A couple of old Irish stagers enjoying curious encores

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On the last day of 2012, even before the transfer window officially opened, one of the few Irishmen who can claim to have started a Champions’ League game against Manchester United at Old Trafford signed for a new club. Stumped? You should be. After all, when was the last time anybody heard of David Connolly, the diminutive striker, who once prompted giddy Irish tabloids to compare him to Ronaldo (the fat Brazilian one) following a hat-trick against Liechtenstein? Difficult to imagine now but that’s how high people were on his talent back in the mid-nineties. Or how carried away by a performance against some also-rans.

In any case, it’s all a far cry from those lofty comparisons down to signing a one-month contract with Portsmouth, a club wracked by financial troubles and usually peopled by loan players and cast-offs. At the time of writing, they are 21st in League One, haven’t won a game since October and are staring down the barrel of a ten-point deduction from the authorities once they emerge from administration. In other words, they are one of the worst teams in the division, certain to be relegated, and, the way results have gone, any striker going there is likely to struggle. These days, you’ve got to really want to play to sign for Pompey.

Against that singularly unpromising background, there’s something really admirable about this. Connolly hasn’t had a club since he was released by Southampton last summer. At the age of 35, he could easily walk away from the game after spending six months in the wilderness. He shouldn’t be short of a few bob either. He made a lot of money during his career, being one of the first to benefit from the Bosman regulations when he signed for Feyenoord from Watford, a deal negotiated by Roy Keane’s legendary solicitor Michael Kennedy. But, as some footballers realise too late in their careers, money isn’t everything and they are going to be retired long enough.

“I had a couple of offers in August from clubs in the top half of the Championship, but nothing happened,” said Connolly, fifteen years after his move to Holland promised much more than it delivered. “But I’m delighted to be here now – I consider this a great club and I’m proud to have it on my CV. I’ll give it everything I’ve got – as I’m sure all the other players here will. Hopefully I can provide a bit of everything – goals, assists, a bit of hard work. If I can play a small part in helping this club recover a bit then that’s fantastic.”

We spend so much time dwelling on the negativity surrounding the modern game that we often fail to see positive stuff in front of our eyes. When somebody is willing to put their shoulder to the wheel in a forlorn cause, we should be applauding their desire and enthusiasm. But, the problem is we are so conditioned to be cynical that it’s become our default setting. Witness the hysteria this past week surrounding another Irish player who made his international debut for Mick McCarthy way back in 1996.

In the same week that his former team-mate Connolly (both men played in the 2002 World Cup remember) was getting back on the rollercoaster for one more ride, there was the sight of Ian Harte being tormented by Aaron Lennon during Reading’s defeat by Tottenham Hotspur last Tuesday week. Twitter and the online world was aflame with fans complaining about Harte being out of his depth and so vulnerable. And that’s fair enough except it misses another dimension to this story.

Firstly, it’s difficult to fathom how Brian McDermott can be regarded as one of the brightest managers in England when he started Harte, notoriously slow even in his heyday, against somebody with the blinding pace of Lennon. What did he expect to happen? Anybody who’s ever seen Harte play would have known he wouldn’t be able to compete against a speedster of that calibre.

Secondly and more importantly, here is somebody who played nearly 300 first-team games for Leeds, and won 63 caps for Ireland in his pomp. His return to the Premier League as a starter, while it may prove short-lived, is to be marvelled at rather than knocked. He’s 35 and he was “finished” at 31. After a disastrous spell at Sunderland, nobody wanted him in 2008. He went on trial in Norway, failed to impress at Blackpool and eventually ended up playing for Carlisle United. In about 18 months, he had gone from playing for Levante in Spain to knocking around the lower reaches of the professional game, hoping to catch on somewhere.

To come from there to starting a Premier League game against Spurs at White Hart Lane is an achievement worth celebrating. Yes, we know he got scalded by Lennon but sometimes we should stop and think of what it took for him to get back to the biggest stage. Did he ever think when he togged out for Carlisle for the first time that nearly four years later, he’d be lashing a free-kick against the cross-bar and creating a goal for a team in the top-flight? As somebody remarked watching Harte against Spurs, for a moment they thought they were watching Leeds United back in 2001. Twelve years ago now.

Of course, romanticism will give way to realism and we know part of Reading’s problem is they have too many players, like Harte, who are just not up to playing at the highest level anymore. He has a one-year contract at the club that is unlikely to be renewed. Before he broke into the side over the Christmas, there had been speculation he was already on his way to Millwall. Last summer, the reduced-status Leeds had him on their radar.  So he will inevitably drop down a division again but the fact he made it back to the top at all is, like Connolly’s desire to keep playing, more deserving of commendation than criticism.
 
(first published in Evening Echo, January 4)
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