Dylan Connolly, player playing for Cook Islands team in oceanic Champions League

Dylan Connolly: Irishman Who Played Champions League Football in the Cook Islands

“Football is like a pyramid. It is easy to reach the top of the pyramid, but to stay there is the hardest part.”

Patrice Evra.

The journey of being a footballer is neither linear nor simple. It can take you around the world to places you’d never expect and meet people you’d never even know otherwise. We’ve seen such stories among the most famous of footballers, like World Cup winner John Capedevila ending up applying his trade in the minuscule country of Andorra or Diego Forlan lighting up the Hong Kong Premier League.

There are a multitude of stories from players of this calibre, but there’s also the one you don’t hear. Like Shamrock Rovers man Pico Lopes lining up for Cape Verde at AFCON against a star-studded Egyptian side, or League of Ireland starlet Danny Furlong flying across the world to link up with Southern United in New Zealand.

Often, we as fans like to look up at multimillion-pound football conglomerates while overlooking footballers at a lower level. More often than not, this is where the real stories can be found. The journey’s what epitomises our beautiful game.

At such a level, you can find players like Dylan Connolly, who has gone through the struggles and turbulence of youth football but managed to work their way up and experience things in our sport that very few could relate to. This is how Dylan Connolly went from an underage Irish star to competing in the Oceanic Champions League for a team in the Cook Islands.

Who is Dylan Connolly?

Dylan Connolly originally applied his trade, as most Irish youngsters would in the League of Ireland, at an underage level. He began his career at Shelbourne’s Under 17’s, whom he captained for a brief period. Then, when his manager at the Reds made the switch to Drogheda, Connolly was asked to follow. Upon making the move, his coach entrusted him once again to lead the team as captain.

“At the time, I was captain of both teams. I captained Shels Under 17s and then went to Drogheda and captained the 19s there.”

– Dylan Connolly.

Despite doing well in the youth age groups, Connolly’s first real setback in his career came during his time at Drogheda United. The defender struggled to break into the first team due to the strength of the Louth-based side during that period, which saw them gain promotion to the Premier Division as winners of the 2020 League of Ireland First Division.

At the time, the club was trying to turn Connolly from full-back into a centre-back, but according to his claims, he simply wasn’t strong or tall enough to play there. He ended up going back to Shelbourne for a couple of months but faced similar struggles as they also demanded he play at centre-half.

“I just couldn’t get into the first team, was struggling a little bit, playing really well [for the] 19’s, [but] just couldn’t get in.”

– Dylan Connolly.

Not the Right Level

Dylan Connolly knew he wanted to play football at a top level. To do so, he took a step back and joined intermediate club Lucan United, a team in South Dublin for two seasons. His goal was to apply his trade at a lower level in the hopes of having the arrow of first-team football in his quiver.

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While, at this level, Connolly still had the opportunity to showcase he had what it took to play at the highest standard thanks to the Leinster Senior Cup. The Leinster Senior Cup is an amalgamation of both intermediate and professional-level sides, often used as a friendly cup by the professional-level sides to give their young players a runout.

Connolly also had a successful period during which his team won their respective league cup, which led to his selection for the squad for the UEFA Region’s Cup, an amateur international competition that UEFA hosts twice a year.

But in the back of his mind, Connolly knew football wasn’t working out for him in Ireland and desperately wanted a fresh start, stating that while he “enjoyed” his football at Lucan United, “it just wasn’t the level [he] wanted to play at.”

A Fresh Start

With football in his home country not working out, he decided to look elsewhere. His eyes ultimately fell on New Zealand due to a connection he had within the oceanic country.

“It was always in my head that I wanted to travel, play football, because it wasn’t working out in Ireland, kind of like a fresh start.”

– Dylan Connolly.

Through his friend, the former Shels prospect sent his tapes out to multiple clubs, and he was quickly picked up. Once signed, he quickly recognised the differences between football in Ireland and New Zealand.

According to Connolly, the sport is a lot less physical and competitive in New Zealand, but a high standard still remains.

The Irishman also mentioned that the cultural difference was an absolute shock to his system. Not only was football taken much less seriously, but the dressing rooms were also much more friendly and welcoming compared to walking into a new club in Ireland.

The Champions League

This is where Connolly’s story diverts slightly from normality, taking a very interesting turn. “Tuapa Maraeranga F.C.,” a football team based in Avarua on the Cook Islands, got in touch with the Irishman after just a few months of living there.

They were seeking players to take part in the preliminary rounds of the Oceanic Champions League, the premier competition in the region. Teams travelling from all over the continent take part, including teams from Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, American Samoa, and the Cook Islands.

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In its current format, the OFC has 8 teams in the group stage, with preliminary rounds taking place between teams from each nation to qualify. Each team is required to have 4 players from abroad in the squad. This is where Dylan came into play.

“The guy just texted me, I have an opportunity for you, random Facebook message, and the next thing I know is I have a boarding pass to fly over to the Cook Islands, it was kind of a crazy experience.”

– Dylan Connolly.

Over 18,562 km from Ireland, within a couple of months. Connolly went from playing at an intermediate level to a premier competition on an entire continent.

The Culture of Footbal on the Cook Islands

While the standards of the Oceania Champions League may not have been as high as those of its European counterpart, preparation for the tournament was taken just as seriously. Connolly states that it felt like a professional setup, staying at the nicest hotels in the country and being supplied with all the gear and food that was required.

Connolly also experienced another complete cultural shock within his few weeks in the Cook Islands, with the values of Tuapa Maraeranga being like nothing he had ever seen before. Upon landing on the islands, he was instantly assaulted by the good hospitality of the owners and chairmen of the club, who wrapped wreath’s around his neck and introduced themselves—a far cry from what you would see from club owners in Europe, who pump wealth into clubs they have probably never even visited in their lives.

Religion also held firm in the Cook Islands. Despite being from Ireland, where casual religious traditions are often observed, Connolly admitted he had never quite seen anything like the level of worship on the islands, whether it was attending mass every Sunday with the entire team, huddling up and praying together amidst matches, or long-winded graces before every single meal. Religion was the backbone of Tuapa Mararanga, and despite never truly being as religious as his Cook Island counterparts, Connolly felt himself growing closer to them through these traditions.

Within a couple of weeks, Connolly was also named vice captain of the team, despite only being with them temporarily, which he claimed was a “huge honour” to come into a dressing room full of strangers from another culture and be granted and entrusted with a leadership role.

Despite missing out on qualification by a single point, Connolly impressed in the tournament, scoring 4 goals and picking up 6 assists throughout the qualifiers, including an emphatic 14-0 win in one of their games.

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Birkenhead

After a successful Champions League campaign, Connolly returned to his club in New Zealand, Birkenhead United, who are at this time going through pre-season. The season would start just two weeks later.

Before this campaign, Birkenhead United underwent a disastrous and tumultuous season, which saw them finish in a meagre 8th, one of the worst league positions in the club’s recent history. Keen to set this right, Birkenhead has invested in everything that they could need to fix.

Brand new clubhouse, new pitch, coaches, and physios—everything a top club would have when their goal is to win the league. Connolly, who is currently playing as a right-wing back for the club, is one such investment for Birkenhead, who clearly sees talent in him after bringing him in during the runup to what could be a make-or-break season for them.

Dylan and Birkenhead have their eyes set on glory, with the goal of winning the league being “set in stone,” according to the Irishman.

Dr. Connolly

If playing football doesn’t work out, luckily he has a career to fall back on, as kicking a ball isn’t the Irishman’s only talent. Connolly is also a qualified physiotherapist. The full-back graduated from Trinity College at the youthful age of 20 with a degree in physiotherapy. Now 23, he proceeded to work full-time in Ireland for a period and continues his work in New Zealand amidst his football career.

However, if two talents weren’t enough for you, Connolly recently picked up a third, with the Irishman taking a keen interest in coaching and working full-time with coaching on the side. Before making the trip to New Zealand, Connolly had never really felt an interest in coaching until an associate he met in the country—who also used to play for the Manchester United academy—introduced him to his coaching business working with children.

Now, despite working full-time as a physiotherapist and also striving to build a career in football, Connolly is also taking 2 hours out of his week to coach over 40 children.

These are the kinds of stories we should strive to follow—not multi-millionaires or billionaires moving to China or Saudi Arabia to pick up even more money for their already rich bank accounts, but genuine people, just like ourselves, struggling with the same things we do.

Taking a risk to build on a dream, for every Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, there are a dozen Dylan Connolly’s who need your support.

How many European players will get to tell stories of playing Champions League football in the Cook Islands? We suspect very few. Dylan Connolly is one of them.

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