Aaron Connolly – Patience is required ahead of a pivotal season

After announcing himself to Albion fans with some impressive performances for the Club’s development team and winning the 2019 Premier League 2 player of the season award (ahead of compatriots including England U21 striker Eddie Nketiah), Aaron Connolly scored twice on his first Premier League start for the club at home to Tottenham in October 2019, a game broadcast live on BT Sport.

Due to this success with the development team he had already built up a huge reputation amongst the Albion supporters even prior to his fairytale home debut. But his performances since then haven’t always kept up that upwards trajectory and his 3 goals in his subsequent 37 appearances in the Premier League is a return that is beginning to lead to questions being asked of the young striker.

The last season in particular was tough for Connolly. Missed chances led to so much online abuse that he temporarily removed his social media accounts. Whilst more recently, allegations about his personal life and criticisms about perceptions of an attitude problem will only have added pressure onto a young man who has already had huge expectations being placed on him from day one.

Whilst inconsistency and difficult periods are par of the course for young players, Connolly has admitted that he hasn’t been up to the standard required at times. Saying in an interview with Balls.ie earlier in the year that “I take responsibility for the fact that it hasn’t been good enough recently.”

In contrast to some of the recent press he’s received, this was a mature, reflective, and modest interview from Aaron Connolly, especially when you consider his age. Sometimes we forget how young he is, just 21.

Whilst there are a growing number of uncomplimentary and unfair comparisons or criticisms made of Aaron Connolly’s so far short Albion career, when compared to the other eight players who were nominated alongside him for the 2019 Premier League 2 player of the season he comes out well. In fact none of the other eight have made more appearances or scored more goals in the Premier League than Aaron Connolly.

Even the player who preceded him as the Premier League 2 player of the season in 2018, Reiss Nelson, has made only 22 Premier League appearances scoring just 1 goal, compared to Connolly’s 41 appearances and 5 goals to date.

In a recent article WeAreBrighton.com pointed to his former development squad teammate Viktor Gyokeres not getting similar opportunities to Connolly. And whilst it may look like Gyokeres didn’t get his chance, what we didn’t see were the months spent training with the first team under both Hughton and Potter, neither of whom entrusted him to make even a single Premier League appearance, not even as a late substitute.

Gyokeres isn’t the first talented young player with a good record for the development team not to make it with the first team and he won’t be the last. We need to get used to that as Albion’s academy continues to make strides forward and has more and more impact on the senior team.

Whilst Connolly has racked up an impressive number of first team appearances, Gyokeres was gaining his experience out on loan. Connolly is clearly highly rated by those at the club, they gave him the number 7 shirt last summer after all. And unlike Gyokeres, the club clearly believes that so far he’s been better off staying at Albion rather than going out on loan, even if it is as back up. Maybe his short spell on loan at Luton where he made just two substitute appearances and mostly spent his time recovering from an injury has something to do with that.

And you can understand why. At Albion he’s learning from senior professionals, current and former internationals and working under Graham Potter, who has a good record of working with and developing young players.

Circumstance has also led to his first team status. Whilst Ben White was sent out on loan in 2019 to Leeds to gain experience due to a surplus of centre backs, a lack of firepower up front combined with potential new additions not materialising have accelerated Connolly’s progress into the first team.

It’s also true that not all development team products will have such meteoric rises as the likes of Ben White or Robert Sanchez. Patience is a crucial cultural attribute in turning young talent into the finished article, Connolly deserves that at least.

Yes, as he admits himself that he deserves some criticism for missed goalscoring chances last season. But as his manager Graham Potter has said on numerous occasions when questioned about the teams goalscoring problems, it’s a collective issue not about individuals.

Moreover, the accusations about Connolly’s personal life or his attitude are commonplace tropes made against struggling players with high expectations placed upon them. It’s simply an easy stick to beat them with.

Some argue that all the criticism he’s received is a sign that Connolly hasn’t been looked after enough by the club, but if so that goes for the club’s supporters too.

Brighton fans dumping their frustration over the teams goalscoring woes on a 21-year-old back up striker, when he’s hardly on his own in that regard, is nothing more than convenient scapegoating and has at times seen revolting levels of abuse.

If I’m honest, in the past I’ve probably been guilty of sticking the boot in a bit too harshly to some of Albion’s bigger money signings like Locadia and Jahanbakhsh. As a football fan it’s the hope that drives you, but it’s also the hope which can also destroy you. So it can be hard to not get a little carried away and end up taking that out on certain individuals from whom your hope was derived. Nonetheless, particularly when it comes to young prospects like Connolly who are still finding their feet in the game, as supporters we need to try to be better and more rational in our criticism, particularly when it’s aimed at an individual.

In reality we only see a small amount of the work that goes in, really, we have very little insight on how hard or not Connolly works and whether he deserves the opportunities that he gets over other players. But I’m guessing given the competition for places and the high standard of coaching at the club, that he probably does.

In a recent interview Aaron Connolly’s former teammate Glenn Murray spoke about how he needed to get out and enjoy himself after a bad match in order to lift his mood. Something which Murray said led to some criticism over his own attitude, and this is a player who only recently retired from playing at the age of 37, hardly the sign of a bad attitude.

Many supporters are happy to criticise players if we don’t perceive them to be making enough effort or having the right attitude if things aren’t going well. But as Murray’s example shows this quickly changes if things go well.

The delayed Tokyo Olympics that are currently taking place are a great (if extreme) example of how athletes spend the majority of their time building up to an event and a very small amount of time actually carrying out the work which they are judged upon , something that is true of professional footballers too.

Footballers spend years working for their first professional contracts, most of whom don’t even make it. The few that do then spend far more days and hours on the training pitch preparing for matches, or resting and recuperating after matches than actually playing in them.

Then when involved in a match (which Connolly was sparingly last season) they will only have the ball in their possession for around 2-3 minutes and spend most of the rest of the time running between 10-15 kms trying to win it back or getting into good positions for a teammate to find them.

For Aaron Connolly, as a striker who mostly plays off of the last defender, he will likely have the ball less than average and he will mostly receive the ball in attacking positions under great pressure from the opposition defence, making every poor touch or moment of hesitation far more costly than for many of his teammates. For example, last season Connolly averaged just 12 touches of the ball per appearance or 23 touches per 90 minutes played, giving him little opportunity to make up for any mistakes.

These are the harsh truths of being a Premier League and International footballer, something many of us can only dream of achieving, especially by the age of 21. Aaron Connolly still has time on his side to win around the doubters, but another season of frustration and missed chances will make that task even harder.

As such, the best thing us Albion fans can do is to give him a break and be more patient with a footballer who whilst young, has already gained lots of topflight experience, international experience and who has the talent to be a brilliant player for Albion for many seasons to come.

Social Media and Scapegoats

This week saw Albion striker Aaron Connolly deactivate his Twitter account due to the amount of abuse he had received from other users after missing a clear cut chance to score a second goal for Albion in Sunday night’s win over Tottenham.

Whilst examples of this are becoming all too common, social media has become a useful tool for football club’s and their players to engage with supporters in an increasingly detached industry. Particularly at Premier League level where the lifestyles of its players have become increasingly diverged from that of its supporters as a result of the increasingly eye-watering salaries that players are now paid.

But Social Media platforms, like the rise of Internet forums prior to their mass adoption, have also given football supporters a much larger audience to voice the vociferous criticism of their team.

It’s often the players who are on the receiving end of this fury, and has led to many example of them being scapegoated by fans expressing their fury in the heat of the moment, which can sometimes lead to the kind of deplorable abuse that Aaron Connolly recently received.

Of course this isn’t a truly modern phenomena, Scapegoats have always existed. Going back into the English football archives prior to the Internet gives you plenty of examples of fans targeting individual players on the terraces, or in fanzines and even by journalists in professional sports media.

A notable example is the late Ray Wilkins, who had a prestigious career for both club and country. Albion fans will remember him as a part of the 1983 Man United FA Cup winning team, as well as for making 84 appearances for England, which included playing at two world cups as well as making ten of those 84 appearances as captain. Yet his career was played with criticism as he was unfairly typecast as “Ray the Crab” for his perceived tendency to play too many sideways passes.

Scapegoats like Ray are often picked out for criticism not necessarily because they are doing their job particularly badly, but because it defines something about the style of the team that the fans don’t like.

Dale Stephens, a midfielder who plays a similar role, received similar criticism to Ray Wilkins during his time at Brighton and certainly fell into that category. He often played as Albion’s one or one of two holding midfielders in a very defensive team that lacked much forward invention. As such he was often unfairly picked out for not playing the right pass or giving away the ball, despite having one of the best, if not the best, passing accuracy records during his time at the club.

Glenn Murray defended Stephens during their time playing together for the Albion saying: “I think Dale Stephens is a footballer’s footballer. He does a job that goes very unnoticed, especially to the untrained eye.”

Stephens’ fellow Burnley teammate and another former Albion player Ashley Barnes was also picked out for regular criticism during his time at Albion too. In fact, fans of another of his former club’s Torquay thought he wasn’t even good enough for league 2 during his time there, yet he has since gone on to recently score his 100th goal in senior football in Burnley’s win over reigning Premier League Champions Liverpool, a goal which was also his 40th goal in the Premier League.

Unlike Stephens, Barnes at times made a rod for his own back through his lack of discipline, but despite that and his occasional wastefulness in front of goal, he was valued by then Albion manager Gus Poyet for his versatility and selflessness, an underappreciated attribute common with that of many scapegoated players.

The animosity directed toward Ashley Barnes was at times so high that you’d be forgiven for forgetting that he was top scorer for the Albion in the 2011/12 season, ahead of Albion’s then record signing Craig Mackail-Smith and helping to fill the gap left by Glenn Murray after his move to Crystal Palace the previous summer.

It’s interesting that both of these players have found a place at Sean Dyche’s Burnley, a proudly unfashionable side who are not afraid to play a style of play which is more physical and less easy on the eye, but one that values these usually underappreciated players like Barnes and Stephens.

Sean Dyche seems confident in his own mind with what he wants from his side and unapologetically unconcerned in trying to please supporters. In 2019 he commented after receiving some criticism for his teams style of play that: “I’m always a bit confused with what the masses want now…But I don’t mind a tackle, I don’t mind a challenge. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s a thing of society. If you get touched now, it’s like everyone’s dead, everyone’s properly dead. I just find that peculiar, I don’t know where that’s all at.”

It may not please people aesthetically, but Dyche’s Burnley sides more physical style of play and squad of underappreciated players have consistently been overachieving since promotion to the topflight when you take into consideration their relatively meagre resources.

Maybe Dyche’s own career has shaped his views in this regard. In his own career he earned a reputation as a no-nonsense centre back and made a move to Bristol City at the age of 26 in what was a big move for both him and the club at the time. Unfortunately, during his time there he struggled with injuries and was often singled out by supporters for criticism when he did play. After 20 appearances in 18 months he was first loaned to Luton before being sold to Millwall, where he was far better accustomed.

However, it’s often the strikers like Barnes and Connolly which tend to get the brunt of fans criticism as they are the ones who miss the game changing chances to score goals. Score and you’re a hero forever, as the likes of Glenn Murray, Bobby Zamora, Peter Ward or Tommy Cook show. But as the contrasting examples of Connolly and Barnes show, this is far from always the case.

Some players are able to deal with the criticism better than others. Former Albion striker Mark McCammon once called into the BBC Sussex’s post game phone-in to argue his case after feeling unfairly criticised by supporters and the phone-in host Ian Hart. Whereas most others choose to do their talking on the pitch.

Whilst, McCammon actively went out of his way to listen to the phone in and take on the criticism he was receiving before infamously phoning in, players are now being directly contacted by users for abuse, simply as a result of having a social media presence.

As Sean Dyche admitted back in 2017 things are very different now. “The game has radically changed off the pitch. It is a whole different profession now, even to when I was playing. I just think it (social media) opens up an unnecessary moment… Unfortunately with life, often people want to vent. And if they have got a chance to vent directly at you… well, I just wouldn’t put myself up for that. That’s my view on social media.”

If more people don’t learn to cut out the online abuse and social media platforms don’t start introducing more severe punishments for those who don’t, we will likely see more footballers go the way of Sean Dyche and Aaron Connolly and just not engage with it at all. Which would be a huge negative for an industry which is becoming more and more detached from its consumers by the day.