Saturday 19 October 2019

'I thought it was a wind-up' - Aaron Connolly on getting the call from Mick McCarthy and his Premier League rise

Aaron Connolly and Callum O'Dowda, right, during a Republic of Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Aaron Connolly and Callum O'Dowda, right, during a Republic of Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

AARON Connolly has revealed that he thought his Irish international call was a wind-up and admits that his sensational two-goal Premier League debut still hasn’t sunk in.

As Ireland few to Tbilisi for the first of two crucial Euro 2020 qualifiers, Galwegian Connolly is in line for another debut on Saturday – but this time in green.

And the Brighton hot-shot is still trying to come to terms with the most remarkable sequence of days in the fledgling 19-year-old’s career.

"It hasn’t really sunk in," he said. "I think the picture on my face when the first goal went in probably tells you the whole story really, when I was running away celebrating.

"It’s a bit like "What just happened?", and then with the second one, I was just proud really. It hadn’t sunk in by full-time but that’s a good thing. It keeps you hungry for more.

"After the game, I went for food with my dad. It’s weird. Because I used to watch Premier League goals with him all the time and I always felt I could do something like that, it’s just I never thought I’d get the chance.

"So to do it against Tottenham, twice, is a 'pinch me' moment. Maybe after these few days are all over, I can move on to the next few months and years of my career.

"I couldn’t have asked for more in how I wanted a debut to go. Everything went well, the two goals, the win. It was just a mad day, the best day I’ve ever had in football. A moment to treasure."

However, his super Saturday wasn’t finished yet, as he told FAI TV.

"And then after I’d dropped my dad to Gatwick Airport, I’d just arrived in my girlfriend’s house and a team-mate had said the Ireland manager had been on looking for my number.

"I thought it was a wind-up. But it was true. I rang my parents and they were just shocked. They didn’t expect it either.

"I hadn’t heard much on social media. It was the proudest thing any 19-year-old Irish kid who wants to play for his country could experience.

"I was speechless until I let my family and my girlfriend’s family know."

Although he first starred with the U14s in the Hibernia Cup, Connolly’s international progress has not always been smooth.

He did score in his native Galway for the U19s last season but he was then frozen out of Tom Mohan’s squad before being promoted by newly-installed U21 manager Stephen Kenny.

"My passion for Ireland has never changed. Obviously there were different circumstances and I wasn’t picked in the U19s squad.

"But then Stephen Kenny came in and like a breath of fresh air just picked me and gave me the chance to show it’s not what other people think.

"Thankfully I was able to repay his trust. I get on with him well and I’m thankful he brought me in.

"The U21s are a great squad to be part of and now the senior lads are looking after me well. I love playing for Ireland and hopefully that can continue for another couple of years."

Connolly claims a crucial summit with new Brighton boss Graham Potter during the summer reflected his determination to nail down a starting berth with the Premier League club.

"I met him the first day after my holidays and said I didn’t want to have the option of going on loan, I wanted him to instead see me wanting to fight for my place here.

"I’d say that’s what he wanted to hear. He reacted well to be fair. He didn’t want me to take the easy option.

"It looks now like it was a good decision. But then when they signed Neil Maupay, my first thought was I should have gone on loan!

"But they said it wasn’t to replace me, they still wanted me to fight for my place. The manager at Brighton has shown a lot of faith in me.

"To start me eight games into the Premier League, I wasn’t expecting that. It’s still a shock because any 19-year-old would be shocked to be told they were starting in the Premier League.

"But then after I was told, it was more excitement really rather than shock. There were a few nerves but I’d had the experience of four or five games being around the first-team squad. That settled me into it.

"So I’d been gradually brought in to it so it didn’t feel like such a huge task for me.

"Thankfully I repaid his faith and hopefully I can keep repaying that trust, especially the fact that he didn’t send me out on loan."

Connolly has forged a reputation as a devilish wide man but he insists he wants to be the centre of attention.

"I’m always a nine at Brighton. When I’m away with Ireland, I go to the right or left. I don’t mind where I play but I am a striker, that’s where I’m comfortable.

"But I’ll play anywhere for Ireland if I get the chance. I have a good partnership with Neil Maupay.

"When it came to the game everything seemed to click, we played really close to each other and kept talking throughout the game. We linked up really well, it’s a good partnership.

"The club have really looked after me since I came over.

"It’s my fourth season here, I’ve been coming here since I was 15 really. In every changing-room, I’ve sat beside an Irishman, from Danny Mandroiu to Shane Duffy.

"And obviously John Morling is there now as well on the coaching staff."

And now he hopes to make the breakthrough on the biggest stage of all, with David McGolrick’s absence raising the chances of another memorable debut.

"It’s been tough and intense," he says of Irish training, "but a bit easier to settle in because I have that first-team experience at Brighton."

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