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
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