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Irish Mirror
Irish Mirror
Paul O'Hehir

Derry City's £1 million kid Mark Connolly on a career of ups and downs

Mark Connollly remembers when he was the £1 million kid, wide-eyed and armed with the keys to his Manchester castle.

Bolton Wanderers were a Premier League club at the time and had just handed over that seven-figure sum to Wolves for the Clones lad.

Still four months shy of his 18th birthday, he was put up on his own in a swanky apartment in Deansgate - the pulse of Manchester’s bustling city centre.

READ HERE: Damien Duff is looking to create a new Lansdowne Road memory with Cup final win

The fact that he hadn’t a clue how to cook or even wash his own clothes was just a minor inconvenience at the time.

But 13 years on, as Connolly eyes elusive silverware in tomorrow’s FAI Cup final, he draws strength from career ups and downs in getting to this point.

The centre-back, 30, is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to young Irish players hanging tough across the water.

And after coming home, he goes into this decider with Shelbourne, having been shortlisted for the PFAI Player of the Year with Derry City team-mate Cameron Dummigan and Rory Gaffney of Shamrock Rovers.

Snapped up by Wolves from Monaghan United, Connolly went on to Bolton, Crawley Town, Kilmarnock, Dundee United, Dunfermline and then home with Dundalk and now Derry.

Mark Connolly in action for Bolton Wanderers in 2011 (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

He said: “It's not easy over there, and it's not always down to ability. It's tough moving away from family and I found it very hard at the start.

“I was extremely homesick at Wolves. I was used to my mammy's dinner, being around friends and then you come out of that bubble and go over to England.

“I had probably been to England once in my whole life so I wasn't used to it and your ability only gets you so far, it's more about the mental side of it.

“I made any amount of mistakes when I was over there as a young lad.

“At Bolton, I was living in an apartment in Manchester city centre at 18 years of age and had no life skills.

“At Wolves, I was living in digs with a great family that I’m still in touch with and Sue and Andy were cooking for me and doing my cleaning as well.

“Then all of a sudden I'm in an apartment in Manchester and everything changed, it was tough. Your focus comes away from football and I struggled with life skills.

“When you go to big clubs at a young age, especially in the Premier League, a lot is expected of you because these clubs are investing in you. It's a business.

“I had moved into being classed as a first-team player bought for a million pounds, not someone who’d come through the youth ranks. It was sink or swim.”

But Connolly stuck at it and resisted the temptation to pack it in by carving out a solid career, the longevity of which fills him with pride.

And he hadn't contemplated moving back to Ireland until he felt it was important to be close to his family when his father, Martin, passed away in February 2021.

Connolly said: “Before my father passed away last year, one of the last conversations I had with him was about moving back to Ireland.

“We spoke about playing in the League of Ireland and that he could come and watch me, but unfortunately he didn’t get to.

“Stephen O’Donnell gave me that opportunity to come back and play in the League of Ireland from Dundee United, which I owe him a lot of credit for.”

It was a harder sell for his Scottish wife Rosa and their two children Ora and Rohan once Derry City came calling in the summer offering a permanent deal.

But they were swayed by manager Ruaidhri Higgins after he made the effort to visit them in Edinburgh and sell the whole idea in person.

Connolly also credits the Candystripes billionaire owner Philip O’Doherty for smoothing their path by helping find spots in school for his kids.

“I’m just so happy to be home and also be back in a league that across the water doesn’t get enough credit. And it should," he said.

“I read a few comments from a manager (Rotherham’s Matt Taylor) that maybe were a bit disrespectful towards it.

“I’ve played over in England, I’ve played in Scotland and I’ll tell you there are some fantastic football players in this league.

“And I’m hoping it keeps getting stronger because the fans are backing all the clubs which is great to see.”

But this weekend, Connolly wants to cap off a stellar season spanning two clubs with a trophy.

“I played in some big games against some big clubs in England and Scotland but unfortunately at certain clubs over there, it’s a lot harder to win trophies,” he added.

“Especially if you’re in Scotland playing in the Premiership as Celtic and Rangers dominate that League. Trophy-wise, I’ve not won anywhere what I’d like.

“Coming back to Ireland has given me more of an opportunity to do that and tomorrow will be huge.

“It won’t be the be-all and end-all as I’ve still got a few more years to play. But the reason I moved to Derry was to win trophies and win leagues.

“To be here four months, and we’re in a Cup final? It’s a good start.”


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