Derry City defender Mark Connolly smiles when asked if it was a childhood dream of his to play at Lansdowne Road.
“I would’ve been playing GAA back then, and dreaming of playing in Croke Park,” laughs the Monaghan native, whose father Martin was coached at Clones GAA for 30 years before sadly passing away last year.
The loss of his father played a role in his decision to leave Dundee United and return to Ireland this season, spending the first six months on loan at Dundalk before signing a two-and-a-half-year deal at Derry last July.
Connolly admits he never expected his first season at the Brandywell to conclude with an FAI Cup final against Shelbourne, as Ruaidhrí Higgins’ side look to end a decade-long wait for the trophy.
“Here I am, five months later in a cup final with Derry, it’s amazing to be honest,” said the 30-year-old, who picked up Player of the Month last June,
“I’m on a contract until 2024 so I’ve been thinking more long term, but never expected a cup final this season. My little girl will hopefully walk out with me on Sunday too, she’s buzzing.
"The fact my mother and the family can hop in the car and drive down to the Aviva to see me in a final is amazing, because when I played at Hampden, they had to fly over.”
The former Ireland U-21 cap is in a reflective mood ahead of the decider and knows days like this don’t come around too often in football.
Connolly says he doesn't mind all the bells and whistles that come with being cup finalists and lauds the impact his manager has made at the Brandywell.
“You have to enjoy it, because there will come a stage where you won’t be playing anymore,” said Connolly, who has over 350 senior appearances under his belt after spells at Crawley Town, Kilmarnock, and Dundee.
“Things like the media stuff and getting fitted for your suit, you have to take it as it comes. The older you get, you think about how lucky you are to play football. We will give everything we can on Sunday and whatever will be will be.”
“Ruaidhrí is building something here at the club,” added Connolly, as Higgins featured for the club when they last lifted the cup in 2012.
“He is getting some very good players in, but more importantly they are very good people which is important in football.
"It won’t be an overnight job, and I know in football everyone wants it straight away, but so far he’s not far off. He has just been telling us to enjoy it.
"It will be a great day for myself, my family and everyone at Derry City.”
The Candystripes overcame Oliver Bond, Cork City, Shamrock Rovers and Treaty United to progress to a first showpiece since 2014, and Connolly admits it was hard to keep a lid on fan’s expectations during the cup run.
“After the quarter-final win over Rovers, there was a lot of talk from the fans about the final,” laughs the centre-half.
“We were trying to tell them we needed to beat Treaty first and thankfully we did. The supporters are desperate for the club to be successful again. It’s a great city, with fantastic, hard-working people.
"My family and I live here now, and there will be thousands and thousands making the trip down to the Aviva. It’s incredible.”
The four league meetings between Derry and Shelbourne have all been tight affairs.
The Candystripes earned two 1-0 wins either side of the Reds’ 2-1 win at the Brandywell last April, before Damien Duff’s side held them to a 1-1 draw at the Brandywell last month.
Connolly admits Duff has done a great job in his first season in senior management and says his team will have to give everything to get over the line at the Aviva.
“I don’t think there are any teams who have had an easy game against Shelbourne this season,” added Connolly, with Shels looking for their first cup win since 2000.
“It’s a testament to them, to win promotion and hold their own this year. Damien and his staff have done a great job.
"Every game I have played against Shelbourne with Derry and Dundalk has been tough. They 2are a really hard-working team and very well organised.
It comes down to who is at it on the day. We need to give everything, and I have no doubt we will.”