Monday 16 September 2019

Why young Irish star Aaron Connolly could be close to a Premier League breakthrough

Brighton & Hove Albion's Aaron Connolly celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the Carabao Cup Second Round match at the Memorial Stadium, Bristol. David Davies/PA Wire.
Brighton & Hove Albion's Aaron Connolly celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the Carabao Cup Second Round match at the Memorial Stadium, Bristol. David Davies/PA Wire.
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

August 27, 2019 will go down in the history books as a grim day for English football due to the demise of troubled Bury.

But for young Galwegian Aaron Connolly, it is a date that he will be remember fondly for the rest of his life.

The 19-year-old marked his maiden start for Brighton with a goal in their League Cup win away at Bristol Rovers. It should be the first of many in his career if all goes to plan.

Connolly is a diminutive left sided attacker with the ability to go past players and a track record which suggests he has an eye for goal.

Last year, he hit double figures for Brighton's U23 side and picked up the gong for the top performer in the entirety of Premier League 2, which is essentially a modern version of the old reserve division given that overage players can be dropped in for certain fixtures.

Connolly's starring performances at that level marked him out as a natural candidate for progression to the first team picture. He did get a couple of minutes under Chris Hughton, but the plan for last season involved a loan move to further his development.

There was even speculation that Bundesliga side Hoffenheim were keen on his services before he was dispatched for an educational spell at Luton. Alas, injury prevented Connolly from making an impact with the League One side as they stormed to promotion.

It will be illuminating to see how manager Graham Potter reacts to the player's cup exploits, especially as a weekend dismissal for Florin Andone has weakened his forward options.

Connolly's U23 colleague Steven Alzate also starred last night and Potter said: "Both of those guys have been working with us in the group and it’s nice to have them with us. They didn’t look out of place."

The man of the moment should be named in Stephen Kenny's Ireland U21 squad today after breaking into his plans this year.

Yet it's safe to say that Connolly's progress through the international ranks hasn't exactly run smoothly - and it might explain why he has a low enough profile relative to other Irish youths knocking on the door in England.

The Mervue United product plays with personality, and he can be both thrilling and frustrating to watch in equal measure with his confidence in his own ability shining through in his trademark solo runs.

He was one of Kenny's stars during the Toulon Tournament in the summer, and his ability to try things and take the game to the superior Brazilian side that knocked them out of the competition marked Connolly out as a player with a future, even if he did occasionally have a tendency to go it alone and regardless of whether he had team-mates in better positions. There's a hint of Damien Duff about the way in which he burrows beyond his pursuers. Potter has hailed his workrate.

But while Duffer was a beloved figure on his rise through the ranks, Connolly has polarised opinion somewhat. There are individuals with a knowledge of the set-up that would argue that he has a bit of growing up to do. Given that he's 19 - and not 29 - there's no need to be unduly worried about that.

Eyebrows were raised when the highly regarded Tom Mohan left Connolly out of his U19 panel for the elite phase qualifiers last autumn, with rising stars Troy Parrott and Adam Idah (the latter of whom made his Norwich debut last night in a loss to Crawley) preferred even though they are from a younger age group.

"There are obviously different types of players that the manager wants there and different types of people. Obviously, I didn’t fit into the plans at the time, that’s just the way it goes," said Connolly in an interview with Pundit Arena around that juncture.

He has spoken passionately about playing for Ireland and was actually spotted by Brighton while playing for the national side at the Mayo International Cup in 2015.

Connolly was also the top scorer en route to the 2017 European U17 Championships in Croatia where Colin O'Brien's side advanced to the quarter finals before England proved too strong.

Phil Foden, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Jadon Sancho were high profile members of that English group that look set to be the fixtures at the high end of the sport in the long run.

In Connolly, Ireland have a player with the raw materials to carve out a very successful career for club and country. His response to this rise in status will be fascinating.

Online Editors

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