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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 4 June, 2020

The life of a League-of-Ireland-player-turned-dog-groomer

Ryan Connolly on his return to football with Finn Harps, after taking a year out.

Finn Harps' Ryan Connolly celebrates his goal with Barry McNamee.
Finn Harps' Ryan Connolly celebrates his goal with Barry McNamee.
Image: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

THE YEAR WAS 2010. It was the end of the season in English football. Ryan Connolly’s scholarship at Derby was coming to its conclusion.

He found himself sitting on the first-team bench with a fellow promising Irish youngster and his one-time housemate, Jeff Hendrick.

The Rams only had one substitute left. And it was Connolly who was given the call to make his debut, rather than the future Ireland international and Premier League star.

Yet it proved to be the youngster’s only senior appearance for the club. He did damage to his knee in the pre-season thereafter. He suffered injuries to his cruciate and meniscus. Three different operations followed. While Hendrick was going from strength to strength, Connolly was recuperating and falling behind his peers.

“It just hindered my progression a bit,” he tells The42. “But it was a great experience. It was good to go through that as well. It made me stronger and hungrier.”

Connolly later had a brief loan spell at Ayr United during the 2011-12 season, before returning home to Ireland, after being deemed surplus to requirements at Derby.

In the space of a few years, he had gone from moving to England at 16 and playing with the likes of Hendrick, John Egan, Matt Doherty and Robbie Brady for the Irish underage team to struggling to establish himself at Sligo Rovers.

“It’s every kid’s dream to play professional football in England, so I jumped at the chance. It wasn’t something that happened too often where I come from. I played with David Cawley and Ronan Murray [in Ireland]. They would have been the two players a year above me that would have gone over. Then myself and Paul Lawless went over to Derby. 

“Looking back, I probably should have done the Leaving Cert in some capacity or done a bit more education. It can be quite difficult when you get to this age and you go looking for work and you’ve no Leaving Cert. They think you just left school when you were 16. But I don’t regret it whatsoever. It was four of the best years I ever had over there, it was brilliant.”

Having found life difficult at Sligo, a successful loan spell at Longford helped earn Connolly a move to Galway. After making over 80 appearances and impressing in two years there, the midfielder got a big move to Shamrock Rovers.

However, once again, an injury would curtail his progress, and he left the Tallaght outfit after just one season with Stephen Bradley’s side in 2017.

The Castlebar native returned to Galway United for the 2018 campaign, before at 27, opting to take a break from football for the 2019 season.

There were a lot of personal things going on in my life,” he recalls. “I decided to take a year away. The last year with Galway United, my head wasn’t really in it. I still think I gave 100%. I know I gave 100% every time I took to the pitch, but I suppose my heart just wasn’t in it. It was nothing to do with Galway United or anything there. It just happened to be the way I was feeling at the time. I decided to take a year out and see how I felt and if I’d get the hunger to go back. I didn’t really plan on going back. I took the year and I sorted out a few issues off the field.”

One of the main challenges for Connolly was finding a job he could rely on away from football. In his time out of the game, he set up a dog-grooming business. 

So far, the alternative profession is going well, and last December, he accepted an offer from Finn Harps boss Ollie Horgan to return to football and sign with the Ballybofey-based side.

“[The business] was working out fine. If football came calling again, I was going to think about it. [The job is] there. I’m still doing it now while playing football. And it’s there for when the season is finished. And hopefully, it’ll be there for a while. It’s great to have that security and not be depending on the football for income.

“I love dogs. I’ve three myself. I’ve been doing it now for a few months. It’s going well. Business is busy. So we’ll keep it all lit. It’s working nicely now.

“All the dog-grooming is by appointment only, so I can work it around football to suit myself and suit the customers.”

ollie-horgan-dejected-after-the-game Ollie Horgan convinced Connolly to return to football. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

On his return to football, the 28-year-old adds: “Ollie got on to me last year to sign. Obviously I took the year out. I decided not to go anywhere last year in regards to professional football.

“As soon as the season was over, he gave me a ring again. I said I’d think about it. Ollie’s persistent and he’s very convincing so in the end, I had the hunger to get back into it. He knew that from meeting me. I had the hunger to play for him. As a manager, he’s always had good words to say. Just the set-up here in the dressing room and the lads and everything, it was a club I wanted to play for. It suited me and it just fit. That’s how it came about and I’m buzzing to be up there now.”

Connolly regularly travels up to Ballybofey with team-mate Raff Cretaro. He is based in his native Mayo, but is happy to make the long drive to Donegal, given that he is now enjoying football again, having fallen out of love with it towards the end of his Galway stint.

“[It can be difficult] especially in the League of Ireland, or with any of the lower clubs, apart from Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk, that can’t afford to pay wages for 52 weeks of the year. We only get paid for the season. When I was younger, it wasn’t too bad. We used to go on the dole. But I’m not getting any younger, so I had to change my life and sort some off-field stuff. In regards to work and a job, I set up the business in dog-grooming. So I can work them both now together and when it comes to the off-season, I don’t need to worry about going on the dole or looking for a job. It’s there and it’s ready to go.

For the last few years, I was fighting for new contracts at different clubs or whatever it was going to be to try to keep food on the table. Now, I’m playing more for the enjoyment and the off-the-field stuff is working and it’s there when the season is finished.”

Things are going relatively well on the pitch too. So far, Finn Harps have surprised a few people, some of whom were tipping them for relegation at the beginning of the season. They began the season with a 1-0 win over Sligo and they were moments away from beating Derry before a last-gasp equaliser denied them. A recent 1-0 loss to Cork was disappointing, but they will aim to make up for that setback at home to reigning champions Dundalk tomorrow night. Connolly started in both the loss to Neale Fenn’s side and the draw with the Candystripes, scoring what was nearly the winning goal in the latter game.

“Of course it motivates us,” he says of the doubters. “They’ve written off every single year to go down. We don’t mind whatever the pundits say, we have our own targets in the dressing room. We’ll be fighting right to the end I’m sure, and we think we’re well capable of staying up, we just need to keep taking the positives and keep moving forward.” 

Meanwhile, Connolly says youngsters no longer should necessarily feel compelled to go play in England at a young age, as he once did.

“There’s a good underage system here in this country. You don’t have to go across the water. You can stay here at clubs and get educated. You have a big back up if things don’t work out. The League of Ireland has come a long way. The platform is there for young lads to become professional footballers if they keep their head down.

“Everything can drop at the fall of a hat. As long as kids these days keep their education going until they’re 18 or 19, most of the clubs now have scholarships over here, so there’s a brilliant set-up. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Keep open to everything, keep working hard, and if you want to get somewhere, you’ll get somewhere.”

You can learn more about Ryan Connolly’s dog-grooming business, The Bark’N Barber, here.

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Paul Fennessy

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