LUKE Connolly is a forward. He loves scoring goals and points. Goals mainly.
You know that old cliché about taking the points and the goals will come - he hates it, never believed it. There’s no need to waste three chances when one will do to get three points.
He’s heard all the shouts, just put it over the bar Luke, right to last weekend. But goals have gotten him where he is today and there’s no chance of changing now.
You don’t shoot to miss, he says.
Luke Connolly played what he calls a poor game in the county final a few weeks ago. He scored 2-4. He knows that scores tend to end arguments about decisions taken.
He is different though. He remembers his first goal for Nemo back in 2012 against Bishopstown, a drop kick through Ken O’Halloran’s legs. He tried the drop-kick afterwards for UCC and it ballooned across goal and over the sideline.
Dr Con reminded him of that for a while, no banana kicks today Luke. He stopped after that.
Luke Connolly is not cocky or brash but he has that stubborn belief in what he’s doing. He mocks himself a lot and laughs about the trouble he gets into on the pitch. That streak of madness.
Once in a Corn Uí Mhuirí final for Críost Rí, his team got a penalty with a few minutes to go. Three points up. Ephie Fitzgerald was on the management team and called onto the pitch with the signal to put it over the bar and make it a two-score game. Luke thought differently.
He recalls: “The idea came into my head that if I scored a goal the game was completely over. Six points. I’ll bury it and win the game. The keeper saved it, it was at a good height for him. The funny thing was that it went out for a 45 and I went back out and kicked that straight over the bar.
"I scored nine points I think and we won. Ephie was saying after, 'why didn’t you just kick the ball over the bar the first time like?' But look, a forward will always think goal. You don’t shoot to miss, people are probably sick of me saying that.”
Luke Connolly has a history of goals. All of them tell us something about the art of scoring. My idea is we’ll watch a video of some important scores to get some insight.
Barry O’Driscoll pops a kickpass into space to the right of goal to Connolly, one-v-one with his marker close to the endline. There isn’t an obvious shot on goal.
Connolly hops the ball, makes a yard of space with a little shimmy and smacks a shot into the far corner of the net with the outside of his right foot. Did he think of goal right away here?
“Yeah definitely. I can remember thinking that. This is the replay, and the first day I’d had a really good game, got on a lot of ball. So far in this game I’d struggled to do anything, Jamie Burns is a good defender who’s always tough to play but I remember I had it in my head that the next ball I got in the right place I was going to take him on. I’d have felt I needed to do something.”
Were you aiming for the far corner shot?
“Yes, I like kicking with the outside of the foot and it was perfect to use here. I thought if I got it across the keeper and it came back in it’d be hard to stop, I was probably aiming a little higher but it dipped and stayed low. I was pretty happy with the strike though, I caught it sweet.”
Would you always think goal in a one-v-one like that?
“Used to for sure. Maybe in recent times I’d wait for another option or make space for a runner. I’d like to get back to it a little, smelling blood and going for goal.”
Nemo would be seen as being ruthless for goals.
“Yeah you want to have that, and it is something we would work on. The way the game is, it’s more about taking the right option.
"I suppose Dublin have made that handpass across goal to a player popular, where it makes it a 95% chance instead of a 50% shot.
"The chances of 1-v-1s are dying out anyway. But I like to see a forward taking a chance too, going for it.”
A fear? “I think with certain teams and at inter-county level especially, there would be this feeling that if you took a shot or went at a defender and lost possession, you’d almost be looking to see who’s warming up.”
He hadn’t started very well. Missed a goal chance. Coughed up possession. Paul Kerrigan popped a pass across goal and though goal had come into his head, by the time he’d turned, the goalkeeper had rushed out so he opted for a handy settling point off his left.
Then Stephen Cronin came crashing through the middle and handpassed to him to the right of goal. Was he thinking goal was on as this movement played out? We pause it just as Connolly received possession slightly to the right of goal.
“I think this was something Frank Cogan has been working with me on, staying close to goal as much as possible, to be the one on the end of the move. I went through a phase where I was probably trying to be involved everywhere, to drift out and get on the ball outside and be the playmaker, but if you’re meant to be the scorer inside and you’re forty yards from goal, it’s not working and our scores are down.
"So that’s something I’ve worked on, staying inside and being the one to take that last pass. When I saw Stephen coming, first I was trying to stay out of his way to make space and then to be the one to take the pass at the end.”
And the finish across the keeper? Connolly looks at the clip again. It’s a scruffy enough shot.
“I was aiming for the far corner, I didn’t hit it well really but it bobbled in where it was meant to. I’ve got an advantage in finishing in that I’ve Micheal in training, who’s probably the toughest goalkeeper I’ve ever seen to beat with shots. But he’d always say low into the corner is the one he doesn’t want.
"I’m always driving him mad in training, sort of trying different finishes. They don’t always work. It’s trial and error!”
From the kick-out, the ball runs loose and Connolly uses his body to turn on the ball, take his marker out of the game to open up a run on goal. We watch it back.
“Yeah, well here’s somewhere the soccer side of things come into play. If it hadn’t come off I’d have been killed for not going down on the ball, which isn’t a skill I’d ever have practised. But I knew I was one-v-one here if I could use my body to turn him and get the ball on the other side.”
So it was a goal-creating move deliberately? “Definitely yes, I knew if it worked I was in on goal. The finish wasn’t great."
He watches the video again and sees the runners either side.
"It’s something we work on in training enough, I could have used the runners. I tried to slice across it and was aiming for the far corner but I hit it too straight. I should have taken another solo and brought it in. I remember watching David Clifford for East Kerry and he had a couple like that where he took that extra solo and the keeper was on the ground by the time he took the shot. But the soccer was handy here.”
Ah yes, the soccer. Connolly played with College Corinthians from schoolboys (he was a right-back all the way up would you believe) right up to an FAI Third Round game with Shelbourne (a forward by then). He scored at Turners Cross for a Munster Senior League team.
His sister Megan plays professionally with Brighton and with Ireland. Soccer was always a thing in the Connolly house and the games growing up were hard and competitive. Next goal wins that went on for hours cos nobody wanted to lose, and that stage where Connolly realised he was losing to his little sister and it wasn’t because he was letting it happen.
The soccer v Nemo choice only had one winner though – “I do live my professional soccer dream vicariously through Megan now”, he laughs.
First up, Kerry in the Munster final. A hop-ball on the edge of the Kerry square, the ball runs loose to Ian Maguire and he pops it off to Connolly who palms it over the Kerry keeper first-time. A goal-scoring instinct?
“Yeah I think that’s Frank Cogan again, maybe before I’d have been drawn back into the ball or been static there but I made the run towards goal to get on the end of the move. The first-time flick seemed the natural thing to do. I’ve gotten a few goals like that with Cork, and it’s something I’d work on in training, a kind of sick enjoyment out of lobbing the keepers.”
It was a big goal for Connolly in a Cork jersey, kick-starting a run of form and he talks of the leap from producing a moment in a big game after a few years of no real influence against Kerry. Last year’s league never really happened for him, confidence was “rock-bottom” and he needed to produce something. There’s a thought he’s needed to rein in his game for inter-county.
“Everything is so analysed, every possession, if you’re going to try something it had better come off or you’re putting a huge bullseye on your back. I’ve tried that and I’ve ended up watching games, not playing. Adapt or die!”
The penalties. One against Kerry. One into the Hill past Stephen Cluxton. The penalty taker was an ongoing debate with Cork and Brian Hurley had them all year until one particularly dramatic in-house penalty comp led to Connolly becoming designated hitter by management.
He laughs and says he would always be the penalty-taker in his own head anyway. We watch both back. Both dispatched into the top left corner. Connolly has stated he always goes the same way. Is this his signature kick?
“That’s probably some stubborn arrogance there. But it’s what, 11, 12 yards out. I think I if I hit right with the right power it should always go in, unless the keeper is standing in the top corner. The Kerry one I didn’t hit as high and the keeper got a hand to it. The one against Dublin then was a lot louder, more pressure.
"Because of the Kerry one, I’d have been aware that Cluxton had probably seen it and so there was the whole will-I-go-the-same-way? Again, my thinking would be if I catch it right there’s no way he’s getting there. I caught this one better.”
What’s the focus with a penalty? “Just technique, the strike itself. Always a short run-up, my old man hates it. Two reasons. One, it gives the goalie less time to figure out where you’re going. Two, it gives you less time to change your mind. I always worry about long run-ups, what’s the thought process there? It’s eight or nine steps. A short run you can’t even see the keeper move.”
Tyrone then. A goal in the first 15 seconds. We pause the video at the throw-in and Connolly talks about being on the move inside, hoping first that they’d win possession and launch it in at one of the few times in a game he’s one-v-one inside with a defender. Cork win possession and Ian Maguire bombs into a gap down the middle. Connolly drifts across the goal inside from right to left. We pause it again to see Connolly’s movement. Why go across goal?
“I think this is more of a soccer instinct movement here, moving across the goal like that. It’s half trying to make a defender make the decision on going or staying. And more probably to leave my on my right foot here, so I can open the body up and take the shot like that. You’d see forwards make that move in soccer often.”
Connolly wonders watching again if he could have popped the ball back into Maguire on the run but it didn’t enter his head at the time. The summer before Tyrone had been fairly mouthy when he missed a goal chance so it was nice to shove it back at Niall Morgan.
The emotion was huge and he recalls at the kick-out his man made a run forward and he couldn’t go with him, his body completely empty after 30 seconds, just drained from the high of the goal. It took a minute or two to recover.
Roscommon. The video won’t play but it’s ok, Connolly remembers his goals (told you he loved them).
He’d just missed a decent chance and recalls Eoghan McSweeney lining up a shot and knowing from the location and angle and distance that it was unlikely to make it so taking a position on top of the square. The ball dropped short and he fisted into the net. Not a typical Connolly goal.
Frees. Luke Connolly takes frees as well, with all the despair and glory that brings. He once missed 10 frees in Macroom in a minor game with Beara he says, and if he can do that and still come back and go again he reckons things will be ok.
Eoin O’Neill did some work with him with Cork going back, emphasising the mental side of it, being able to reproduce something he’s done time and again in training. Connolly knows there are spells everything goes over (that Corn Uí Mhuirí final jumps out) and times nothing does.
He recalls the league game with Kildare last spring, that time of year where he’s maybe not at peak striking mode and those few inches made a huge difference, and a missed kick from the 45 against Tyrone last summer where he remembers thinking, ok, that was a big one to miss. The life of the free-taker.
Despair – Sigerson Cup final 2015.
When the video come up he groans. Last minute of the second period of extra time v DCU. A UCC free to level. Probably his worst personal moment on a GAA pitch.
“I’d actually gone off with cramp before this. But if it was a draw it was to be decided on 45s so they wanted me on. Once I was on, I was taking it. I’d scored from the same place earlier. I’ve Conor Moynagh giving me stick here as I ran up, Sigerson on the line, that kind of thing. I just slipped underneath it, I caught it ok but not enough connection or curl to bring it around.”
Connolly was left on the bench first and wasn’t happy. He came on, scored a goal and then with the game almost done and Mayo a point up, Cork won a free. Almost the same kind of position as the Sigerson final. Did it enter his head?
“It actually did, I suppose it was to banish the demons in some way. Colm (O’Neill) was coming out to take it but I wanted it. One of the Cork backroom ran on and told Colm take it. I said 'it’s ok, I’ve got it'.
"He said, 'Luke it’s the last kick' and sort of looked at me like I shouldn’t be taking. Then I definitely was! Colm being Colm, laid back as ever, didn’t mind and he knew I wanted it.
"I connected really well and it sailed over. It was a big moment for me, I suppose every forward wants to be the clutch player who’ll produce big moments when needed, and it sort of gave me the boost that I was able to do that.”
We’re back talking goals. His favourite? Probably his second against Slaughtneil in the All-Ireland semi-final (he swivelled to strike from a Barry O’Driscoll run) for pure feeling. One against Ballincollig in Páirc Uí Rinn for pureness of strike (I remember the wow gasp from the Nemo crowd behind the goal that evening).
Is it something he’d visualise before games?
“No, that wouldn’t be for me. I don’t think set structures work with forwards, where you can plan or over think what to do. Creative players have to be able to react to situations, to make decisions in the moment, that’s why you have forwards on the pitch, to create scores. I think it’s important to have the freedom to do that.”