Forgotten Irish striker leads march of the Saints

by Tomás McCarthy

Southampton’s presence in the upper echelons of the Championship table comes as a welcome surprise to the St Mary’s faithful. Veteran striker David Connolly has been instrumental in the Saints’ early season charge to the summit by consistently finding the target to share the limelight with last season’s top scorer Ricky Lambert. Scoring goals always came easily to the 34 year old since his emergence in the mid nineties but his exploits have not always been fully appreciated in the country which he represented on 41 occasions.

A rich vein form in Watford colours at the tail end of the 1995-96 season alerted Irish manager Mick McCarthy to his promise. He scored eight goals in the final seven games of that campaign for the Hornets to earn that call-up. In May 1996, at the tender age of 18, he was handed his first cap in a friendly against Portugal. On a summer tournament he opened his goal account with strikes against USA and Mexico and subsequently cemented a place for the World Cup qualifying campaign. His stock was rising fast in a youthful Irish set-up. McCarthy, in his first campaign, placed faith in the fresh talent coming through and overhauled many of the old guard that had served under Jack Charlton. He netted on four occasions in the group stages including a hat trick against Liechtenstein.

A moment of madness in the play-off second leg against Belgium in  Brussels however, meant his relationship with Irish fans quickly turned sour. Trailing 3-2 on aggregate Ireland searched for the priceless goal to send them to the finals and Connolly was sent on with 15 minutes left to try and look for it. Seven minutes later he was sent off for kicking an opponent and Irish hopes faded. A blistering start to his international career was blighted by his only caution in a green shirt. He let his frustrations cloud his judgement and it was the act of a 20 year old still with lots to learn at this level.

The emergence of Robbie Keane in 1998 put Connolly’s place under further pressure. For the Euro 2000 qualifiers Keane took centre stage as his rival only started four games in 1998 and 1999. At this point in his career a move to Feyenoord in Holland also proved unsuccessful.

Connolly returned to start in four World Cup 2002 qualifiers, scoring against Cyprus in a 4-0 win. A return to English football with Wimbledon also enhanced his prospects where he scored 42 times over two seasons. He earned a slot in the finals squad and made a substitute appearance in the second round against Spain. Again circumstances made him one of the scapegoats for Ireland’s exit from the tournament. The game finished 1-1 after extra time and Connolly put his name forward for the penalty shoot out. Along with Kevin Kilbane and Matt Holland he missed his kick, striking a weak effort down the middle which Iker Casillas dealt with comfortably. Gaizka Mendieta ensured a 3-2 victory andIreland were out.

After Mick McCarthy’s departure, a spat with caretaker boss Don Givens developed and more negative publicity resulted for the London-born striker. Givens didn’t include Connolly originally for the November 2002 friendly against Greece but after a series of withdrawals the former Irish international was forced to call up the Wimbledon forward. A heated phone conversation followed where Connolly questioned why he was excluded in the first place and eventually he didn’t travel to Athens and Ireland arrived with only one recognised striker. Givens was quoted as saying “I’m very disappointed that anyone would not want to play for their country and it cannot be too good for someone’s record that they turned down their country.” According to Connolly he didn’t receive the opportunity to explain that he was injured at the time (he was substituted against Walsall with a heel problem the previous Saturday). Either way his stock remained low with Irish fans.

New manager Brian Kerr kept faith with the striker however for the following campaign. A goal in a friendly with Turkey brought about another shot at the big time and a start in the make or break away game against Switzerland. A meek 2-0 surrender to the hosts shattered any lingering qualification hopes and Connolly was again associated with a disappointing chapter in Irish football. Although he remained involved with future squads, that evening marked his last international start.

He came on as substitute against Cyprus in 2005 but ever since he has been frozen out by the Irish management. No place could be found in the set-ups of Steve Staunton or Giovanni Trappatoni. At the age of 28 his international career was discarded to the scrapheap despite formidable spells at LeicesterCity, Sunderland and now Southampton.

The criticism constantly leveled at Connolly is his inability to stand up when pitted against high caliber opposition. The stats back up this particular argument. He has failed to deliver in the Premier League with only one goal to his credit and his spell at Feyenoord is also best forgotten. At international level none of his competitive goals came in crunch qualifier games. In a strange way the productive opening caps for Ireland came to count against him as the years progressed. Six of his nine goals arrived between 1996 and 1997 and this blistering start couldn’t be sustained. He also suffered due to the favoured partnership of Niall Quinn and Robbie Keane. His slight 5 foot 8 inch frame also counted against him in the eyes of his detractors. Connolly relies on his instincts and only Mick McCarthy showed the patience to persist with his undoubted ability in the box.

These limitations should provide few sleepless nights for fans at St Mary’s however if the forgotten Irish striker continues to rattle the net alongside Ricky Lambert. Southampton boss Nigel Adkins heaped praise on to the number 22 after his winner against Barnsley. “David Connolly comes alive in the penalty area, he’s an intelligent player.” The player himself also feels confident in his own ability to score consistently in the Championship. “I feel great and in as good a shape as I’ve ever been. I’ve averaged nearly a goal a game in this league before. I’ve won this league before, I’ve got a Championship winner’s medal, so it’s no problem for me and I look forward to every game.”

He makes a valid point. In terms of delivering the goods at this level, the only currency Connolly deals in is goals. His record in English league football (which includes eight different clubs) stands at a goal every three games. He also hit the net 13 times forSunderland under Roy Keane when they claimed Championship honours in 2007.

 At this stage of his career however, the pressure is on to maintain these standards. In difficult circumstances since signing for Southamptonin 2009, Connolly has risen to the challenge. Despite a string of injuries last term, four goals at crucial stages of the season earned him a new one year deal. He has started this campaign showing intent to again win over the doubters and to keep starring in this league for a while longer. “You can only play if you’re selected. I was selected eventually last season and did quite well, and all pre-season and the start of this season. I’ve got this year of my contract, so I’m looking to kick on, whether it’s a new contract or whatever. So I’m not just here for the ride.” Three goals in the Saints’ opening three games also silenced the “back from the dead” chant coming from the home support. “I don’t particularly like that, I’ve been fit for ages now and it’s a bit boring really.”

He appears to have been around forever but the diminutive front man continues to defy the boo boys. Finding the back of the net always made him an attractive commodity and that’s the reason he continues to thrive into his mid thirties. Irish fans may still take some convincing however.

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