Connaughton keen to put Athlone back on the map

There have been plenty of footballers who have won All Star awards during their time in third-level education, but it is rare to have somebody enrolling in an undergraduate course while being a reigning award winner.

Westmeath’s Gary Connaughton was the All Star football goalkeeper for 2008, and the following year he undertook a business degree in Athlone IT, with graduation planned for this summer.

The 32-year-old freely admits that winning a Sigerson Cup medal was not a primary factor in attending college, but Athlone are just two games away from that. They host this weekend’s Sigerson finals, starting with UCC in a last-four clash today. As an elder statesman in the squad, Connaughton is happy to help the less experienced team members.

“I went back in 2009, so I’m in the final year of the course,” he said.

“It was tough at the start I suppose when you wouldn’t be used to it, but I’m well settled now. Football wasn’t a priority at the time, but I’ve enjoyed being involved, obviously now I’m hoping that we can do something over the weekend.

“I try to help the younger players as much as I can in terms of preparing right and leadership, but a lot of them are very level-headed and determined in their own right, they don’t even need too much help.”

The Sigerson is the perfect opportunity for Athlone IT to show its wares in terms of the developments in terms of sports facilities in recent times.

“It’s nice to be able to hold it, huge work has gone into it,” Connaughton said.

“The facilities available at the college now are excellent, there have been huge strides made in the past number of years.

“I can remember when I came out of school in the ’90s, the facilities in Athlone would have been fairly poor, and historically a lot of lads would have gone to college in Dublin or Galway, but now you have so much available. We train here once a week with Westmeath and it’s great to have the facilities so close, so we’re proud to be able to showcase the place on TV this weekend and for other teams to be able to come and see it.”

The chance to be active hosts rather than just observing four other teams was an incentive to reach the semi-finals, Connaughton admits.

“It was definitely a huge motivation,” he said.

“With the way the draw fell, we knew that by winning two home games, against Carlow IT and Cork IT, that we’d be in the finals weekend.

“The college has never been in a final before, it’s the third time reaching the weekend, and the fact that we’re hosting it obviously adds an extra incentive, it’s great for the younger players to have such an opportunity.”

Despite home advantage though, Athlone are still seen as outsiders, the longest-priced of the four teams left. Such things do not bother the goalkeeper, however.

“I don’t really know if it makes a difference or not, it doesn’t do any good to be thinking like that,” he said.

“All you can do is just approach the game in the best way you can and try to do your best. UCC have a great tradition in the Sigerson, they have a lot of players from the win from a couple of years ago.

“With Billy Morgan in charge, they won’t be taking anyone lightly, so it wouldn’t do us any good to see ourselves as underdogs.”

Regardless of what happens today and tomorrow, graduating is the goal. Connaughton is focused on finding a job, but that doesn’t mean that football is a distraction.

“I have one or two things in mind for after I graduate,” he said.

“After I left school, I was involved in the family business, which would be sand and gravel. That went a bit quiet so I felt I needed to get some kind of qualification, even if you wanted to go abroad you’d have to have something.

“It’s good to have the football too, if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t be playing it. It keeps you going, you’re a long time not playing it.”

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