after the signing was announced.

Luton were chasing promotion to the Championship, which they ultimately achieved. Yet Mick Harford, the club’s interim manager at the time, largely opted to go with tried-and-trusted players. In the end, Connolly made just two substitute appearances for the Hatters before returning to his parent club, deprived of the type of game time that is crucial for a young player’s development at that stage in his career.

Having enjoyed an impressive rise at underage level, notably starring for Ireland U21s on a couple of occasions, it was a six-month spell to forget for Connolly. At that point, the idea that he would be playing regularly in the Premier League within a year seemed improbable.

Everything changed, however, when Potter took over from Chris Hughton as Brighton manager during the summer of 2019.

Connolly was feeling confident that day he first met Potter, having recently impressed along with his Ireland U21 colleagues at the Toulon Tournament, playing against some of the world’s best young players. He did not want to go out on loan again, he explained to the coach, but instead sought to challenge for a place in the first team. Potter asked Connolly if he was ready to play in the Premier League, and the Irish starlet replied affirmatively without blinking. Impressed by the youngster’s conviction, the coach promised to give him a chance, and Potter has been true to his word.

One year on, Connolly has made 23 Premier League appearances, and could add to his tally, when Brighton travel to Burnley for their final game of the season today.

“My advice [to young footballers] would be to work hard and the bad games, for example, don’t take them too personally or get too low, which I do sometimes,” he tells The42.

“And obviously with the highs, don’t let them take your feet off the ground, just stay grounded.”

As talented as he is, Connolly also admits he needed some luck to get to this point. It has been well documented that only a tiny fraction of young Irish players who travel over to play in England actually make it into the first team. And even those that do often have to take a circuitous route and are well into their 20s by the time they are regularly playing in the top flight, as Irish internationals including Conor Hourihane, John Egan and Enda Stevens — who were all let go by Premier League clubs early in their careers — will attest. 

It’s probably easy to say, but it definitely is the gaffer that’s come in this year [who’s primarily responsible],” Connolly explains. “He’s played me. He’s trusted me. Without him at the club right now, I don’t think I’d be 20 Premier League games deep and I don’t think we’d be talking about me being involved in a play-off for the European Championships in Slovakia. He’s given me the chance, he’s given a lot of young players chances and without him coming, I don’t think I’d be in the same position.

“No disrespect to Chris Hughton, because what he did for Brighton was brilliant. But I didn’t think I had a pathway into the first team at the time. He had his set of players and I don’t think I was involved in that. So before the Toulon Tournament, I was thinking I need to sit down with my agent and look for a good loan, and ‘we’ll see what happens this season’. Luton had got promoted, I was hoping they might take me back into the Championship.

“The gaffer was appointed [in May 2019]. I remember seeing his record at Swansea and thinking, hopefully I can be in his plans this year, because he brought quite a lot of academy players through [at previous clubs].

“So you need a bit of luck and my bit of luck was Graham Potter coming in.” 

brighton-and-hove-albion-v-tottenham-hotspur-premier-league-amex-stadium After scoring, Connolly celebrates with team-mates during his full Premier League debut. Source: Gareth Fuller

Connolly is positive in his overall assessment of the team’s season, after a goalless draw against Newcastle on Monday ensured they were mathematically safe from relegation. A win over Burnley, meanwhile, would leave them on 41 points, which would be their best-ever Premier League tally.

“It’s what we were looking to achieve. We didn’t link up at the start of the season and say: ‘Right, let’s go for Europa League.’ It was the manager’s first year in and obviously we just wanted to stay up and let him build his foundations from there.”

Connolly enjoyed a dream full Premier League debut when he netted twice amid a 3-0 win over Tottenham. Since then, however, he has gone 18 top-flight games without a goal, and the youngster does not shy away from being openly self-critical in this regard.

“Game-time-wise I’m satisfied, but goals-wise [I'm not]. I’ve grown up scoring goals, that’s what I want to do. And I know people are going to be looking at it and seeing two goals and however many appearances. When I first came over to Brighton, I played 23s and I didn’t have a great goalscoring season my first year. Then I ended up getting 20 goals or whatever for [another] season.

“So I’ve had a year to get used to the league. And next year, I want to build and push on. Hopefully the fans can see a lot more goals.”

He adds: “Obviously, my confidence hasn’t gone up since the Spurs game. It was high for a couple of weeks after. Now it’s dipped a little.

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“Every striker would say the same. You’re not scoring, it’s going to dip.

“Maybe I’m not getting myself in the positions right now. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff with the coaching staff about where to be and what runs to make.

“Next year, that’s when I’m going to hopefully show what I can do at first-team level.

[The Spurs game is] obviously a big highlight, but for me personally, the rest of the season has put a bit of a dampener on it. I haven’t scored since. I’d like to look back on that Tottenham game and say I’ve got five or six goals since, but I can’t do that. It’s hard to look back on that game and think: ‘Yeah, it’s been a good season.’ As a striker, you want 10-15 goals and I’ve only got the two.

“It was a brilliant moment, but because I haven’t scored since, I don’t look back on it with as fond memories as I probably should.”

Having excelled at underage level, Connolly has had to learn fast as he adapts to life in the Premier League.

“The most challenging [aspect] would probably be, you get fewer chances to score, you have to be clinical. Teams are clinical in the Premier League — if you give a team a chance, nine times out of 10, they’re going to score.

“We saw that with the first two goals in the game against Liverpool at home. We made two mistakes and they scored two goals. It’s hard to recover from that.”

He continues: “I’ve always had a small build. I played GAA back in Ireland and it’s quite a tough sport to play. Physically I was alright, so mainly it was technical bits [that needed improvement]. For example, as a striker, your back-to-goal play has to be better. I’m just used to running in behind, so I had to change that up.

“No disrespect to the 23s, but you could make an average run and you’ll still get in and maybe score, but if you make an average run in the Premier League, there’s no chance you’re even getting the ball, so timing of the runs is probably a big thing I’ve learnt about this year.”

aaron-connolly-with-robbie-keane Connolly gets advice from Robbie Keane prior to coming on in the Ireland-Georgia match last October. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Connolly has guidance at the club from, among others, Ireland international Shane Duffy.

“Duffs has took me into the first-team changing room and he’s looked after me,” he says.

When he first travelled over, Connolly was part of “a little friendship group” with fellow Irish youngsters Jayson Molumby and Dan Mandroiu. They all remain close, though both team-mates have not been around this season, joining Millwall on loan and Bohemians respectively.

Connolly is also in regular contact with Ireland boss Stephen Kenny, who previously worked with him at U21 level. He is hoping to play a part in Ireland’s crucial Euros play-off against Slovakia in October, having already featured twice competitively for his country, coming on against Georgia last year, and starting the Switzerland game three days later amid “a big moment” for the youngster and his family.

Largely as a result of the pandemic, Connolly has not been back home in “six or seven” months, though his parents are regularly asked about his exploits abroad.

“I’d like to think I’m making the people at home proud,” he says.

A product of the Galway soccer youth system, first with Oranmore and then Mervue United, the area is not exactly known as a hotbed for footballing talent, though there has recently been a sense of progress in that respect. In addition to Connolly, fellow Galwegians Greg Cunningham and Ryan Manning have been forging good careers in English football of late.

“I think it’s purely because of the players that have gone over [that football's popularity is increasing]. They all came from the same kind of club. Ryan Manning came from Mervue, I came from Mervue, Greg was Mervue.

So there’s a lot more interest in the game in Galway now. They’re seeing players like Ryan, he’s been doing well for a couple of years over in England. Greg’s been doing well for however many years. So more people are taking notice of the game, and going out of their way to watch players.

“Maybe before, [scouts] wouldn’t step outside of Dublin. They’d be looking in Dublin and thinking, if we’re not finding it here, we won’t find it anywhere else.

“Now that there are players coming over from Galway, I think there is more interest from scouts and even just general people going down to watch a game.”

As he reflects on a breakthrough season, Connolly aims to continue inspiring people in Galway and beyond for many years to come. He acknowledges there is room for improvement, of course, while not being afraid to set lofty targets.

“I know some people might be thinking ‘he’s only got two goals in 20 games, so I don’t know where he’s coming from with this,’ but I’ve always said I want to be up there with people who’ve scored 100 goals in the Premier League and that I get as many caps as I can for my country. I’m not going to change that, no matter how much my confidence is dipping or whatever. That’s always the way I’m going to look at it and I’m going to push for that. That’s one thing I do want to achieve, and hopefully, I can start doing that next season.

“Playing in the Premier League is a great and privileged position to be in, but there was a lot of hard work to get there, it didn’t just happen overnight. I’ve done years and years of trying to be in the position I am, and I’ll do everything I can to try to stay there.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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