'It was just raw emotion': Megan Connolly on going viral, sibling rivalry and a different Irish camp

The Cork native is back for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers and making big plans for her future.

Image: Tommy Dickson; ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson/INPHO

MEGAN CONNOLLY IS the first to admit that the last few weeks have been a bit surreal.

“As a soccer player, you hope that you go viral for scoring an amazing goal – like Stephanie Roche. No. I went viral for just screaming my head off.”

Such is the way of the world, Connolly is now an internet sensation after she innocently posted a video of herself to Twitter.

It shows the Cork native shrieking her way through a ‘human slingshot’ ride at an amusement park in North Carolina’s Myrtle Beach. It’s not even two minutes long but deliciously multi-layered.

As she’s strapped in, there’s Connolly’s initial utterance of ‘I’m fucking freakin’ out’, delivered at the precise moment all the blood drains from her face. There’s the innate calm and coolness of her friend and Florida State University team-mate Dallas Dorosy alongside her. Then, as she’s hurled into the air, there’s Connolly’s refrain of ‘Oh, my God’, delivered in the broadest of Cork accents, which only serves to make the whole thing even funnier. And finally, there’s the eternal optimism of her roaring ‘Let me down’ as she’s dangling 300 feet above the ground, like she has any say in the matter whatsoever.

Ironically, as all of this is going on, How To Save A Life by The Fray is playing somewhere in the background.

“I didn’t expect that many people to see it,” she says.

“I had the video and I kinda knew that one of my teammates would put it up somewhere so I thought I’d put it out there myself, that a few people would see it, it would be funny for a second and then that would be it. But overnight it just blew up. People were sharing it, tweeting it and that’s when a load of news people were getting in touch and putting it on TV. Some people from the college – some of the girls from the team – said their parents called them to tell them they’d seen me and Dallas on their local news. It was crazy.”

CNN carried it. NBC too. Even 7 News in Melbourne shared Connolly’s terrified screams. Within 24 hours, she was truly international.

And the reason for the reaction? A little bit of over-thinking.

“I used to always go to Funderland when I was a kid and I loved it,” she says.

“When I was younger I always loved the adrenaline rush. I’d always go with my Dad or my friends and I’d be on all the rides and it was great. But a few years ago I stopped. All I’d see on the news was accidents involving the rides or people falling off them. I just became more aware of the dangers. Like, some of the rides have been there for years and maybe people haven’t checked them or fixed them or checked the wires and I just start to overthink. And I just went a little crazy.

That night it was just an impulse. We were all in bed because of an early drive back to Florida the next morning. We were ready to go to sleep when one of the girls came in and said, ‘Are we going to do the slingshot?’ And 30 minutes later we were ready to go on it. It went so quickly once we got there. We went and sat down and the guy said, ‘Tie your belt’ and it was like one of those airplane belts that you clip in, y’know? So I started to get a little anxious. And it all went quiet. And the guy went off to his machine and I couldn’t see him. So I started panicking and thinking, ‘No, this was not a good idea.’ And then he pushed the chairs back, which I didn’t know was going to happen. And he told us, ‘Keep your heads back’ and I thought he meant for the whole ride so I was glued to the chair. I had my arms around the whole seatbelt in case it came off. I had a grip on my jumper in case anything happened. And he wasn’t saying anything to us. So I was like, ‘Will you tell us when we’re going to go?’ And, of course, that’s when he shot us up there. I didn’t realise I went that crazy until I saw the video. It was just raw emotion. I didn’t plan it. And then it was just ‘Get me down!’”

With that out of the way, we can move onto more important topics. Like Cork GAA.

Connolly was there to watch older brother Luke tally 2-5 for Nemo Rangers in their All-Ireland semi-final victory over Slaughtneil last month.

But lots of things played out differently for the Patrick’s Day decider against Corofin.

“The semi-final was a crazy game,” she says.

My heart-rate was probably as high as it was when I was on that ride. I was there with my Mum, Dad and my sister. And my Mum and Dad are into every single thing that happens. My Dad was screaming and then I was the exact same. We were in with all the Nemo crowd so it was just crazy. They started off terribly but they’d get one back and the crowd would chant and cheer. And then they’d get another one and the same thing. Because of the extra-time as well, I ended up losing my voice, which had never happened until that game.”

“I was back here for the final and tried to stream it but it was pretty hard so I had to rely on updates on RedFM and it was a rough one. It was hard to follow and not know exactly what was going on. You could see they were down by six or seven but you didn’t know the flow of the game and whether they were creating chances. You were just seeing scores. So it wasn’t too enjoyable.”

Luke managed six points but Nemo were well off the pace in the end. Still, Connolly is quick to laud the progress he’s made in the last eighteen months after persistent fitness issues.

“In the last year especially, he’s changed a lot of what he’s done,” she says.

“For about two years, he had a lot of injuries. And it was a time when I was doing really well in soccer. And, in a way, I was in the spotlight and he was less in the spotlight. Every time he’d come back, he’d get injured again. I think his hunger grew a lot to get back in and find ways to better himself so that he wouldn’t get injured. This year I’ve never seen him be so professional about what he does.

Luke Connolly celebrates scoring a goal Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Last year, I didn’t have the best time with my soccer. But he’s pushed me a lot this year – and not even without saying that much to me. Just from me watching him and how he’s changed his diet and changed his daily routine. Every night he’ll do his stretching and foam rolling – all of these little things to make himself 1% better every day. And that got me thinking over here, ‘What can I do to be more like him?’ It has really affected me and pushed me to be even better and, basically, try and be better than him! There’s always that underlying competition. But at the end of the day, I would want to see him do better than me in everything. I want to see him succeed. He’s one of those people who doesn’t cheat his way to the top. He doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t skip something or take the easy way. He takes the hard way. This year was phenomenal for him and not because he knew people or he got lucky but because he put the effort in and that’s something you can’t take away from him.”

The sibling rivalry began in the back garden a different lifetime ago. It’s quietly stayed simmering as Megan’s soccer talents led her to international caps and a scholarship to Florida State while Luke moved through the Nemo ranks and stepped up to senior inter-county level.

“There’s always been a competition between us,” she says.

“We don’t really say it but there is. Growing up, we’d always be in the back garden and playing each other 1v1 and there’d be a pot at either end of the garden. And we’d say, ‘Right, we’ll go to ten’. We’d go to ten and he’d win 10-9 and we’d go inside. And Dad would say ‘Go back outside’ and we’d go again until 20. And it would be 20-19 and Dad would say, ‘Go back again’ and we’d go until 30 and then Dad would say, ‘Okay, that’s grand – come on, back inside’. But Luke would push me to be better. I wouldn’t realise it but, in a way, he admires what I do too. You wouldn’t say it that much, obviously, because in a way you already know and there’s just a mutual respect.

He’s yet to thank me for the role I’ve played in his success! We’d go up to College Corinthians on a Saturday – me, my brother and my Dad. And we’d be like, Let’s take some shots’ and my Dad would say, Right, but today will be a casual one’. And an hour and a half later it was crossbar challenge, diving headers, bicycle kicks and it just builds up. But it grows your love for the sport because you have so much fun doing it and you can compete with someone who loves it just as much.”

Megan Connolly with Ingibjorg Sigurdardottir Source: Tommy Dickson; ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Connolly has been away from the senior Irish setup for a while as academic commitments have taken priority. The last time she pulled on the shirt was for a summer friendly against Scotland last July. But she’s been named in Colin Bell’s squad for the side’s crucial World Cup qualifiers against Slovakia and the Netherlands and is eager to get her first taste of what’s been an excellent campaign so far.

“I missed a few camps last year and came back a month ago and could see a total difference,” she says.

It’s so much improved, even in the last three months. The mindset, the behaviour around the squad. It’s just really professional. Which is what we should have and deserve to have. Since Colin came in, he’s flipped it on its head. He’s changed everything. He always has such a professional mindset and keeps his standards so high in terms of what’s given to us and what we give him – on the field, off the field, the level of respect, the level of commitment. And the biggest thing that’s changed so much is his passion for the game. He’s not a coach who just gives you a game-plan and says, ‘Okay, let’s go’. He has so many stories, so many reasons as to why he believes such things. And everyone can see it. In training, in video meetings, even sitting and talking with him in the evenings when we’re getting a team snack. He cares so much about the team and the results we get and how we’re treated that it has a knock-on effect on you.”

“There’s been such a shift. Players feel a lot more invested in it and it feels right. You’re getting that pride for playing your country. You’re not feeling that you’re not being treated right. You’re able to go out and represent your country the best you can and people are respecting you for what you’re doing. And that all came after him. He’ll support the players 100%, no matter what they do. He’s always there. If we have an issue, he wants to fix it. He doesn’t want us to go to someone else. He wants us to go to him. It’s a team. He treats it like a family. He’s not like, ‘We’ll come into camp next week and then join up again in another month’. He’s available 24/7. He wants to know what you’re doing, how you’re doing, how you can help the team. You’re much more excited to come into every camp and he’s raised the standards so much that we know we can get a result against anyone we play. If we just get the game-plan right and do what he wants us to do and what he’s scripted.”

Colin Bell Connolly says the new-found confidence within the Irish camp is down to the work carried out by manager Colin Bell. Source: Tommy Dickson; ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It’s almost one year to the day since the Irish squad gathered in Dublin’s Liberty Hall and collectively outlined a list of disturbing grievances they had with the FAI. Having to share official tracksuits with underage teams, changing in airport toilets, loss of earnings. Ahead of a friendly with Slovakia, they boycotted a training session as the stand-off escalated. An agreement was eventually reached and the team picked up a victory, with Connolly starting that game.

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She admits that as a young player the experience was overwhelming but educational.

“It was very different for me,” she says.

It’s not something that is affecting me, in a way. I’m not working full-time, I’m not missing work to play for Ireland and, to be honest, I never really believe in getting paid to play for my national team. I always believe it’s the highest honour. At the start I didn’t really understand it but as I learned more about the whole situation, I got to understand why it was such a big issue and why they needed to fight for it. Even that moment when they went to the press and put it (their grievances) out there, it was another turning point. It was a build-up of so many years and after that moment it just set a new fire going in everyone. And it was like, ‘Alright, we did this and now we need to prove ourselves on the field.’ And ever since, in every camp and every training session, people are just fired up. That’s since Colin came in too. He’s let everyone express how they feel and want they want and he just wants everyone on the same page.”

“I had a lot of academic stuff over here too so I had to pull out of one or two camps because I had to focus on school. And there were a few issues trying to get back in there. But then Colin came in and gave me a chance and pulled me in and believed in me straight away. And it felt different. Not that before wasn’t good. It was just different. And since then he’s built a foundation, especially when we went to the Cyprus Cup. He built from there and, ever since, he’s worked to improve things on and off the field.”

After three qualifiers, Bell’s Irish side remain unbeaten and sit joint-top of Group 3 alongside the Netherlands. The group winner automatically progress to next year’s tournament in France but the best four runners-up enter a play-off with the winner going through also. So, Connolly and her team-mates are well-positioned.

These qualifiers have been markedly different. The Irish side are still to concede a goal. There have been professional wins over Slovakia and Northern Ireland.

Shanice van de Sanden with Harriet Scott The standout moment in the current qualifying campaign was a scoreless draw against the Netherlands. Source: Orange Pictures/Rob Koppers; ©INPHO/Orange Pictures/Rob Koppers/INPHO

But the standout moment came against the Dutch. Despite being under the cosh for the entire game in Nijmegen, Bell’s charges stood firm and showed exceptional grit to grind out a scoreless draw. This time, unlike in previous campaigns, there was no concession of a late, scrappy goal to undo all the fine industry. It was resolute and well-earned.

“Colin puts a lot of work into our training and our tactics and focusing on each individual team,” Connolly says.

“I couldn’t be there for the Netherlands game but I was watching and you could see just how everything translated from the training pitch onto the field. When you actually apply the training we’ve done, the information we’ve got, teams will find it hard to break us down. And it’s given the whole team confidence knowing we can get a result against anybody if we stick to the plan and beat them on effort. You can have the most talented team in the world but if you have a team that works harder than you and doesn’t give up until the end, you’re going to find it very hard to beat them.”

Connolly is keen to get back on the pitch. Alongside her studies, she’s spent time working on herself and developing as a player, ensuring she can contribute more to the Irish team.

“I didn’t want to stay away and come back and just be the same player,” she says.

I wanted to come back and have different aspects to my game that I can bring. So then we’re not staying in the same spot. Everyone is moving and improving and then we’re growing together as a team and that’s what’s most important.”

Connolly only turned 21 last month but is hoping to wind down her time at Florida State later this year – quite a few months ahead of schedule.

She’s making big plans for her future.

“Technically I’m in my last year because I’m trying to graduate in December instead of May 2019 because I’m trying to enter the college draft next January.

I’m going to try and play professionally here for a few years and see how it goes but the ultimate goal is to play in Europe. I just want to play everywhere. Explore different countries, leagues, styles of soccer. I’m doing my studies here and getting a degree in Sports Management but the main thing is to go professional and play for as long as I can. With my degree I can explore other things after soccer.

A move like mine changes you. I was the first person to move out of my house. I was 18 moving here. I was young. I didn’t know much about America. Maybe I was a little shy but moving over here, I was on my own. I was exploring new things and it changed me as a person. I grew as a person. The atmosphere here makes you a better person. You’re surrounded by a lot of great people. That’s the most important thing I’ll take out of the experience of being here at Florida State. It’s made me a better player but more so a better person and that’s why I love it so much.”

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