Wednesday 25 April 2018

Slingshot ride to World Cup will do trick for Connolly

Megan Connolly will be hoping to produce another big performance against Holland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Megan Connolly will be hoping to produce another big performance against Holland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

John Fallon

She's made headlines for finding the going tough 300 feet in the air but Megan Connolly would much prefer to be known for helping Ireland elevate to next year's women's World Cup.

The Cork native got herself onto all the major American television networks for a hilarious reaction to being hurtled into the air on a human slingshot ride. The 120-second experience - featuring a petrified Connolly as the star turn - was recorded on video and soon went viral.

Connolly's footballing exploits had gone much lower on the radar, especially in the States, where the 21-year-old is part of the mammoth university scholarship system, but the raw material exists for her feet to eventually trump her voice in the acclaim stakes.

Last Friday at Tallaght Stadium, she slotted into the Ireland midfield seamlessly, dictating the pace in the 2-1 win over Slovakia that creates a straight shoot-out tomorrow against Holland for top spot in their qualifying group.

Connolly had been unavailable to Ireland manager Colin Bell for the opening three matches of his first competitive campaign at the helm. Educational commitments with Florida State University forced her to apply the pause button for six months after featuring in all seven friendly matches of his tenure.

While she was bashing the books preparing for exams towards attaining a degree in sports science and psychology, her team-mates were conquering the defences of Northern Ireland and Slovakia.

Mission

An altogether different mission of nullifying the Dutch European champions in their back yard of Nijmegen was also accomplished, ensuring Ireland share the leadership with tomorrow's opponents on 10 points from four games.

The presence of Connolly for the second half of the campaign represents a major boost for Bell and Ireland. From her mid-teens, when the Leesider's sporting prowess extended to athletics and Gaelic football, Connolly looked destined for a career in pro football.

A starring role for Ireland in the 2014 U-19 European Championship finals when they reached the semi-finals broadened her range of admirers and the sensible decision was made within 12 months to accept Florida's offer of a four-year placement.

Had she stayed at home, Connolly would by now be a regular in the Cork ladies Gaelic football team.

Her brother Luke has instead flown the GAA flag in the family, leading Nemo Rangers to last month's All-Ireland club football final.

Connolly has flourished in the Sunshine State, winning a series of individual awards, and she's not in any way being presumptuous in predicting a move into the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) early next year.

"Colin understood that I had choices to make by needing to miss the qualifiers last year," she said.

"It was difficult not being part of those games. I didn't even get to see the matches on television, as all I could get was the text commentary and had to keep refreshing the website.

"I always knew the time would come to be back and had to prepare for that by doing extra training on my own.

"The standard in the university leagues is good but, physically, international football is 10 times harder.

"The bigger picture is that I'll go straight into the draft system for a professional club when I finish at university in December. I want to stay in America and play at the top."

Connolly intends to eventually work her back into the game in Europe, potentially in Germany or England, but won't be rushing away from the home of the world champions.

Her fellow Leesider Denise O'Sullivan has made America her home for the past two years, firstly at Houston Dash and more then North Carolina Courage, who she helped to the US Cup final in her first season.

Tomorrow night will give Connolly a taster of what to expect when she steps up a level to the professional ranks next year. Bell rates Holland above their current world ranking of seventh and the Dutch not only have the players but also motivation to burst Ireland's bubble.

Vivianne Miedema, the 21-year-old who made it 50 international goals in just 65 internationals by scoring in the 7-0 thumping of Northern Ireland on Friday, led the criticisms of Ireland's tactics in the aftermath of the November stalemate.

Battle

She arrived into Dublin last night along with other stars such as Barcelona star Lieke Martens intent on descending Ireland into a battle for second spot with Norway.

Bell believes only a resounding victory will appease the Dutch after Ireland had the temerity to halt their European Championship lap of honour.

Connolly will form a central element of the renewed rearguard action on home soil, fully confident the visitors won't have it their own way once again.

"Holland will come here expecting to beat us but Colin is brilliant at setting our team up with a game-plan," Connolly noted.

"All I feel about facing the European champions is excitement. These are the big games I've always wanted to play in and it's another step for us towards qualification.

"We had 3,500 fans in Tallaght for the Slovakia game and there should be another huge crowd for this one, so there's everything to look forward to."

Play her part in keeping Ireland on the road to France next year and Connolly can scream her head off all she wants, this time for football reasons only.

Irish Independent

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