Wednesday 23 October 2019

His hero was Henry, he models himself on Aguero and he loves to score - Meet Ireland's top prospect Aaron Connolly

High Stakes: Aaron Connolly and Alan Browne during yesterday’s Rep of Ireland training session. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
High Stakes: Aaron Connolly and Alan Browne during yesterday’s Rep of Ireland training session. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Following Aaron Connolly's two-goal burst in Brighton's impressive win over Spurs, here is Daniel McDonnell's interview on the 19-year-old Ireland U-21 star from September 29.

'I can be challenging at times, I guess," says Aaron Connolly, with a hint of a smile. The teenager isn't talking about the test that he poses defenders. Instead, it's his relationship with authority figures that is up for discussion.

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It's late on Wednesday evening and the Galwegian is standing in an alcove of the corridor outside the Brighton changing room, taking questions on his sudden rise.

His seamless transition to first-team football means these are his baby steps into the spotlight, and it's clear he is comfortable with it. He doesn't need to be muzzled by minders. In Brighton, they are convinced Connolly is going to be a star. A loan move this season was never on the cards once Graham Potter got a handle on his talent.

And that's why it feels like only a matter of time before the diminutive attacker takes a central role in discussions around the Irish team. He's got a style and a personality that will get people talking, and he's acutely aware of that too. He attracts attention when he's on the pitch; he's a player who is expressive on the ball and with his body language.

It's not everyone's cup of tea.

Brighton’s Aaron Connolly (right) scored a brace against Tottenham (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Brighton’s Aaron Connolly (right) scored a brace against Tottenham (Gareth Fuller/PA)

"I have never been on the radar with certain things in Ireland," he says, a reference to how other emerging stars have hogged a lot of discussion until recently.

A year ago, he couldn't get into the Ireland U19 squad because the highly regarded coach Tom Mohan felt that Connolly didn't fit into his plans and those with a knowledge of his thought process suggest that it was more to do with attitude than ability.

Stephen Kenny invited him into the U21 fold and he has flourished. The only threat to that relationship is the prospect of a senior call from Mick McCarthy on Tuesday. He says that would be his proudest moment, but insists that all he's thinking about is the sold-out U21 game with Italy on October 10.

"It's just different managers," Connolly shrugs. "Tom saw it differently to what I saw. I couldn't take it personally. Stephen got the job with the 21s and he's brought me up and made me feel welcome straight away. He's a good guy. They're all good people in the 21s and I think that's why we've been so successful, just the togetherness in that group is the best I've seen at international level."

Keith Andrews is part of Kenny's backroom staff and has made Connolly something of a pet project in terms of keeping him on the right track. After the win over Armenia in Tallaght earlier this month, it was noticeable that Andrews took Connolly aside after full-time and put an arm around his shoulder, smiling at whatever grievance appeared to be afflicting him and giving a gentle nudge.

The 19-year-old had been replaced in the dying stages. At Brighton, they know to expect an unhappy face if he departs the pitch without having scored. Wednesday was an exception, as his early withdrawal in the League Cup defeat to Aston Villa actually confirmed he was very much in the plans for Chelsea yesterday. Connolly was given another 25 minutes off the bench at Stamford Bridge.

"I've worked with Keith before and he looks after me a lot. Helps me out a lot," says Connolly, explaining the dynamic with the ex-Ireland midfielder when asked about the post-Armenia discussion.

"We'd have chats most days when we are away on international. General chats. He'd always text me and say, 'We're in the meeting room, do you want to chat?' and stuff like this. He looks after me well because I can be challenging at times. Keith knows what it's like."

Aaron Connolly during a Republic of Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Aaron Connolly during a Republic of Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Shane Duffy has adopted a similar role in the Brighton dressing room, where sympathy will be in short supply.

"I think coming into the first team environment has kinda matured me," admits Connolly. "You have to. Duffs in there won't let me go over the rails."

Connolly has always possessed a single-minded streak, and has never been afraid to go against the grain. His childhood hero was Thierry Henry, and that stance remained consistent after the handball in Paris in 2009. The nine-year-old Connolly, an Arsenal fan, forgave him.

"My mum (Karen) did question why I still liked him," he laughs, "She used to love him because she's an Arsenal fan but she disliked him for a couple of months after that. I got over it because he's my idol. He could do anything, and I'd get over it."

As a kid with Mervue United, Connolly's goalscoring instinct was apparent to coaches from an early age.

With his low centre of gravity and his dribbling skills, he was compared to Damien Duff after thrilling displays as a left winger for Kenny's U21s. At club level, he is deployed as a central striker, his preferred position, and has tried to model himself on Sergio Aguero.

That's why it was 'surreal' to share a pitch with the Argentine earlier this month on the occasion of his Premier League debut off the bench at the Etihad. Connolly has clearly done his football homework. "Since Aguero moved to City and that game against Swansea, I always wanted to copy what he was doing," he explains. The recollection is perfect. Aguero's City bow was a 4-0 win over Swansea in August 2011. Eight years on, the memory is fresh in his mind.

Connolly speaks confidently, aware of the profile that will accompany his rising status. His prolific exploits at U18 and U23 level - he was voted the Premier League 2 player of the season last term - built a certain following. Forty scouts from League 1 and League 2 clubs attended one fixture with a loan swoop in mind, although his subsequent spell at Luton was ruined by injury.

A handful of Premier League outings has brought a whole different level of attention. He was inches away from a first goal at Newcastle last weekend and couldn't espape the disappointment because of the multiple replays fired his way.

"It's the worst, the worst," he sighs, "I was coming back on the plane, staring at the seat in front of me for about half an hour. After I'd just gotten over it, there was another ten videos on Twitter where I'm tagged and there's a picture of the ball that much from going over the line.

"But it's good to be talked about I guess. That's what I always wanted to do, to play Premier League and be talked about by Premier League pundits. That's the life that comes with it. There's going to be good and bad times. Social media wise, football wise, personal wise, but that's just football I guess. You have to deal with them sort of things."

This is only the beginning.

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