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'I got my love for the game back' - Connolly excelling for Dundalk but questions marks over his future

Player of the Month Mark Connolly discusses his career to date – and what may yet be to come.

Connolly poses with his SSE Airtricity/Soccer Writers Ireland Player of the Month award for June.
Connolly poses with his SSE Airtricity/Soccer Writers Ireland Player of the Month award for June.
Image: Ben McShane/SPORTSFILE

MARK CONNOLLY AND Dundalk have struck it off and the question now is for how much longer it will last. 

Connolly signed on a supposed six-month loan deal from Dundee United at the start of the season and Stephen O’Donnell says he is very eager to keep him at least to the end of the season. The centre-back is continuing to play for Dundalk in spite of the fact the six months have elapsed, amid local reports that the loan move is for the year but Dundalk must part with some more money to extend it to the end of the year. 

“Currently ongoing talks, and they have been [ongoing] for quite a while now”, said Connolly when asked about his future. “Between myself, Dundalk and Dundee United. Nothing is concrete on what’s happening, the clubs are still talking, and that’s where it’s at. Hopefully I’ll learn more in the coming days with what’s happening, so I can’t really give you too much. We’re trying to see what the best option is for all parties involved.

“I have been really, really happy since I came back. From playing with the Dundalk Schoolboys growing up, it’s somewhere I’ve always kept an eye on since I moved to England and then Scotland. Coming back I’ve been treated fantastically by the staff, the manager and all of his staff, the players have been brilliant with me, and the fans have been top class. I have enjoyed my time so far and hopefully I’ll see what’s going to happen in the coming days, and see where I go from there.” 

Connolly, meanwhile, is still playing and excelling, winning the SSE Airtricity/Soccer Writers’ Ireland Player of the Month award for June. That month’s highlight from a Dundalk point of view was the 1-0 home win over Shamrock Rovers, which came amid a five-game run without conceding, a streak ended with a 1-0 loss to Drogheda last Friday. 

A native of Clones, Connolly left Monaghan for Wolves and then swiftly joined Bolton. He dropped down the divisions and played most often for Crawley Town,  across two stints bisected by a spell in Scotland with Kilmarnock. He then returned to Scotland to sign for Dundee United in 2019, from where he has been leased to Dundalk. 

“I made mistakes, made decisions that were not right for me”, he admits. “At Wolves I was captain of the youth team and reserves, and was highly thought of. I went to Bolton: it wasn’t the right move for me and my career. I was training with the first team, my first day there I was sitting between Kevin Davies, the captain, and Gary Cahill, who both had serious careers. I was with the first team and travelled with them, was in the squad every week: it was a great experience but I wasn’t playing. If boys are going to big clubs you have to be playing football. If you’re at a big club and not guaranteed first team football the next step would be to go on loan and play first team football. If you are not playing you get forgotten about. So I regret not staying at Wolves to learn my trade, if I can use that experience to help anyone going down that line with decisions in football I’d happily give that advice.” 

He has returned to a league of improved standard and burgeoning reputation. 

“It’s definitely improved. When I left years ago, no one even spoke about the League of Ireland. That was plain and simple but it has changed. I have plenty of contacts over in England and Scotland, I have had any amount of texts about players in the league: ‘What are my thoughts on these players’. There are a lot of people watching this league, and there are some very good young players in the league.

“Ideally as a league you want to keep these players here, if you can, to improve the league but unfortunately that will be difficult, especially with some of the clubs that are coming into sign players.” 

mark-connolly Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connolly is only 30, and says winning a trophy remains a major ambition. An ambition at the start of the year was to rekindle his love of playing the game, however, and he moved to Dundalk to be closer to his mother following his father’s passing last year. The first person he phoned when he was told of his monthly award win was his mum, and the trophy will have pride of place on her mantlepiece.

“I came back to Ireland to be closer to family and friends which has been brilliant”, said Connolly. 

“The biggest help to getting that love back is being in a dressing-room full of great lads. We’ve been doing well on the pitch which has been good too. A lot of people – maybe not wrote us off – but didn’t expect us to be where we are. That’s testament to all the boys, having such a tight group of players, staff and behind the scenes. Probably, for me, coming back from the UK to a load of Irish boys all together in a dressing-room was what I needed.

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“Yeah, I got my love for the game back. Coming in every day, you have a laugh and joke with these boys.” 

Family will dictate whether Connolly’s stint at Dundalk is extended, as his wife and kids are still based in Scotland. 

“Family is top of my list – a really big thing for me – making sure it’s right for them. Whatever happens, it’s got to be right for them. There’s conversations ongoing with Dundalk, Dundee United and my wife. They’re always happy coming back to see their granny. They love all the people back home.”

Connolly’s most immediate priority is tonight’s league meeting with St Patrick’s Athletic, whom the lead by six points. 

“We’ve only lost three games and twice against Drogheda at their place which is a tough one to take. You have to have a bit of perspective, we’ve lost one in 11 so we’ve been doing the right things. It’s just now how we react. We set good standards and the boys work extremely hard. We just lacked that final bit in the final third on Friday night to get the goal. We’re disappointed but all we can do is get ready for Friday night against St Pat’s which will be a difficult game but I think the attitude of everyone in the team and the squad will be to get back on the horse and go again on Friday.”

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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