'I won trophies, played in Europe and enjoyed great days with Cliftonville, but I struggled with my mum's death from cancer and the sudden passing of Paul Straney left me devastated'
Portadown keeper John Connolly on glory days with the Reds, coping with sad losses off the field and why he’s determined that an Achilles injury won’t end his career.
Q. How did your football career begin?
A. It was schoolboy football with a big club in Dublin, St Kevin's Boys, and it was a really good club with good players coming through the ranks. Ian Harte and Stephen Carr were at the club and young lads are still going over to England. A young lad called Jack Byrne, my sister-in-law's nephew, went to Manchester City and Oldham. Nicky Byrne, the Westlife singer, was also a goalkeeper and he was a year younger than me and we trained together. He went over to Leeds and came back to the League of Ireland before focusing on singing, but he hasn't changed a bit. I had the looks for a boyband but just didn't have the voice! We used to play football in the streets all the time, even at night-time under the lights. Paul Straney had broken his leg at Newry and they needed a keeper. A neighbour of mine back then, Jonny McDonald, told Newry about me and I ended up coming up here and then staying. Goalkeeping suited me as I didn't have to run around the pitch like everyone else.
Q. You were at Cliftonville for eight years. Was that your happiest time?
A. You need to be settled at a club and luckily I was at Cliftonville. Eight years at one club is great. We won three County Antrim Shields but probably should have won more. We got to an Irish Cup final and League Cup final too. Being the first Reds keeper to keep a clean sheet in Europe makes me proud. I think we went 798 minutes without conceding a goal but I came three minutes short of the Irish League record. We played Coleraine away after a run of clean sheets but we were 2-0 down after two minutes. If we had held out for a few minutes we could have smashed the record. We drew 0-0 with Cibalia in Croatia and I made a few good saves. At Armagh City we won the Bob Radcliffe Cup at Loughgall in a derby and I was man of the match after saving two penalties in the shoot-out. I had come back from an injury to make that final, and people might not regard that as a big trophy, but I look back on it with a lot of fondness. I've been fortunate to win a Mid-Ulster Cup with Newry and North-West Cup with Institute too. I enjoyed a year with Larne too and was named Player of the Year.
Q. What is your biggest regret in the game?
A. Losing the 2009 Irish Cup final to Crusaders - that was my biggest disappointment. I don't think I've got over that one yet. To lose any north Belfast derby is hard. They scored a good goal through Mark Dickson and, to be fair, we could still be playing now and not score. We had a few chances, and I can remember Gary Smyth sliced a clearance and it went over the keeper and hit the bar. As soon as that happens you believe you won't score. The dressing room was like a morgue afterwards, very little was said. People say it's a great day out but only if you win.
Q. You're recovering from a ruptured Achilles. How tough are injuries to deal with?
A. Mentally you have to be strong. While at Glenavon I broke my leg and missed the 2010 Irish Cup final but thankfully the lads won it. The first few days of an injury are tough to get over but you have to tell yourself you will come back stronger. I'm fortunate in that I have healed well. It was frustrating because it happened in training with no one near me. I've had contact injuries but I heard a pop which was like an explosion in my ankle and I knew something wasn't right.
Q. Have you ever felt your career was over?
A. When I got this injury for the first week and a half I thought that was it for me. People around me told me not to think that way. After the first few weeks I could start concentrating on the recovery and I told Portadown manager Niall Currie I had a time in my head to return, and he told me not to even think of retirement. I'm 41 now, and if there was no hope of a return I would hold my hands up, but I would never want my career to end this way. I don't want to be forced into retirement. When I'm fit I'm in good condition and the physios are pleased with the healing process. The plan is to build up the muscle strength and be back for pre-season. You look forward to things like using the exercise bike again and those things are keeping me sane.
Q. How do you react when people say goalkeepers are a bit crazy?
A. We can be because of the position we play, you are an individual in a team sport. Goalkeepers just have different preparations and you need to be mentally strong. I love to catch an early cross and that would set you up for a whole game. When you're younger, mistakes might bother you more and you bring it home with you. I didn't want to speak to anyone. Now I don't think about it - it's gone and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't let it affect your personal life.
Q. Who have been the big influences in your career?
A. I lived in East Wall, Dublin and there's a lad there called Martin Lawlor, who played for Dundalk, and he had a shop around where I lived. When I was coming towards the end of my time in schoolboy football I talked to him and he used to take me down to see Dundalk train in Dublin. There was a goalkeeper called Alan O'Neill, one of the best League of Ireland keepers ever. I spoke to Martin and the one piece of advice he gave me was that no matter where you end up, always be professional. That stuck with me and anyone who knows me will see that professionalism in me. I looked up to Martin and I wish I could see more of that in young people. I think there's less respect for older, more experienced people, particularly in the football industry. When I joined Cliftonville I didn't sit in Paul Straney's spot in the old changing room as I hadn't earned it.
Q. Former Cliftonville goalkeeper Paul Straney died at the age of 42 in December. How did you feel when you discovered that news?
A. I was devastated. I had kept in touch with him and a few months before his death he had asked me for advice on signing goalkeepers. It was devastating for his partner and it was horrible to see him in the coffin. It makes you think. He was the established goalkeeper at Cliftonville when I arrived there and we worked hard together. I wasn't convinced I had done enough to start and Paul came to me and said that I had. The manager went with me and I didn't look back. I didn't know what happened to Paul and I didn't want to know. When he came back to Cliftonville as a goalkeeping coach we had a different relationship but we still remained close.
Q. Another tragedy was Mark Farren, who died aged 33 in 2016 after fighting a brain tumour. I'm sure that was hard to take too.
A. That was hard as well as you saw him deteriorate through the stages of his illness. That year I was at Glenavon and he was coming to games but he wasn't well. He was always smiling and trying to be as positive as he could be. Mark was a quiet guy, on the pitch he knew where the net was and he was just a genuine guy. When I was injured and he asked me how I was doing, I knew he was being sincere.
Q. What has been the best day of your life?
A. I've got to say when my daughter Shelby was born. She's 17 now and I know she'd have a go at me if I didn't say that. She could have played football but lost interest in it and will do a sports studies qualification in Newry. Football-wise, winning trophies is always special and beating Linfield at Windsor in the Shield final was a good one, and we beat the Glens at The Oval too. I look back on the European games with fondness and becoming the first Reds keeper to keep a clean sheet in Europe is nice too.
Q. Who is the best player you have played with and toughest opponent?
A. From a defensive point of view, I'd say Peter Hutton at Derry City, he was quality. He read the game so well and was so calm on the ball while talking players through games. In attack, Liam Coyle was different class, holding the ball and setting people up. Also, I don't think outside of Cliftonville Chris Scannell got the credit he deserved. Inside the changing room he was appreciated while his brother Ronan was probably the most skilful full-back I've seen. Opponent-wise, Vinny Arkins and Glenn Ferguson had a bit of everything, they were strong in the air and dangerous on the ground.
Q. Where do you work?
A. I do part-time work in Newry, helping people who get locked out of computer systems. I'm going to Tech in September to do some personal training. I have my Uefa B coaching badge and I will certainly miss the banter of the changing room I've had for 20 years when I retire. You have a routine on Saturday which you are used to. I just can't imagine going to the cinema on Saturday afternoons.
Q. What has been the worst day of your life?
A. My mum died a few years ago, aged 78. I was very close to Bernie and we had a great relationship. That was tough. For the first few weeks I played matches and it hit me more down the line. It hit me hard a few months after it happened. She had gone into hospital just before Christmas, then deteriorated. She had lung cancer and it gradually got worse. It was tough on my dad Sean as they were that generation that did everything together. He never went back to the family home because of the bad memories. You have to get on with things and learn to live with the grief. My mum came up to Newry every week to visit and was very close to us. We are making sure my dad is now as happy as he can be. Another devastating time for my family was when I lost my nephew Jason. He was only 24 but had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and was in a wheelchair. Unfortunately he got a dose of pneumonia and didn't have the strength to fight it. The family was distraught, and in between his passing and the funeral I played a game for Armagh City and don't know how I did it. He's buried in the same Dublin graveyard as my mum and it's very difficult for me to go there and be with him. He had a fantastic sense of humour and was the only one who could get away with cursing in front of my mum.
Q. Do you have a partner?
A. Yes, Suzanne has been a rock to me since I lost my mum. We've been together just over four years and she kept me strong right after my mum passed away and also through my injury. In my personal life I'm in a good place. Suzanne is from Ballymoney and is a project manager for Almac. We met when on a night out in Belfast.
Q. What crazy times do you remember in your career?
A. One time I played eight matches for Cliftonville with a broken knee cap. I had to get injections to relieve the pain before matches. We went to Dublin to play St Pat's in the Setanta Cup and during the journey the boys were laughing as I went to the front of the bus and pulled down my tracksuit bottoms to get an injection in my bottom. It got me through games and when I went to see the specialist he laughed at me and wondered how I could even walk into the room, never mind play eight games of football.
Date of birth: February 1, 1977
Place of birth: Dublin
Previous clubs: Cliftonville, Glenavon, Donegal Celtic, Armagh City, Newry City, Institute, Larne, Derry City
Career record: 602 appearances (11 for Portadown)