UEFA U19 Women’s European Championship finals:
Republic of Ireland v Sweden
She was just 16 when decision-time arrived but Ireland U19 star Megan Connolly has no regrets at leaving behind a promising GAA career.
Like her older brother Luke, Megan was marked out for a big future at inter-county level from an early age and representative honours for her native Cork duly followed. Her status had expanded nationwide by then as she had claimed the All-Ireland Féile Skills title at 14 in the colours of Nemo Rangers. Leading her school, Christ the King, to the FAI secondary schools Cup in 2012 drew many admirers too from football circles and so the battle for commitment commenced.
Connolly was able, at first, to combine GAA with football but, placed in a similar predicament to her Ireland team-mate Sarah Rowe for Mayo, one sport had to be sacrificed.
“I’d really enjoyed playing for the Cork GAA team but, to be honest, I picked football in a heartbeat when the decision had to be made,” said the midfielder yesterday at Ireland’s team base for the U19 European Championship in Lillestrom, Oslo.
“My aim is to be a professional footballer. Denise O’Sullivan, who was with this U19 team last year, has since moved on to sign for Celtic and she’s a great example.
“Our manager, Dave Connell, really upped the standards when he took over a few years ago. And I believe it’s up to the player then whether they are determined to focus on those standards or just treat it as a bit of fun.
“If you want to focus on doing well as a footballer, you won’t be going off playing Gaelic in between.”
Connolly’s dedication had already paid off. Her two assists in Friday’s 2-1 win against England earned leaves Ireland on the brink of reaching the European Championship semi-final on Thursday. To do so, Connell’s charges must either draw or lose by no more than one goal against Sweden in tonight’s final Group B tie at the UKI Arena in Jessheim (6pm Irish time).
Everything appears in favour of Ireland, the only team of eight at the showpiece with a maximum six points, and their set-piece specialist wants to finish in style.
“Although we only need a draw, there’s a strong winning mentality in this squad,” she reasons.
“Sweden are a top side but, if we start thinking that a point is enough, we mightn’t go through to the semis.”
European champions two years ago, the Swedes are three points behind Ireland following Monday’s defeat to Spain, who are also in contention to qualify as a top-two finisher in the group.
“Ireland also have a lot of pressure still on them,” said defender Nellie Karlsson who is flanked in the Swedish back-line by her twin sister Elin. “We have to win by two goals and I think we can.”
Connell is relieved to have his main attacking outlet, Clare Shine, available after she recovered from a neck injury that forced her off during the win over England.
IRELAND (probable): Dunne (Peamount Utd); Wright (Texas University), McCarthy (Listowel Celtic), O’Connell (Wilton), Mustaki (Peamount Utd); Dwyer (Wexford Yths); O’Connor (Wilton), Connolly (College Corinthians); McCabe (Raheny Utd), Shine (Raheny Utd), Rowe (Castlebar Celtic).
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