Why Brighton should still back Aaron Connolly despite mistakes and Covid breach

Avoiding the pitfalls of life in the Premier League for a 21-year-old can sometimes be a tricky path to navigate.

Saturday, 20th March 2021, 5:53 pm
Aaron Connolly has already seen both sides to the life as a Premier League striker

Ireland international Connolly is in his second season with Brighton's first team and has scored just twice. Last November he was reprimanded by his head coach Graham Potter for an angry reaction to being substituted against Liverpool and in February he suspended his Twitter and Instagram accounts due to persistent online abuse.

He is now under investigation by his club for an alleged lockdown breach after The Sun published a story about him "romping with a woman at a house" - which ended up on video.

Premier League life can be brutal.

I remember watching the teenager from Oranmore, Galway make his Premier League debut against Manchester City in August 2019 at Etihad.

Brighton played quite well that day and the 4-0 scoreline was a little harsh on Graham Potter's team - mainly thanks to two razor sharp strikes from Sergio Aguero either side of halftime.

Connolly, similar in stature to Aguero, came on as a substitute in the 66th minute for Neal Maupay.

It was a clear statement from newly appointed head coach Potter, as a week earlier senior striker Florin Andone was allowed to leave on loan to Galatasaray and Jurgan Locadia, who signed for £15m the season before, departed for Hoffenheim.

The Brighton striker celebrates in front of the home fans at the Amex after scoring twice against Tottenham last season

This was a fresh start for the club. A new youthful direction with Potter at the helm and academy graduate Connolly, then 19, represented a bold new future.

Connolly was confident and looked good at the Eitihad. His movement was sharp and but for a couple inches, he could have scored a consolation when his darting run into the box gained a yard on his marker but the cross eluded him, just.

"I'm a big fan of Aguero," said Connolly after the match. "Watching him and sharing a pitch with him showed me the level I need to get to."

Two matches later and he was unleashed once more for the last 20 minutes at Newcastle as Potter looked for the winner in a tough 0-0 draw.

Aaron Connolly was a formidable opponent for Arsenal's David Luiz during Brighton's 2-1 win at the Emirates last campaign

He was agonisingly close to his maiden goal when his instinctive lob looped over Martin Dubravka but somehow Fabian Schar hooked it off the line. It was remarkable piece of defending and Connolly, who had already started to celebrate, was was left open mouthed with his head in his hands.

Potter described his young charge as a "determined little so and so" and the Irishman proved to be just that with two goals on his home Premier League debut against Spurs.

His first was a classic poachers finish and his second, cutting in from the left and drilling a low shot past Paulo Gazzaniga, was just as clinical as Aguero.

Brighton fans went crazy, he was praised by all and an international call-up from Mick McCarthy's Ireland swiftly followed.

It was a lot to take in for a 19-year-old who, the season before, was playing under-23s and had an injury-interrupted loan spell at League One Luton Town.

Connolly though continued to play with freedom at the highest level and continued to be a genuine pest for experienced international defenders.

He won a penalty for Brighton in their 3-2 win against Everton and in the first half during a memorable 2-1 triumph at Arsenal he was at times unplayable.

David Luiz was sent dizzy by Connolly's full throttle movement and the Brazilian's only answer was to foul him persistently.

All appeared rosy, but unless you are a Wayne Rooney or a Michael Owen, being a 19-year-old striker in the Premier League is rarely straightforward.

Niggling injuries interrupted his rhythm and his only other goal after his brace against Tottenham arrived on the final day of the season at Burnley.

His fitness and form dipped this campaign and a fair share of harsh online criticism seemed to bother him. His mood darkened further as he squandered chances in the home draw against Sheffield United and the 1-0 win against Tottenham.

The online attacks were pretty fierce and also surprising for a young home grown player still learning. He'd become and easy and convienient target and Connolly quite rightly took a break from Twitter and Instagram.

Potter remained patient and knows a focused Connolly is a genuine asset at the highest level. His goals against Tottenham were no fluke, his winner at Burnley was clinical and his two goals this season at Newcastle and at home against Wolves were high class.

"Aaron Connolly is a young lad trying to be a striker in the hardest league in the world. We are here to help him," said Potter.

The tabloid story is another lesson on who he should and should not trust.

Whoever sold the video made their few quid and The Sun, on the pretence of exposing a lockdown breach, had their Premier League sex story.

Brighton removed him from the spot light as his "back spasm" ahead of the Leicester defeat then turned to a "cracked rib" before the Southampton victory.

His upcoming international break with Ireland and the time away could well give him a much-needed breather.

Connolly remains a striker with huge potential and in many ways perfect for the VAR era. At his best, he's sharp, clever in the box and constantly draws fouls from defenders.

He plays with an edge but it's precisely that determination that took him from Galway to the Premier League - it should also see him through this tricky period of his young career too.

Brighton will investigate but they should back their man.