Thursday 14 November 2019

'Such a nice, unassuming lad' - Castlegar GAA club celebrate the rise and rise of Aaron Connolly

Aaron Connolly fires his second goal, and Brighton’s third, past Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld on Saturday. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters
Aaron Connolly fires his second goal, and Brighton’s third, past Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld on Saturday. Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters

Stephen Bennett

Aaron Connolly would go about his scholarly endeavours at Brierhill National School in east Galway with a keen eye on the field beside the school and break time.

As a former teacher at the school, Conor Hogan, who is also Castlegar GAA's PRO, remembers a young Aaron flying around the place, loving his sport no matter what the code.

"I was a substitute teacher there for six months and I remember fifth class had about 30 lads and Aaron was in sixth class and they were sports mad," he recalls.

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Aaron Connolly, pictured with his parents Karen and Mike, after a game for Castlegar

"He was such a nice, unassuming lad from a lovely family and we're delighted to see his progress."

Brierhill school lies just a kick-out away from Ballybrit racecourse, and in Connolly, the townland has a Castlegar Colt of sorts.

As a juvenile hurler for his local club - not far from the city centre - Connolly learned his trade as a tough, diminutive forward.

Mr Hogan recalls a match, an Under-14 hurling Feile clash against Athenry, when - much like he did for Brighton in last Saturday's Premier League win over Tottenham Hotspur - Aaron quite literally shot the lights out.

"He scored 4-2 that day," he said. "He might be small, but he's as broad as a door and physically he's got that turn, that low centre of gravity. He was predominantly left-sided as a hurler but brilliant with his back to goal."

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Aaron Connoly, right, in action as a juvenile hurler for Castlegar. Pics courtesy of Castlegar GAA

The Connolly connection with Castlegar is alive and well as his father Mike is on the management ticket of the minor hurlers and, according to Hogan "is still togging out for the juniors."

Connolly is no relation to the famous seven Connolly brothers who lined out for Castlegar and Galway in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Aaron Connolly mixed his hurling endeavours at Castlegar with his soccer ambitions at Maree Oranmore. Aaron then made the move to Galway's top schoolboy club Mervue United.

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By 2016, a decision in the Connolly household had to be made.

While a number of clubs from the top echelons of English football expressed an interest, Connolly chose Brighton and Hove Albion - a club from the south coast of England, that has never looked back since moving into their all-new Amex Stadium home back in July 2011.

The 16-year-old joined on a two-year scholarship with the Seagulls' Under-18 side, and initial progress was quick with Connolly being fast-tracked into the Under-23 side before making his senior Brighton debut as a 17-year-old in a League Cup win over Barnet in August 2017.

Chances under then Brighton boss and former Ireland international Chris Hughton became limited as the club put down roots in the Premier League.

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Aaron Connolly celebrates scoring Brighton’s second goal against Tottenham at the Amex Stadium. Photo: AP

A loan move to Luton Town last January was initially a disaster, with Connolly's six-month deal being curtailed by an early injury. He returned to complete his loan deal in April as the Hatters sealed promotion to the Championship.

In the meantime, Hughton was replaced by Graham Potter, a progressive coach who brought the Swedish side Ostersunds from oblivion to the Europa League before returning to Britain as Swansea City boss.

Following a Premier League debut as a substitute at reigning champions Manchester City, the 19-year-old Connolly made his full debut under the watchful gaze of the Sky Sports cameras last Saturday.

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Aaron Connolly, pictured here scoring a goal form Castlegar

He notched two goals in a 3-0 win for Brighton in a Man of the Match display. Later that day he received a call-up from senior Ireland boss Mick McCarthy for the upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers against Georgia and Switzerland.

Castlegar celebrated.

"Connacht is the poor relation in terms of sport, so we're delighted to see this. You have to be that bit better and that bit more determined to get noticed down in Galway," added Hogan, who describes Connolly as "a very committed young man."

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Forward thinking: Aaron Connolly chats with Ireland boss Mick McCarthy at Abbotstown yesterday after his call up to the senior squad. Photo: Sportsfile

Next Saturday in Tbilisi could be the next chapter of a bright and promising soccer career for the teenager.

Hogan is in no doubt that if circumstances were different and Connolly stayed at the hurling "he would have played for Galway, undoubtedly."

Hurling's loss, however, is Mick McCarthy's gain as he seeks vital away points in the Georgian capital on Saturday.

And if Connolly's senior Ireland debut goes as well as his Brighton one, there could be yet more goals to celebrate in Castlegar over the next few months.

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