“When I went back in January, it was a make or break situation, I had to have a good loan move.”
Back in January, Connor Ronan was looking for a new challenge. The Republic of Ireland under-21 international had returned to Wolverhampton Wanderers after cutting short his loan spell with Walsall in League One. Wolves were flying high in the Premier League, and despite being rated highly by the club, he was unlikely to break into the first-team.
Ronan had options for another loan move in England, but the Rochdale-born midfielder opted to do something very few others would do in his position – he joined a Slovakian team.
The 21-year-old, who has represented Ireland at under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels, signed for FC DAC 1904 Dunajská Streda on loan. The team are based in the town of Dunajská Streda close to the southern border of Slovakia with a population of just over 22,000. It is not a place you would expect to find a creative Irish midfielder. Yet, Ronan thrived, helping the team to second place in the league and qualification for the Europa League.
Following Ireland under-21 training on Tuesday, Ronan reflected on his time in Slovakia and explained exactly how he ended up playing football in the country.
“I was at Walsall for the first half of the season, which didn’t really go as planned for whatever reason,” the midfielder said.
“So, I went back to Wolves, trained there for a few weeks and was just kind of waiting on them to tell me what was happening really. There were a few clubs in England interested and then the Slovakia one was mentioned, which I didn’t really know much about at the time.
“So, I had to have a look into it and a look into the league and how they played. And it kind of fit into what I wanted to do. They were second or third in the league, looking to compete and they were playing good football and keep the ball on the deck – which is what I was looking for. It was something different.
“I didn’t want to go back down to League One or League Two again, because it hadn’t worked out as planned. So, it was a bit of a risk going out there, but I’d like to think it paid off.”
Irish and British professional footballers tend not to travel far, opting to stay within the British game, with one of the main reasons cited for this being cultural. However, Ronan said there were no language and cultural issues for him in Slovakia.
“All the lads at the training ground spoke English, they’re not just all Slovakian, they’re from all over Europe,” he said.
“The common language was English. So, the manager and all the staff spoke English, the sessions were coached in English. It wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be. All the lads made an effort with me. They’re having English lessons every other week. But I think when you’re on the pitch, it’s a lot easier, there are only certain words you need to know and I think it worked out well.
“Adapting outside of football wasn’t too hard. A footballer’s lifestyle is pretty boring, really. In season, you just train every day and make sure your nutrition is right and things like that. It’s good to socialise with the lads, which we did. And football just takes care of itself.”
Ronan also said he would recommend the experience to other Irish players, as a team’s style of play, rather than cultural or geographical concerns, should be the main pull factor for a professional footballer. Ronan had a mixed experience going on loan in League One with Portsmouth and Walsall, where his skillset as a creative attacking, midfielder was not entirely suited to the rough and tumble of the lower leagues in England.
“The Portsmouth one, that was my first loan,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say it was unsuccessful. I played quite a bit and I did learn a lot and it was a different style of football than I was used to. And then the Walsall one was a bit less-successful in terms of minutes and things like that. The style of football didn’t really suit me.
“Some players might have been in my situation and thrived going down to League Two or League One or the Championship. I think every player is on their own path, and they’ll suit different types of football.
“I think, for me personally, and my style of football, I do believe through my experiences that maybe going abroad might be the right option. But it can be seen as a risk if it doesn’t pay off and you’re not playing it can be 10 times worse because you’re abroad and not near home.”
Wolves gave Ronan a new contract upon returning from Slovakia. The 20-year-old has already made 16 appearances for the Premier League club, featuring in cup games against Liverpool and Manchester City, after which Kevin De Bruyne asked to swap jerseys with him.
He is unsure of what awaits next season, with his immediate focus on helping Ireland under-21s in the Toulon Tournament next month. However, Ronan has put his career back on track thanks to his loan spell in Slovakia, which helped him regain his confidence and match sharpness. It was an unusual route for an Irish footballer, but one more may be inclined to take and look beyond Britain.
“The thing about Connor is he found a good move for him,” Stephen Kenny, the Ireland under-21 manager said.
“That’s new to us as a nation really. We’ve had isolated [examples of] people thrown over to various countries, but with English clubs looking to their own players, Holland is a popular destination. Simon Power is in Holland. Connor is Slovakia and Stephen Mallon in Australia, we’re looking at things differently.
“There’s no one way. There’s no one route. It’s just an alternative route. I suppose the difference is not everyone can settle in Slovakia, which comes with language difficulties and for one so young to just adapt. So he’s obviously done that well and it’s a credit to him.”