Luke Connolly: 'I'll never forget him standing over me. It was like a Ferguson chat'

Luke Connolly. Pic: Sportsfile

But for Billy Morgan intervening, Luke Connolly might have walked away from football.

Yes, the Luke Connolly who kicked 2-5 in last month’s All-Ireland club semi-final, and 10 points on the afternoon of Nemo Rangers’ Munster final win over Dr Crokes, was strongly considering packing in and hanging up the boots.

It was autumn of 2012. Nemo had exited the Cork senior football championship, in round four, in early August. That meant a 20-year-old Connolly was free to go off playing soccer with College Corinthians, for the remainder of the year.

Connolly was motoring well with Corinthians’ senior side and was also called up to the Munster Senior League squad for the inter-pros. At the same time, the Cork U21 footballers were in the gym, ahead of the 2013 Munster championship. He decided against linking back in with them. Soccer was his focus.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘maybe I can make a go of this’,” Connolly recalls.

“I was really enjoying the soccer and the appetite wasn’t there for football. It just got stale. I fell out of love with the game.

“And I wasn’t in the best of form, either. I was a bit-part player with the Cork U21s [in 2012]. I was starting, but I wasn’t really contributing. It pushed me towards soccer. And the soccer took off. I was really pushing on and thinking to myself, ‘let’s maybe give this a shot.

“I was thinking, ‘maybe, football isn’t for me’.”

Nemo and Cork legend, Billy Morgan, got wind of Connolly’s decision. While playing with College Corinthians, Connolly was still part of UCC’s Sigerson Cup squad, managed by Morgan.

Before training one evening, at the Mardyke, Morgan called the young forward aside.

“I can’t really repeat much of what he said to me! He heard I was wavering. He said to me, ‘why don’t you try and play both’?

“I told him, ‘I want to just play soccer’. He said, in different words, that I was mad and I’d be mad to burn these bridges so early.

I’ll never forget him standing over me. It was like a Ferguson chat, of sorts. That was the night I stopped playing soccer and went back in with Cork.

Connolly, under Morgan, would line out in three Sigerson finals, winning one (2014) and losing two (2013 and 2015). No surprise, then, to hear the Nemo talisman describe the two-time All-Ireland-winning manager as the “biggest influence” on his burgeoning career.

“Billy was massive for me. He brought the best out of me; let me express myself. He helped me fall in love with the game again. When I was with UCC, I did really flourish. It brought out the flair side of me, in the sense that I had massive confidence after playing Sigerson with UCC for four years, and winning it outright in 2014.

“Billy was the first fella to see what I could do, or see the best in me, when a lot of people thought I was just a flair player, who was good in patches. He brought the best out of me at UCC. It snowballed from there.”

A league debut with Cork came along in 2015. In the summer of 2016, he saw his first bit of championship game-time with the Rebels.

It was 2017 before he established himself as a first-team regular and while he showed patches of brilliance in the red shirt last year, it has been in the black-and-green, these past few months, that he’s come of age.

Across the 10 games it has taken Larry Kavanagh’s charges to reach Croke Park, on St Patrick’s Day, the 25-year-old has averaged six points per outing. Would he still describe himself as a flair player?

“I’d like to think I am, but I’d also like to think I’ve married that with hard work and a more level head, in terms of decision-making. I would have been one to do the crazy stuff, but there wouldn’t have been much by the way of the normal stuff; tackling, tracking, hand-passing. I’d like to think that is the part of my game that has improved most. I know people say I am contributing more on the scoreboard, but the biggest part of my game I want to contribute is work-rate.

“It is a fine line between arrogant and confident. I would like to think I am confident, without being arrogant. I back myself 10 times out of 10 with most shots, whereas most people would back me eight out of 10.”

When asked about Luke’s performance against Slaughtneil, manager Kavanagh’s response was indicative of how the forward has evolved inside the whitewash.

“Luke got the scores the last day, but the amount of running he did to get away from [Brendan] Rogers was phenomenal. He was in his own half-back line, at one stage. We didn’t want him back there. It was just his eagerness.” Luke, in turn, describes Larry as a “club legend”.

Mind you, there’s no shortage of them down Trabeg way.

They say you shouldn’t meet your idols. In this club, half of your idols are coaching you, the other half are either playing with you or buying you a pint. That is the beauty of Nemo.

"There are enough pictures of All-Ireland-winning teams hanging on the wall; there’s enough of those players walking around the club that you want to replicate them and get that medal in your pocket."


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