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'He was such a competitor, but he was never nasty' - The making of an Irish wonderkid

Aaron Connolly could feature for Ireland against Georgia today, after a whirlwind few weeks.

Aaron Connolly has impressed for Ireland at underage level and could feature for the senior team today.
Aaron Connolly has impressed for Ireland at underage level and could feature for the senior team today.
Image: TGSPHOTO/Paul Dennis/INPHO

WHEN PETE KELLY watched the Premier League match at the Amex Stadium last Saturday, he was both disappointed and proud.

Disappointed because the team he supported, Tottenham, were producing arguably their worst performance of the season and proud, because one of the main architects of their downfall was a teenage debutant from Galway that he knew well.

It was not the first time that Aaron Connolly had wreaked havoc against a team with whom Kelly identified.

“I would have originally seen him playing for Mervue,” he tells The42. “I would have been heavily involved with the other main club in Galway, which was Salthill Devon.

“I would have been acutely aware of Aaron since he was about 12, when he started playing with Mervue. He had previously played small-sided games, that sort of thing, with Oranmore.

“He was a bit of a star player, right from day one. He had a great eye for goal. He rattled in goals left, right and centre. When we as a club in Salthill Devon would have been playing against him, we would have been on the receiving end [of his talent] on a few occasions. He always had a bit about him — he had that little edge. He played full throttle all the time, that aggressive piece to his game, which we’ve seen come to fruition in recent weeks at the top level. 

“He would always play 100%. Everyone can say with a bit of hindsight ‘we always thought he was going to be a great player’. He showed what I would say are attributes to be considered for the professional game. He had plenty of pace, great stamina, an eye for goal and he hated not doing well.

“When he was 13 or 14 or so, he’d sometimes get himself in a bit of bother with referees and that because he was such a competitor, but he was never nasty. He was just full blooded all the time.

“I would have watched him with the Kennedy Cup team in the Galway District League, which was managed by a guy who was a manager in Salthill Devon — Tommy McClean. I saw him prosper there when he was playing with the best of the young fellas in Galway at that time — the best 13-year-olds. And the better players he played with, the better he played as well.

I think he showed up very well there. And obviously, around that time, guys like Damien Brennan and Ollie Neary would have been good coaches in Mervue. They would have been a big influence on him, when he was 12 or 13. You get lots of kids who are superstars at 11 and 12, then you wonder where they are when they are at 15.”

It is easy to be wise after the event, but this accusation could not be levelled at Kelly. When The42 spoke to him over two years ago for a separate article, he expressed confidence that Connolly, who was then largely unknown, would make the grade as a professional.

“There are some 16-year-olds that are very mature,” he said at the time. “They’re level-headed — young Connolly at Brighton, he’s smart enough to go [to England]. There might be another kid at the same age and you wouldn’t let him go down to the shops for the paper.”

britain-soccer-premier-league Aaron Connolly scored twice on his full Premier League debut against Tottenham last Saturday. Source: Kirsty Wigglesworth

But what was it that made Kelly so confident Connolly had the right ingredients to play Premier League football?

“I think the temperament, his hunger to succeed. He wanted it more desperately than they did. He didn’t want to lose a ball, he didn’t want to lose a game. If he had a chance and he missed it, he’d be upset with himself. I think the guys who were coaching him in those early days, the message they were probably trying to get across to him was: don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t be too upset, because if you start getting upset, then it’ll effect the next 10 minutes.

“But he would have played in the Galway Cup as well and I would have watched him there. I would have been one of the guys running that tournament and you see him playing against better opposition. So he would have come into the reckoning for Ireland development squads then.

“About 2015 or so, I got a really good look at what I thought was the emerging player. I was doing some scouting for the Ipswich Town Academy at the time. They used to come to the Galway Cup every year and I had a good relationship with them. But the players you recommend to have a professional trial with a club are very few and far between, because there’s no point in getting somebody’s hopes up and bringing a guy over for no reason.

“I think it was February 2015, I spent five days over at Ipswich with Aaron, because he went over for a trial. The recruitment guy came over and sat with his parents — Mike and Karen, they’re lovely people. And they’re playing a blinder in keeping him grounded.

I had only seen him as the young lad around town in Galway who’s a really good player. He’s on the District League team, he’s playing for Mervue and he’s a nightmare to mark. But I got to see a different side of him, because we were there for five days. We also had another guy travelling with us called Wilson Waweru, who’s in the Galway United U19s and has played some first-team games this season. He played for Mervue. He’s even younger than Aaron.

“But that week, I watched Aaron play Charlton, Orient and he played a game against Brentford. The guys were really impressed. He really showed up well against guys who were bigger, physically stronger. Particularly when he played against Charlton, he took no messing. He scored a goal or two, but his work-rate, general application and also the way he conducted himself off the pitch [was impressive]. During that five days, I had a great insight into somebody who could hack it at a professional club.

“Subsequent to that, Ipswich would have loved to have had him, but Brighton were also in the market. It’s hard to say, but I think Ipswich would have been a good place, but Brighton was also a great place. John Morling is running the academy there. He used to manage at Ireland U15 and 16 level.

“Brighton had invested in their academy and I think whatever the Connollys saw when they visited, it clicked for them. And it obviously has been the right decision, because it’s worked out.

“I think what he showed that week is one, he was mannerly. He wasn’t a bit brash. The brashness was on the pitch as a player. He was staying at the hotel for five days, and just his general demeanour at meal times [caught the eye]. When you go to the club, dealing with the coaches there, listening intently to what they’re saying and then going out and doing it — it was just his overall maturity I suppose, given that he’d never been away from home on his own. I thought he was a guy that had grown up a lot in a very short space of time. And I think that’s what’s stood him in good stead since.”

mick-mccarthy-file-photo Aaron Connolly first met Ireland boss Mick McCarthy while on trial at Ipswich. Source: Bradley Collyer

Although he ultimately opted against joining Ipswich, Connolly still got to meet a coach who he would cross paths with again in future — then-manager of the club and now Ireland boss, Mick McCarthy.

“Alan Lee, who was coaching at Ipswich and a former international I would be very friendly with — I used to play with his late dad in Galway years ago — he introduced us. He said ‘there’s a couple of guys over from Galway’ or whatever. Mick came over and shook [Aaron's] hand. He sat down beside him and chatted to him and Wilson.

“He showed a great empathy, McCarthy. He’d never seen these guys in his life and he was on a break from a senior training session and he came over to say ‘hello’. I think it’s that kind of personality that McCarthy has that endears himself [to others], though I don’t know if he remembers the day he met Aaron Connolly at Ipswich. Maybe Aaron will remind him when they’re on the plane in Georgia.”

Moreover, one of Connolly’s best traits as a player is his consistent willingness to take opponents on — a rare quality in modern football.

“I think it’s a testimony to the coaches — the lads at Mervue who coached him and didn’t coach that out of him. Sometimes guys [think]: ‘You’re going to lose the ball.’ But you’ve got to take them on.

I think he’s not far off the finished article. I can see where different coaches have influenced him along the way. The good thing is he’s actually listened to people. He hasn’t been too up himself to say: ‘I don’t need to listen to these guys because I’m a star.’ That has never come out of him, and that’s why he is where he is.”

On a less positive note, there has been talk of late in footballing circles that Connolly’s attitude on occasion hasn’t been exemplary and that he can come across as arrogant at times. Is this criticism fair?

“He’s 19 years of age, so when he signs a professional contract at 18, there’s going to be some effect on the guy. There has to be a bit of a swagger. But as long as he doesn’t become a moron overnight and every kid is probably going to say and do something that is in some way stupid at some point. But I haven’t heard of anything major or even minor, to be honest.

“And I think this is where his parents are brilliant. They’ve encouraged him at every opportunity. And also, they will keep him grounded.

“The likes of [Ireland international] Greg Cunningham, he would have been a great influence. He would have played with Mervue and Galway. He’s a lad who knows the value of keeping your feet on the ground. Guys like him who are from Galway as well, who would welcome him into the squad and say ‘best of luck to you here’. If he ever needs somebody to ring up in the same game as himself, it’s guys like that who he can chat to.”

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west-bromwich-albion-v-blackburn-rovers-sky-bet-championship-the-hawthorns Players such as Greg Cunningham have emerged from Galway in recent years. Source: EMPICS Sport

And while Connolly looks like he will make it in football, for every player like him, there are countless equivalents whose talent is left unfulfilled. Was taking him to England without a Leaving Cert a gamble the people around him were confident would pay off?

“I’ve known quite a few guys who go to play professional football, and the whole Leaving Cert or no Leaving Cert, I think it’s something that has to be judged with each individual kid.

“I think Aaron showed in his mid teens that what he desperately wanted to do more than anything was be a professional footballer. There is always a risk with guys going into the professional game, because it’s such a tiny percentage that make it.

“But when you tick all the boxes, he had the physical attributes, he’s very strong, great engine, very quick. So the physical side of it was not going to be a problem, he seemed to be maturing quite well and as I said, the influence of his family, who would be supporting him to be in the game to do the best he could do. And it wouldn’t be anything to do with them as such, it would be about him, and I think that lessens the risk big time, because the burden on him to succeed is not all-consuming. It’s ‘give it your best shot and if it works out, it works out’.

I think the sky is the limit now, if he gets a bit of luck and doesn’t pick up any injuries at the wrong time. The likelihood is that he is going to pick up some injuries along the way because of the way he plays. When he’s running at 100 miles an hour and a big strong defender is travelling at equal speed in the other direction, he’s going to have some injuries. It’s key that he’s able to cope with that and I think he will, because everything he’s done so far would indicate he could cope with a spell on the sidelines.

“If he matures into an international player in the next two years and I would say that if he plays [today] and the next couple of games for Ireland, Brighton will probably look to tie him down a bit further, because the likelihood is the big boys will come in and look for him.

“On the face of it, he’s looking at a marvellous career. Robbie Keane was playing for Ireland at 17, he was in early, it’s not unusual for a 19-year-old to play at that level. So I think he’s got a chance. But he needs a fair wind at his back, so that things go well for him. You do need a bit of luck in this game to go along with your ability.”

soccer-friendly-ireland-v-argentina Robbie Keane made his Ireland debut as a teenager and Connolly is hoping to do likewise. Source: EMPICS Sport

With Ireland’s first-choice striker, David McGoldrick, ruled out due to injury, McCarthy has hinted he would be open to playing Connolly against Georgia this afternoon. Kelly believes it would be the right call.

“I personally would, and not because he’s from Galway and all that. Everything he’s touched in the last few weeks has turned to gold. He’s on a roll. You sort of say this might be one of these guys, he’s going to get out there in his first game, things might happen for him, the ball might fall to him and he’ll score.”

But regardless of whether he plays or not, Kelly says that all the people he worked with growing up in Galway are extremely proud of the youngster’s achievements so far.

“You always like to see some guy from your local area doing well. And if you look at Galway, in the last few years, you have Greg Cunningham, Daryl Horgan, Ryan Manning and Aaron Connolly — that’s currently four guys. You also have the Shaughnessy brothers and a number of guys now that are playing professional football at a high level in England.

For a place like Galway, that had only one or two guys go that professional route in the previous 30 years, it’s massive. And success breeds success. So it does show that the clubs in Galway are doing something right, even though every one of the guys mentioned there played for Salthill, Mervue or both.

“And I’m biased, but I think that the likes of Salthill and Mervue as nurseries are doing all the right things with the players that are 7-9-year-olds and all the way up, and have always developed the players to be the best they can be. We know the exceptional players are not going to stay on playing junior football and stuff like that, so it’s great to see a guy on TV running down the pitch and scoring a goal. It’s great to say: ‘I know him.’”

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Paul Fennessy

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