It’s only a boy wonder that truly lights up the imagination

It’s only a boy wonder that truly lights up the imagination
Aaron Connolly. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Wow, this Aaron Connolly kid looks pretty good, are we sure he’s not English?

Like, really sure?

Is there a granny from Milton Keynes we don’t know about? Is he one of the Tunbridge Wells Connollys? Was his father a Yorkshireman who went to Galway on a stag weekend in 1987, ended up joining Macnas and never went home?

How do we know Gareth Southgate isn’t giving Connolly a PowerPoint presentation as we speak, including a photoshopped image of him being carried shoulder high from the Wembley pitch, Three Lions on his chest, World Cup trophy thrust aloft?

Just checking. Can’t be too careful, can we? After all, we have been burned by exciting young men in green shirts in the recent past. We bestowed upon Declan Rice no higher an honour than 2018 FAI Young Player of the Year and still he spurned us for Gareth and his stupid sexy laptop.

Actually, the recent history of the FAI Young Player of the Year award helps explain why people are getting so excited about Connolly.

Rice’s predecessor as our next big thing was Cyrus Christie, Martin O’Neill’s midfield lynchpin, who was well on his way to his 26th birthday by the time he picked up the gong.

Other recipients in the last decade included a 24-year-old James McCarthy and a greying, grizzled Robbie Brady, who also won Young Player of the Year at the age of 24. And if you think that is a bit long in the tooth, then you’ll be surprised to learn he won it again the following year at a positively geriatric 25.

And trust me, the judging panel for the FAI awards weren’t ignoring any deserving whippersnappers in favour of these wrinkly veterans. I helped choose the winner in 2012, when a 25-year-old Darren O’Dea shuffled his Zimmerframe onto the stage. I’m pretty sure the other candidates were Don Givens and Gary Waddock, if memory serves.

The point being that the best Irish young players of recent years haven’t actually been particularly young. Or, in the case of Rice and Jack Grealish, particularly Irish. So no wonder Connolly’s arrival on the scene as a bona fide teenage sensation has gotten us a little giddy, and in the run up to some monumentally important international matches too.

After smashing Tottenham for two goals on his first Premier League start, Connolly drew comparisons with past legends ranging from Robbie Keane to Damien Duff. Actually, he was pretty much only compared to Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, because they were the only Irish teenagers we can remember getting one of those Match of the Day analysis bits where you are highlighted with that revolving circle thingy.

In fact, Connolly’s performance was almost a tribute act to Keane and Duff in their impudent prime. The first goal was pure Robbie, all penalty box sixth sense and cheeky bravura. The second was mirror image Duffer, bamboozling a lumpen, bedraggled centre back, taking the quickest route to goal as if annoyed by the fussy folderol of everything up to that point.

Memories of Keane and Duff as skinny urchins in baggy jerseys have endured as successive generations failed to match their pubescent breakthroughs. Indeed, the Irish international team in the intervening years became home instead to players whose careers were testaments to hardened experience rather than youthful promise.

The typical Irish player suffered rejection and drift, bounced around lower leagues and pulled themselves up by the bootstraps to forge respectable careers and earn belated international caps.

For these players, boyhoods were spent not in the limelight but in the doldrums. Squeezed out by the stockpiling of international talent in Premier League academies, they rebuilt themselves in the League of Ireland or in unglamorous provincial British towns.

You think of Andrews and Whelan, Trapattoni’s trusted henchmen, or hardened recruits like Walters and Keogh, or Coleman, McClean and Hoolahan, who made the move to England when well out of short trousers.

It’s only a boy wonder that truly lights up the imagination

They all served with honour and some with distinction, but it’s only a boy wonder that truly lights up the imagination. It’s human nature to look to the new — a new job, a new city, a new lover — and to see in boundless potential the chance of deliverance from humdrum disappointment. And given humdrum disappointment is the default setting for Republic of Ireland fans… well, no pressure Aaron.

You sense Mick McCarthy recognised the barely suppressed desperation in calls for the likes of Connolly and Troy Parrott to be parachuted into the squad at the expense of some underappreciated lower league yeomanry. Mick is the archetypal old dog for the hard road, the man who gave Duff and Keane their international debuts, but only after both had a few solid months of first team action under their belts. He has the journeyman’s appreciation of time served.

The fact Parrott was being championed before he had even played a single minute of competitive senior club football shows how careless we can be with someone else’s nascent talent. Throw them in and see if something happens. If not, cast aside and throw another in. McCarthy was rightly cautious with Connolly by not calling him up until such time as the player effectively called himself up.

If you’re good enough, you’re old enough, as people like to say in situations like this. Unfortunately, the bit about being good enough is too often forgotten. Look at Manchester United, whose young players look like

Victorian waifs sent to work down coal mines, fatally unprepared for the harshness that awaits.

If Connolly is anything like his late ‘90s predecessors then he will be good enough, and life in the senior squad won’t bother him in the slightest. In fact, let’s hope at this very moment that he is nutmegging Glenn Whelan, giving Jeff Hendrick cheek and making McCarthy wonder how he can possibly not pick him in his team.

Most importantly of all, let’s hope he doesn’t turn out to be English.

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