Connolly proves Ir­ish pro­duc­tion line is thriv­ing

Brighton tyro has made a splash in Eng­land and is now ready to take on the world, writes Sam Dean

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Sport Football -

It was fit­ting that Aaron Connolly’s first Pre­mier League goal came at the sec­ond at­tempt, a prod­ded shot bob­bling into the Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur net af­ter his first shot had been saved. His man­ager, Gra­ham Pot­ter, has de­scribed him as a “de­ter­mined lit­tle so-and-so” and, as Connolly learned when he first joined Brighton three years ago, per­sis­tence pays off in foot­ball.

The Ir­ish­man had shown plenty of prom­ise at Mervue United in Gal­way, lead­ing to a trial at Brighton when he was 16. Ac­cord­ing to John Mor­ling, Brighton’s academy man­ager, he did “OK”. Not bad enough to be im­me­di­ately re­jected, but not good enough to be ac­cepted.

“He had to come in again,” says Mor­ling. “And he did much bet­ter the sec­ond time. We of­fered to sign him and he joined as a scholar in the Un­der-18s. He has got pace, he is hard to play against and he scores a range of goals. He has al­ways been a threat.”

Connolly’s achieve­ment in be­com­ing the first Ir­ish teenager to score twice in a Pre­mier League game since Rob­bie Keane in 1999 led to a call-up to the Repub­lic of Ire­land se­nior squad, with man­ager Mick Mccarthy say­ing ahead of to­day’s meet­ing with Ge­or­gia that it was no gam­ble to se­lect a player who has made just one Pre­mier League start.

On an in­di­vid­ual level, Connolly’s sud­den rise is tes­ta­ment to the set-up at Brighton and the faith shown in young play­ers by Pot­ter. The en­tire club has a part to play, Mor­ling says, from the coaches and can­teen staff to the player care de­part­ment and psy­chol­o­gists. It is a team ef­fort which, ev­ery now and then, leads to a tri­umph. “Lots of play­ers have po­ten­tial,” says Mor­ling. “It is about en­sur­ing they get the right op­por­tu­ni­ties at the right time.”

On a wider level, Connolly’s eye-catch­ing de­but pro­vided a re­minder of the tal­ent that can be found in Ire­land af­ter years of dwin­dling num­bers in Eng­land’s top flight. Last sea­son, only 15 Ir­ish play­ers fea­tured in the Pre­mier

‘Years ago we were the only for­eign play­ers in Bri­tain – now the world plays there’

League, the low­est since it was formed in 1992. Be­tween then and 2013, the av­er­age num­ber of Ir­ish play­ers in the top flight was twice what it is now.

The de­cline has been dra­matic over the past seven years. There have been many the­o­ries as to why, and plenty of de­bates over a com­plex is­sue, but one of the more widely ac­cepted no­tions is that the glob­al­i­sa­tion of the Pre­mier League has prompted top clubs to in­creas­ingly turn their gaze to­wards main­land Europe, or beyond, in­stead of Ire­land.

“Years ago, we were the only for­eign play­ers in Bri­tain,” says Vin­cent Butler, who served as man­ager of the Ire­land Un­der-16 side for 17 years and is cur­rently di­rec­tor of foot­ball af­fairs for Belvedere FC, a Dublin club renowned for pro­duc­ing dozens of lead­ing Ir­ish play­ers and in­ter­na­tion­als. “Then all of a sud­den the whole world is playing in the English leagues and that makes it more dif­fi­cult to come through.”

Brighton are an ob­vi­ous ex­cep­tion. Along with Connolly, there are high hopes for Jayson Molumby, on loan at Mill­wall, and James Fur­long, who signed from Sham­rock Rovers this sum­mer. It helps that Mor­ling has strong con­nec­tions in Ire­land, where he was the coun­try’s Un­der-17s man­ager be­fore tak­ing over at Brighton’s academy.

“It helps to have an un­der­stand­ing of the foot­ball land­scape over there, and you also build up con­tacts,” says Mor­ling. “It would be naive not to look there. I feel there is al­ways good value in Ire­land and there are al­ways good play­ers in Ire­land.”

Look beyond the strug­gles of the first team and there are gen­uine rea­sons for Ire­land to feel op­ti­mistic about the foot­balling fu­ture. The un­der-age sides are en­joy­ing a pe­riod of suc­cess, with gen­uine ex­cite­ment and ex­pec­ta­tion be­gin­ning to build around young play­ers such as Tot­ten­ham’s Troy Par­rott and Celtic’s Lee O’con­nor.

There is con­cern, though, that the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land’s at­tempts to re­design the struc­ture of un­der-age Ir­ish foot­ball will only in­hibit fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Butler has been one of the most vo­cal crit­ics of the FAI’S move to take re­spon­si­bil­ity away from school­boy clubs and hand it to League of Ire­land clubs. The cre­ation of a un­der-13 league means that the best play­ers in Ire­land are now be­ing re­cruited at the age of 12, leav­ing the rest with­out a com­pet­i­tive sys­tem in which to de­velop.

“If you take play­ers at 12, you have no idea what they are go­ing to be like at 14 or 15,” says Butler. “They are tak­ing strong play­ers who look the best and look the most ef­fec­tive but some­times they don’t go much fur­ther or get much stronger. Some of the lit­tle play­ers are ne­glected and passed over.

“They are go­ing to lose a lot of these play­ers. We are also los­ing good young coaches. They don’t get the op­por­tu­nity to coach good 11-a-side teams be­cause the play­ers are gone be­fore that hap­pens.”

Such ar­gu­ments are the natural con­se­quence of hav­ing a strug­gling se­nior side, which causes in­tro­spec­tion and over­haul across the sys­tem.

These dis­cus­sions will rum­ble on for years in Ire­land, it seems, but those who know the coun­try and its foot­balling cul­ture will re­main on the look­out for play­ers like Connolly. He has shown there is tal­ent to be found – as long as you are look­ing in the right places.

Po­ten­tial: Aaron Connolly trav­elled from Ire­land for a trial with Brighton aged 16

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