The 21-year-old soon became an established member of Colin Bell’s first-choice XI when the former Champions League-winning coach took on the Ireland role 14 months ago, but the dilemma facing most aspiring young players soon separated the pair.
Connolly is not only a talented footballer but also a diligent student so her commitments to Florida State University under the scholarship programme they granted her in 2015 came to the crunch.
Dedication to the social studies and psychology degree she’s studying meant sacrificing the first three qualifiers of the World Cup campaign. It was a difficult experience keeping tabs on games against Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Netherlands from afar.
The attacker — brother of Nemo Rangers star Luke — had been an integral part of Bell’s early days in the job, earning the penalty which won a friendly against Slovakia and starring at his first assignment in the Cyprus Cup.
Connolly has seen her namesake and compatriot, Megan Campbell, utilise her spell at the renowned university in Florida as a springboard to join the domineering force of English football in Manchester City. If they are to provide the latest Irish graduate with an education and pathway into the United States draft system, then it must be reciprocated.
The international hiatus ended on Friday when she returned to the side for the 2-1 win over Slovakia which keeps Ireland level at the summit of the table with the Netherlands, whom they welcome to Tallaght Stadium tomorrow night.
“Colin [Bell] understood I had choices to make,” said the former College Corinthians player.
“The bigger picture is that once my studies complete in December, I’ll go straight into the draft system for a professional club. My aim is to play at the top level in America.
“I’ve really enjoyed playing for Florida and, though the standard wouldn’t be up to international level, I’ve stuck to my own program to ensure I keep up. I’ve kept in touch with Colin throughout my time away and managed to track the three matches. I couldn’t get eir Sport in Florida so it was a case of refreshing my laptop to see the text commentary. It was a bit frustrating just seeing”
That sequence was particularly evident in the last meeting against the European champions back in November. Ireland managed to eke out a scoreless draw despite the Dutch fashioning 32 attempts on goal.
“The Netherlands will come here expecting to beat us but Colin is brilliant at setting our team up with a gameplan,” Connolly noted. “We’re unbeaten after four qualifiers and believe we’re capable of challenging to qualify for a first-ever major tournament.”
Ireland v Netherlands, Tallaght Stadium, 7pm (live eirSport).