Pundit Arena caught up with Brighton’s underage hitman, Aaron Connolly, to discuss life under Chris Hughton, Irish ambitions and those Hoffenheim rumours.
“The Republic of Ireland have really struggled for goals since Robbie Keane retired,” is a narrative that Irish football fans are far too familiar with.
Four matches in a row without scoring, 0.4 average goals per game and just 2.1 average shots per game in 2018, the back of the net has been hard to find for Irish footballers over the past 12 months.
But not for Brighton striker Aaron Connolly.
“Yeah I’m feeling great it’s good to be scoring goals,” begins the 18-year old Galway native, who has scored 17 goals for The Seagulls’ U23s this season as well as a hat-trick in the Checkatrade Trophy against MK Dons for the U21s.
“I mean the team is doing really well, we’re third in the table and we weren’t really expected to be at the top so I’m just happy to get a few goals and keep scoring and hopefully put myself in the manager’s plans.”
Aaron Connolly has starred for the Brighton U23s over the last number of years and has been in and around the first team squad, making his full debut in August 2017, in the League Cup.
The 18-year old has been involved in a handful of first team squads and frequently trains with the senior team but, after impressing with the U23s, (even winning November’s player of the month award) Connolly believes that he has proven he is more than ready to make that all-important step up to Premier League action.
“Yeah I’d like to think that I’m ready for the step up. I’ve been playing U23s since I was 16 and I’ve scored quite a few goals so I’d like to think I can make the step up and if I did get the chance I could take it.”
Someone who has been key to Connolly’s development so far is fellow Irishman and Brighton manager, Chris Hughton, who, despite only sporadically calling the Galway native up to the first team squad, has kept an eye on his fellow Gael.
“I’ve trained with the first team the odd time and I travelled with them to Cardiff so he’s kind of given me my chance in football really, it’s not a big chance but he gave me my debut at the start of last season.
“I’ve gotten a few minutes in the cup this season but he’s a good manager to work with. He’s Irish so he looks after us Irish lads so he’s quite a good man to work with.”
Before Aaron Connolly was grabbing goals and headlines for Brighton, he was a product of his local side Mervue United, whose list of present alumni includes the likes of Greg Cunningham, Pat Hoban and Ryan Manning.
So, how did the move to the Amex stadium come about?
“I was playing for the Ireland U16s in the international cup and there was a scout from Brighton there. I really liked the way he was talking about the club so I was invited over and had a look,” explained Aaron Connolly.
“I think we played Norwich in my trial game and I scored. I just liked the way all the players were close with each other and they made me feel welcome and I just thought ‘there’s nowhere else I want to sign besides here.’
“It’s a club that’s going in the right direction, you see with the first team it’s quite close-knit and even first team to 23s is a quite close group so everyone gets along. Everyone works for each other and, if everyone is working together, that can only mean good things for the club.”
With a tremendous goalscoring record in all competitions for Brighton’s underage sides this season, it comes as no surprise that the young marksman is gaining notoriety in the footballing world, not least, if the reports are to be believed, from German Bundesliga giants Hoffenheim.
With Arsenal striker Reiss Nelson on loan and thriving at the club, Sky Sports reported that Hoffenheim are looking to add more young Premier League talents who aren’t getting first team opportunities.
Although Connolly was keen to outline that he would be open to a loan move to gain more first team experience, he played down the links to the German club.
“I’m not too sure about those links to Hoffenheim to be honest,” conceded Connolly.
“It’s not really in my control what happens with that like it obviously depends if there’s interest there.
“It’s something that I’m going to have to think about but I’m just going to concentrate on trying to score a few more goals and then hopefully someone does come in like that for a loan or anything.
“I’d 100% be interested in a loan move, that’s what everyone wants to do, play first-team football.
“I mean the 23s is a good league don’t get me wrong but it’s not first team is it? It’s not playing in front of six or seven thousand every week and hopefully, I’ll get that experience soon.”
The chance to play first-team football more regularly would surely be a huge boost for Aaron Connolly at senior and U21 international level.
The young striker has long been a part of the Irish underage system and was one of the stand-out players during qualification to the 2017 European U-17s Championship, finishing as top scorer in the campaign with six goals.
Connolly explained that despite the bright Irish side not quite living up to their own lofty expectations, the year he spent with the U17s was arguably the best year of his embryonic football career.
“It’s probably the best year I’ve had football wise that year with the Irish U17s. We didn’t lose until the Euros, we were just so good.
“The group was a good group as well we all got along, we’d been playing with each other since U15s Hibernia Cup and when we got to the Euros it was some feeling.
“Unfortunately, we had a few injuries going into the tournament and we didn’t really play like we should’ve and then obviously the Germany result and going out to England was a bit gutting but overall it was a good year.
“I was the top goalscorer in the qualifying campaign but obviously got to the tournament then and didn’t score so that was disappointing.
“I got a little injury after the qualifiers and I came in to the Euros and didn’t start the first game because of the knock and it never really got going for any of us really so it was a disappointing tournament but it was great to get there.”
The 18-year old has since made the logical step up to the U19s squad; one of, if not, the strongest group of Irish players currently at any age.
Despite his tremendous form, Connolly was not selected by Tom Mohan for Ireland’s qualifying games, against the likes of Bosnia and Holland, something that the former Mervue man was incredibly disappointed with.
“I didn’t get picked in the last squad for one reason or another which was disappointing but it’s just how the manager thought it would work out and obviously, it has.
“It was disappointing not to get picked because everybody wants to play for their country, don’t they?
“It’s a high level certainly but there are obviously different types of players that the manager wants there and different types of people. Obviously, I didn’t fit into the plans at the time, that’s just the way it goes.”
Whether Aaron Connolly can cement himself in a talented U19s side remains to be seen but the 18-year old, who has been likened to Robbie Keane, has international aspirations past just the underage set up.
Mick McCarthy gave Keane his first international cap at 18, the age Aaron Connolly is now.
Does he feel that the former Ipswich man’s appointment at the Irish helm could help his chances?
“Yeah, I’d like to think that I could get a chance if I continue my form. I actually met Mick McCarthy when I was at Ipswich on trial and I was introduced to him. He just loves football doesn’t he really?
“He was good to chat to and obviously, he’s a good manager, you can see how Ipswich are struggling without him so yeah it’s a good appointment for the first team we’ll just have to see how it goes.”