Irish Robins: Megan Connolly and Chloe Mustaki go head-to-head in training at the World Cup. Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Irish Robins

'I probably wouldn't have made the World Cup squad if I hadn’t decided to play abroad'

Megan Connolly and Chloe Mustaki are flying the flag at Bristol City.

WHEN MEGAN CONNOLLY signed for Bristol City during the summer, she had no shortage of chats with her Republic of Ireland team-mate Chloe Mustaki.

Mustaki had been part of the Championship winning team of 2022/23, and was preparing for the jump to the Women’s Super League.

Connolly had departed top-tier outfit Brighton & Hove Albion, where she had established herself as a key player since arriving in 2019. There was interest from the Robins before the World Cup, and thankfully, they retained it after she chose to place her full focus on Australia.

The Cork defensive midfielder is now captain.

It hasn’t exactly been straightforward as Bristol adjust to life in the top-flight, but Connolly and Mustaki have parked club commitments to focus on international duty.

They’re both up for interview at the Castleknock Hotel ahead of Ireland’s Uefa Nations League double-header against Hungary and Northern Ireland. Two more wins and six points from six is the target as the Girls In Green look to finish a historic 2023 on a high.

The Irish Robins reflect fondly on the international year as a whole, from their first-ever major tournament to Nations League promotion and everything in between. “This has been the start of something really special,” Mustaki says at one point.

Bristol may be experiencing similar, with striking parallels between both set-ups.

“I think we’re building something quite good,” Connolly says of her new side across the water.

“I’m loving it. I’m loving the place, the team is great, management is great, the club is great, so for me personally, I’m enjoying it. I knew what to expect. It was always going to be tough. The WSL is always getting better. As a team coming into the WSL this year, it’s a massive challenge, but it’s a long season and I believe that we’ll stay up. I believe we’ll get more wins, get more results.”

megan-connolly Megan Connolly. Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

They’re currently bottom, tied with West Ham on four points, a frustrating return given decent performances against the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United. Connolly, in fact, was named Player of the Match in Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to United. They’ve struggled in front of goal, but both Connolly and Mustaki predict a positive turn.

“It is what it is,” Mustaki nods. “It’s a ruthless league. It’s been tough but hopefully we keep building and keep learning. We’ll keep fighting.”

For Connolly, it’s a fresh challenge: a new team and a slight change of dynamic with the captaincy. The 26-year-old has taken to it well, and leading the team is something she relishes.

“I’ve always wanted to make that next step in terms of being a captain,” she explains.

“At Brighton with Hope Powell, I was captain a few times. She always told me, even when I wasn’t captain, [to] wear that armband whenever I’m playing. To come into Bristol, it’s kind of a fresh start and I think the team has really embraced me, I’ve been able to be myself, to lead as me, and I think they’ve really appreciated that. It’s a great group that’s allowed me to step up a bit more.

“I feel it’s helped my game as well. You have that extra responsibility and pressure, which I’ve wanted. It’s not a case where I’ve shied away from it. I’ve wanted to have that role, to lead the team. I’ve embraced it and I’ve loved every minute so far.”

Despite Katie McCabe being Irish skipper, Connolly brings that leadership into international camp too. She has always prided herself on being a team player, so will happily look out for youngsters in the squad like Peamount duo Freya Healy (16) and Ellen Dolan (17).

At Bristol, Mustaki’s presence certainly helped her settle. “It’s always tough going to a new team, but to have a familiar face is quite nice in the beginning. I fit in quite quickly, which I was kind of nervous about because being at one club for so long, a new start is hard.”

tottenham-hotspurs-kit-graham-left-and-bristol-citys-megan-connolly-battle-for-the-ball-during-the-fa-womens-continental-tyres-league-cup-group-d-match-at-brisbane-road-london-picture-date-wed Megan Connolly in action against Tottenham Hotspur recently. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Her club mate’s verdict? “She’s been fantastic,” Mustaki beams.

“She brings a lot of WSL experience which some of us obviously lack this season so she’s been brilliant on and off the pitch and I’m sure that will continue. She’s a great character and it’s good to have another fellow Irish person in the group.

“You can probably tell from speaking to Meg, [she has a] good head on her shoulders. She got cracking straight away and has led by example.”

Connolly’s counterpart made the move from Shelbourne in 2022, having previously had a fleeting spell with Charlton Athletic in the Championship.

A cruciate ligament knee injury when the Covid-19 pandemic hit ultimately cut that short, but the 28-year-old Dubliner — who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, as a teenager — has enjoyed her second coming across the water.

The gulf between the two divisions is significant and Mustaki has found the WSL a huge step-up — “a completely different level,” she stresses — but it’s been a great experience as she continues to develop through limited minutes.

“That was kind of shown to me in preseason: the difference in level, the difference in movement of the opposition forward line, you can’t really compare it to the Championship. But it’s where I want to be, and I’ll just have to bide my time.

“I’m just trying to keep learning. A year and a half ago, I was still working [in finance], so to go from that to the WSL in a year and a half, it’s such a short amount of time, and I was injured for half of last season as well. It’s been a bit of a bumpy road for me to say the least but I definitely think I am [able] for the WSL — but do I have more to learn and lots more to go? Of course.

“When you’re coming up against international players week in and week out, you learn pretty quickly, you don’t have the choice. Hopefully I’ll continue to feature more, particularly in league games, over the course of the season and then I’ll be a much better player at the end of the season than I was in the summer just gone.”

chloe-mustaki Chloe Mustaki. Tom Maher / INPHO Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Overall, she is pleased with her decision to return to full-time football. The transition may have been tricky, and she still finds herself trying to strike a balance.

But she has certainly reaped the benefits on and off the pitch, for club and for country.

“It’s been unbelievable,” says Mustaki, who lives with a team-mate in player accomodation near the training ground.

“I mean, I probably wouldn’t have made the World Cup squad if I hadn’t decided to leave Ireland and play abroad. What an unbelievable experience that was for me and I find myself now playing in one of the best, if not the best league in the world, whereas a year and a half ago, I was just working and playing in Ireland.

“I think I would’ve had regrets if I hadn’t done it. It was really a push for me to get out of my comfort zone and for me, that kind of security blanket was to not have any regrets come the end of my playing career, that I had tried to go full-time and see where that might take me and here I am, I’ve been to a World Cup and I’m playing in the WSL. It’s fantastic and it’s a nice reward for the hard times, so it’s been great and long may it last.

“The days I was having where I was working and playing were horrific, to be honest. It’s a complete 360 being fully dedicated to my performance on the pitch. I mean it’s difficult in other ways as well, your self criticism and everything like that, and you have a lot more time to think about it, so it’s very different but it’s been an absolute privilege.”

For now, the Irish Robins’ full focus is on Hungary at Tallaght Stadium on Friday.

But next Tuesday, they’ll meet a familiar face in Rachel Furness at Windsor Park.

Their Bristol City team-mate is injured so will miss the derby clash, but is understood to be in and around the camp.

It’ll be left to Connolly and Mustaki to keep flying the Bristol City flag high.

They’ll happily oblige.

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