Thierry Henry was Aaron Connolly’s idol when growing up watching football in Galway – so it was fitting his first Premier League goal came against Tottenham. The Ireland international, born January 2000, announced himself to the footballing world with the sort of cool finishes that Arsenal icon Henry made a career out of. Brighton fans should be proud.
The 2019-20 season has seen Connolly repay the faith of Brighton boss Graham Potter with a first goal in the Carabao Cup followed up by a brace on his maiden Premier League start. Based on that form, a call-up to the Ireland squad was inevitable and was only a matter of days away.
Ireland manager Mick McCarthy had originally left Connolly out of the squad to face Georgia and Switzerland, despite the Boys in Green short on attacking options with marksman David McGoldrick an injury concern. But the high-flying teenager was drafted into the squad on October 5, and was taken from Stephen Kenny’s under-21 squad.
Connolly, in downing Spurs, became the first Irish teenager to score twice in a Premier League match since Robbie Keane 20 years ago. McCarthy was manager then, too, and gave Keane his Ireland debut. Keane, now on the coaching staff with Ireland, watched on as Connolly showcased his technique during one drill in which players had to run and juggle the ball in succession. While others struggled, Connolly shone.
Connoly is not new to scoring goals and the youngster was one of the top performers at under-23 level in England last season with Brighton and has impressed ever since making the move across the Irish Sea in 2016. Since joining Brighton, Connolly has adapted to Premier League reserve football like a duck to water, hitting 31 goals in 42 outings for the Seagulls’ Under-23s team (Transfermarkt).
He suffered an injury in January 2019, and returned to action on loan with Luton Town in the dying embers of the season – making two league appearances. Before Brighton, Connolly played with Mervue United from the age of 11.
Swift rise to his international career
The youngster has represented Ireland at U17, U19 and U21 level (Transfermarkt). Among the highlights, he scored seven goals as Ireland qualified for the 2017 European Under-17’s Championships.
Connolly has been ever-present with Stephen Kenny’s under-21 side in 2019, scoring in this summer’s Toulon Tournament while also starring in Ireland’s European Championship qualifying campaign.
Connolly was initially named in Kenny’s squad for the upcoming clash against Italy but has been fast-tracked into the senior squad by Mick McCarthy.
The 19-year-old made his senior debut in Ireland’s 2-0 defeat to Switzerland and will be surely getting more in the nearest future. Despite the Green and White army losing on the day, Connolly looked sharp and was a bright spot on a dull outing for Mick McCarthy’s squad. Ireland’s performances over the international break have seen their odds for Euro 2020 qualification go long in the eyes of leading bookmakers like betting24.fi – Ireland are now as far out as 7/1 to qualify for next summer’s tournament.
Despite Connolly’s roller-coaster past few weeks, he can still make a further impact on the national side as well. The Ireland squad have scored only four goals in their last four games and will need goals from all over to secure a spot for the Euro 2020 finals. To that effect, Mick McCarthy’s side took just one point from their previous games with Georgia and Switzerland but victory over Denmark on 18 November in Dublin will guarantee automatic qualification to next summer’s Euro 2020 finals. Connolly bagging a goal or two in that game will no doubt secure him the status of “prized asset” for the country at large.
Back to club level, playing in a team like Brighton will see him get decent game-time and we can expect a swift development from the Ireland international. It’s only a matter of time before he becomes a first-team regular and we hear his name much more frequently on all levels. Remember the name, Aaron Connolly – he has started on a good path and has great heights ahead of him for country and club.