EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW Republic of Ireland's Aaron Connolly opens up on his year of learning
Honesty is the quality that shines through when you spend time with Aaron Connolly.
That much was in evidence as he admitted he was disappointed with his own performance in Ireland's Nations League defeat against Finland on Wednesday and struggled to contain his exasperation after he was forced to sit out last weekend's Euro 2020 play-off in Slovakia after coming into close contact with someone who tested positive Covid-19.
His pain was multiplied when it turned out that test was, in fact, a false positive, with Connolly's eagerness to get back in the Ireland mix confirmed as he pushed to joined up with the squad for the game in Helsinki.
For a young man who has yet to toast his 21st birthday, the maturity he displays off the field has been dictated by a year that has taught him some harsh lessons about life at the top of the Premier League as he fought to make his mark at Brighton.
A year has passed since a breakthrough performance that saw him score twice against Tottenham and fuel Irish hopes that we had finally found our replacement for Robbie Keane, yet Connolly will confirm such inflated expectations were hard to live up to.
After making his senior Ireland debut after the Tottenham game, he appeared to be on a fast track to the top and yet the road Connolly has traveled down over the last 12 months has been laced with obstacles.
Now, in an exclusive interview with the Sunday World at an EA Sports event, Connolly has given an insight into the emotions that wash over you when you go from Premier League hopeful to A-list superstar and why a solitary breakthrough performance creates expectations that are hard to live up to.
“After having a game like that against Spurs, you could be forgiving for sitting back and thinking it’s not too hard to play in the Premier League, but the last year has taught me a lot of lessons,” he began, as he promoted the new FIFA 21 game that was released last Friday.
“When I look back on that Spurs game now, the whole day is a big blur. I remember sitting in the players’ lounge after the game and it was like it hadn’t happened.
“Then a few days later, I made my senior Ireland debut and everything I was working towards was happening. When you have a week like that, you want it to continue, but it didn’t work out like that.
“You have to do so much to succeed in the Premier League and I realised as much in the year. It’s a tough league, every team has great players and you need to be on your game every week or you will struggle in that league.
“Going on a long goal drought after the Spurs game reminded me that I am in the toughest league in the world and I feel all the experiences of the last year means I am a better player now.”
The goal drought Connolly mentions latest a long and painful 265 days, with the Covid-19 shutdown adding to a barren run that finally ended with a goal on the final day of last season against Burnley.
“It was tough when I didn’t score for all that time. I’ve never had to deal with anything like that in my whole life before,” he continues.
“In the youth teams I played in and after I moved to England, there was never a time when I didn’t score and I’m grateful that my gaffer at Brighton stuck by me and gave me encouragement because it was important at that time.
“As a striker, it’s tough not to score for so long, but the goal on the last day of the season was massive for me and then I got another one against Newcastle a couple of weeks back.
“It’s all part of the learning process when you have a spell without a goal and when you get one, it feels like the pressure is off and you can get more.
“Now I know how tough it is in the Premier League and you need to stay focused and work hard every day to give yourself the best chance when the matches come around.”
Connolly admits homesickness was an issue when he swapped the comforts of Galway to chase his dream of football stardom by signing for Brighton in 2016, as he credits his supportive parents for ensuring he kept his eye on the goal.
“It was tough for me when I first went over to England,” he added. “I come from a small place in Galway and it was hard not to miss friends and family after going over to England.
“I grew up idolising Thierry Henry and my dream was to play in the Premier League, so I knew it was something I needed to go through to give myself a chance to do that, but England is very different compared to what I was used to back home in Galway.
“There were quite a few Irish boys at Brighton when arrived and that helped me. Just hearing some familiar voices was nice and it helped me settle in and helped my transition and in my fifth year in England now, I feel settled.
“It has been great to start the last three Premier League games and I know what to expect now. You are up against real athletes, great players in every game and you have to be ready to deal with that if you want to succeed.”
In so many ways, Connolly is already a success in England as he had broken through the door to prove he has what it takes to become a Premier League player.
Yet as he will now confirm, that achievement is merely the first step in what we all hope is a long and fruitful story.FIFA 21 from EA Sports is available now for PlayStation®4, Xbox One, PC via Origin™ and Steam plus Nintendo Switch.