The pair have taken divergent paths since leaving their west of Ireland roots – now they find themselves as rivals in an unlikely part of the world
The sports pages of local newspapers are filled with reports of underage matches that disappear into the archive, a moment frozen in time.
It’s a place where stories end and stories begin, a crossing of paths that binds people together in their memories.
In April 2013, the Connacht Sentinel reported on a schoolboy inter-league meeting of Galway and Sligo/Leitrim representative sides.
The piece describes how the away side started better at Eamonn Deacy Park with the ‘imperious’ Liam Kerrigan ‘threatening and probing with an array of skills’ but this would not be enough to deliver victory for his side.
Both Galway goals in a 2-1 win were scored by the ‘impressive’ Aaron Connolly, a player already making a name for himself in his generation. Connolly was born in January 2000, with Kerrigan’s parents in Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo welcoming him into the world in May.
By the time the boys had turned 13, they were making a name for themselves on the sporting field as occasional rivals and also team-mates in representative sides. “My dad knows his mum and his family quite well,” explained Connolly last month.
He was speaking in the context of an unlikely intersection in their lives in the year where they turned 22. This weekend, the attacking duo are in Italy, preparing to kick off the new Serie B season.
For Kerrigan, it represents a step forward in his career, with the three-year deal he has signed with Como making him a full-time professional for the first time.
For Connolly, a loan move to Venezia has to be viewed as a step back in the context of where he’s coming from, even if he has expressed the belief that it could propel him to make two forward.
What it reflects is how football can be a great leveller; there isn’t always a straight path to the summit. And the progression of both Kerrigan and Connolly from here will test theories about the grounding delivered by their respective journeys.
On paper, they couldn’t be any more different. Connolly was the outstanding talent in the region and was always destined for England.
His every move has been well documented with Brighton his destination of choice and the world apparently his oyster in October 2019 when he scored twice on his first Premier League start against Spurs.
Within a month, he was starting competitive qualifying matches for Ireland at senior level, a rapid rise for a player who had been left out of U-19 squads because of doubts that management harboured about aspects of his attitude.
Those questions have been raised again in a steady descent.
He did sign new deals in 2020 and 2021 to bring him into a higher earning bracket and provide a form of financial security but in his honest interview with Irish Football Fan TV last month, he admitted his love for the game had waned along the way.
It was a chat laced with surprising self-awareness, with Connolly speaking of watching clips where he was walking rather than running and wondering what had happened. Stephen Kenny and Keith Andrews made strong points in the aftermath of his withdrawal in last September’s draw with Azerbaijan and Connolly hasn’t been picked for Ireland since. Kenny has made efforts to help Connolly, but he also has to be pragmatic.
There’s an unease around his story as football is littered with individuals harbouring regrets that they enjoyed too much, too soon and lost their way. Connolly encouraged people by speaking about mistakes he made off the park, poor life choices that attracted unwelcome headlines and a reputation that he will only truly shake when actions are provided to match the words. Venezia isn’t quite his last-chance saloon; he’s good enough to be forgiven if it doesn’t work out. Yet there’s a sense that the clock is ticking.
With Kerrigan, there is no such pressure. He is another poster boy for patience and merging football with education, a relevant one in a Brexit-influenced climate.
England didn’t happen for him as a teenager.
Instead, he went to Sligo Rovers and left after a handful of appearances to take up a scholarship at UCD and play for their League of Ireland side while starting a degree in Commerce. He merged work and play successfully, his profile growing below the radar at UCD, primarily at First Division level.
There was a lot of chat last term about the free-scoring Colm Whelan, who broke into the Ireland U-21 squad. But prominent league managers were starting to believe that the athletic right winger Kerrigan was the star graduate in waiting. His physicality was marked out as a major attribute, and there’s GAA in his back story as Kerrigan played it all the way through his secondary education at St Attracta’s Community School where the late Red Óg Murphy was a team-mate.
When UCD reached the promotion/relegation final last November, the build-up was dominated by the dramatic axing of Waterford boss Marc Bircham in the week of the game. Bircham ended up in with the Waterford fans at Richmond Park to add another layer of tragicomedy to proceedings from a Blues perspective. Unsurprisingly, they lost, and Kerrigan excelled.
Every top Premier Division club wanted him, and big offers followed in the knowledge he would be finishing his degree in the summer of 2022. But his breakthrough to the Ireland U-21 side and a strong show in a game with Italy helped influence his change of surroundings. The other twist was Como hiring Bircham, to work under CEO Dennis Wise in a set-up that now includes Cesc Fabregas. Como’s move for Kerrigan made sense; it was all pieced together and he’s pinching himself.
“I knew I would be moving on,” he told this newspaper last month. “But I thought it’d be Ireland or England. I never dreamed it would be Italy. I got a 2.1 in Commerce so I was happy with that. I hope not to need my degree for a while but it’s in the back pocket if I do.”
Connolly has joked about how strange it will be for the Italians if two Irish voices end up on the same pitch on November 5 when Como host Venezia. By that juncture, we should have an early idea of how their Italian jobs are faring.
Kerrigan will see another side to the industry now, and will learn a lot about himself. His new employers host Cagliari tonight.
Connolly has to find solutions to problems he has recognised and his assertion that he’s enjoyed his best pre-season in years will be tested when Genoa visit tomorrow evening.
Life was easier when they were teenagers, but they continue to chase the same dream. It has taken this Connacht pair to unexpected places.