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Tuesday 23 January 2018

Galway's Seamus Conneely has worked hard for his big FA Cup day with Accrington Stanley

Seamus Conneely of Accrington Stanley holds off Jonathan Calleri of West Ham United during their League Cup game earlier this season. Photo: Getty
Seamus Conneely of Accrington Stanley holds off Jonathan Calleri of West Ham United during their League Cup game earlier this season. Photo: Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The dream for the young Irish footballer is to make it as a professional player in England.

It's an ambition that evokes images of a glamorous lifestyle, an existence that will lead to a secure long-term future. That doesn't always square with reality, and it goes beyond the familiar tale of the kids that head over early and come back with broken dreams.

In the English lower leagues, there are plenty of grown Irishmen working hard to make a living without enjoying the trappings of the trade. To establish yourself in that environment is an achievement, and it requires hard work. For these pros, the opportunities offered by the cup competitions can be the reward.

Seamus Conneely concurs with that line of thinking. The 28-year-old is the captain of Accrington Stanley and this afternoon he will lead the League Two side out at a Premier League ground for the second time this season.

In September, they pushed West Ham close on their own turf in a narrow 1-0 defeat. Today, it's an FA Cup fourth round showdown with Middlesbrough.

His dad is coming over from Galway, and his siblings that live elsewhere in England are making the journey up too along with some cousins. They are big days, experiences that will last in the memory provided that Accrington make the most of it.

"When I mention the West Ham game now, it's with pride because we put in a good performance," explains Conneely. "That's what made it a great experience."

Smallest

It's the mindset he will bring into today. Conneely plays for a club that has always been cast in the role of underdog; they have the smallest average attendance in the Football League and operate off one of the tightest budgets although the arrival last year of a new owner - local businessman Andy Holt - has certainly boosted the finances.

Stanley are probably best known for the 1980s tv advert where a kid warns his fellow Liverpool supporting mate that Ian Rush had warned him he would only be good enough to play for Accrington Stanley if he didn't drink enough milk. 'Accrington Stanley, who are they?' came the response, and the line has stuck.

At that time, the club was spoken about in the past tense. They had gone out of business and left the Football League, but they rose back through the non-league ranks to return in 2006 after 44 years.

Since then, they have primarily been battling to stay in the fourth tier, although they came painfully close to promotion last season - a near miss that sticks with Conneely.

But he has grown fond of a community club that prides itself on its perseverance and it ties in with his own experience. He is an appropriate club captain.

Last week, he read an article based on a survey of pro footballers worldwide which revealed that almost half earn less than $1,000 (USD) per month. "I'm luckier to be earning more than that," he says, "But sometimes when you hear people speak about footballers, they are only talking about the elite."

He has found that other people view his profession in harsher terms. Job security was a big attraction to Conneely when he left Sligo Rovers to join Accrington in January 2015.

After two months out of work at the end of the League of Ireland season, the prospect of an 18-month deal was tempting and he had pressing personal reasons. Deep down, he knew that he couldn't afford to propose to his girlfriend Lauren until he had a contract of that length.

They got married last summer back in Galway and had extra cause for celebration as Conneely had signed a new two-and-a-half-year deal just a couple of months earlier, the longest contract of his career which gives him peace of mind until the summer of 2018. But it hasn't been enough to make the process of securing a mortgage any easier, despite his current standing at Accrington suggesting he has the character to stay in the game.

"We tried to buy a house," he explains. "But nobody would go near us for a mortgage because of the length of my contract. I thought I'd have a better chance with a two-and-a-half-year contract. But they see my retirement age as 35 so if I take out a 25-year mortgage, well, five years into that they're not sure if I will have a job.

"So we're just renting at the moment and that is difficult. I don't like to sound negative because I love my job, but that side of things is tough."

Still, he always is conscious that a lucky break put him in his current position. Stanley boss John Coleman arrived at Sligo for a short-term stint midway through 2014 after the departure of Ian Baraclough.

Coleman only stayed until the end of the season and then accepted a chance to take over at Stanley for the second time, but saw enough in the versatile Conneely - he has played in both defence and midfield - to offer him the chance to come with him.

The aforementioned personal reasons were a strong factor in the decision to follow, yet there was also a sense of unfinished business. Conneely made a good impression with Galway as a teenager and Sheffield United came calling.

Unfortunately, he didn't break through there and went back to Ireland, unsure if England would happen again although the fact Lauren is from Sheffield - they met when he was at United - meant the incentive was always there because it would suit her too.

"I don't think I would ever have got back if it wasn't for John Coleman," he explains. "He liked the way I play, but he also saw me day in, day out and how I was on the training ground and in the dressing room and he liked that and thought he'd bring me over for him.

"It's just that little bit of luck, to have a manager with the faith to put his trust in you. Then when he made me captain, that was an extra boost in confidence.

Taller

"It just makes you feel that little bit taller when you are leading the team out, especially in those big games like the run-in last year or the cup matches."

Conneely is aware of the growing Galway presence in the English game. The breakthroughs for Daryl Horgan and Ryan Manning have added depth to their ranks. Greg Cunningham is flying the flag as well and, in his own division, he has encountered David Forde, Patrick Hoban and Rory Gaffney.

They don't really have time to talk, though, as they are immersed in the business of looking after number one.

Stanley currently sit 20th in League Two, just three clear of second from bottom and the automatic drop zone to the National League.

Much as this week has centred on the excitement of the Middlesbrough trip, the skipper is conscious that the next league match is against Notts County - the team placed 23rd - and he is fully aware that could turn out to be far more important.

"This is a nice distraction," he says. "It's a great experience to go to these places and they have a midweek game next week that is important to them, so we don't know if that will affect things

"We've done well in the cup this year but we've found ourselves at the wrong end of the table in the league. It's a real scrap at the moment, but this means a lot to us. The prize-money for getting here is worth a lot to the club as well."

In Conneely's workplace, they really know the value of it.

Irish Independent

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