Irish teenager Aaron Connolly has been catapulted to superstardom after lighting up the Premier League with some superb performances for Brighton this season. Match of the Day pundit Alan Shearer was particularly effusive in his praise after the 19-year-old Galway native banged in a brace to put Tottenham to the sword. The former Newcastle forward was particularly impressed with Connolly’s intelligent movement, work rate and finishing ability after he ran the Spurs defence ragged.
The young striker is already held in extremely high regard by many Brighton fans, while teammates hate facing him in training. The Seagulls ended the 2018/19 campaign heavily reliant on the aging legs of Glenn Murray, but that is now no longer a concern due to the form of Neal Maupay and the exciting displays Connolly has produced.
He is currently out injured, but he is nearing a return and he should cause nightmare for many more defenders in the second half of the campaign. On the evidence we have seen so far, he has the potential establish himself as one of the Premier League’s finest forwards.
Hope for the Emerald Isle
The emergence of Connolly is enough to suggest that the Irish production line has not run dry. It has yielded some of the most talented players in the business over the years, including Roy Keane, David O’Leary, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Denis Irwin, Paul McGrath, Mark Lawrenson, Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton.
However, the Irish influence on the Premier League has dwindled in recent years. The English top flight is the richest and the most popular league in the world, while it can also claim to be the best league in the world right now, thanks to the success of Liverpool and Man City. Stars from around the world are desperate to ply their trade in England.
There is no language barrier for Irish players, so it should be their ultimate destination. Yet the number of Irishmen flying the flag for their nation in the Premier League has decreased from a peak of 36 in 2011-12 to just 15 in 2019/20.
Brighton also have Shane Duffy in their ranks, while they have sent youngster Jayson Molumby out on loan to Millwall for the season and they snapped up James Furlong from Shamrock Rovers in the summer of 2019. Newly promoted Sheff Utd also have a decent Irish contingent featuring David McGoldrick, Callum Robinson and John Egan, while Burnley duo Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady are highly rated, as are Matt Doherty of Wolves and Conor Hourihane of Aston Villa.
A New Generation Emerges
However, Irish stalwarts of the Premier League are now approaching the tail end of their careers. Shane Long is now 32 and he is no longer a guaranteed starter at Southampton, while Glenn Whelan is without a club and Seamus Coleman may not be able to go bombing up and down the right flank for Everton for too much longer.
It is time for fresh talent to emerge, but prospects were looking poor at the start of the season. However, the emergence of Connolly as a force to be reckoned with in the Premier League has given Ireland a massive shot in the arm.
Fellow teenager Michael Obafemi, born in Dublin to Nigerian parents and then raised in Dublin, has also excelled of late for Southampton. He made his debut for Ireland in November 2018 after choosing them ahead of England and Nigeria, and he has the potential to form a devastating strike partnership with Connolly in future.
There is also plenty of excitement around young players like Tottenham’s Troy Parrott and Luca Connell of Celtic, who has been tipped for a move to England. Yet Connolly is the jewel in the crown. Unlike Obafemi, who honed his skills in the Leyton Orient youth setup in London, Connolly is a product of Irish nurture, and his rise to the top in the Premier League can provide Ireland fans with encouragement about the nation’s ability to develop talent in future.
Channelling His Inner Keane
Robbie Keane would serve as a strong role model for Connolly. He was a legend in the Premier League, banging in goals on a regular basis for Tottenham, Liverpool, Coventry, Leeds Utd and West Ham. Connolly is identical in height and build, and he looks similarly dynamic and explosive thanks to his low centre of gravity and instincts around the box.
Keane was an extremely hard worker and a model professional, and Connolly should be hell-bent on emulating his rise to the top of the game. He received a call-up to the Ireland squad after that eye-catching performance against Spurs, and that gave him the opportunity to work with Keane, who serves as manager Mick McCarthy’s assistant.
The Kids Are All Right
They will have plenty more opportunities to link up in future, provided Keane stays in the role, which can only benefit Connolly. The 19-year-old is also reaping the benefits of Brighton manager Graham Potter putting his faith in youth.
His rise to prominence is testament to Brighton’s strong youth set-up and Potter’s bravery, and the Amex looks like the perfect setting for Connolly to flourish. Bookmakers devising the Premier League odds expect the Seagulls to beat the drop once again this season, and Connolly should be able to enjoy a long career in the Premier League.
It will be exciting to watch him attempt to fill the void left by Keane when the legendary striker finally hung up his boots. He looks more than capable of seizing that mantle, and with the right guidance he can become a top player.