HE’S back for yet another stint in London, but this time the famous red and white shirt of Tir Chonaill Gaels will be replaced by the bainisteoir’s bib.
“I wasn’t gone forever – I was always going to come back in some capacity,” says Timmy Connolly, the club’s newly-appointed senior football manager.
Connolly had three different spells with the Gaels between 1990 and 2001, during which he won five London SFC medals, but the Antrim man is now intent on bringing the county title back to Greenford. It’s been three years – a drought by Tir Chonaill Gaels’ standards.
A painter and decorator by trade, it was work that first brought Connolly to London 22 years ago, but friendships and football have kept him coming back. He was ratified as manager of London’s most successful club at last week’s AGM.
It’s not his first venture into management, however. He served as selector for the Antrim U-21s for three years and led his home club All Saints Ballymena to the Antrim Intermediate title last October – “we were underdogs for every game in the championship but we ended up winning it,” says Connolly, who’s also a former soccer player with Ballymena United and Donegal Celtic.
He continued: “I’ve always stayed in touch with Tom Mohan (Tir Chonaill Gaels chairman). Tom knew that I had won the championship with Ballymena last year and whenever Tom Mohan comes knocking on your door it’s hard to turn him down.
“Tom and so many others from the Gaels have been good to me and have treated me fairly over the years. Even though I’ve won five championships with them, I feel like I owe the club something. I’ve made so many friendships here and that’s what’s brought me back for one last throw of the dice. As a player I have nothing to prove, but as a manager I feel I do.”
Most of Connolly’s memories from his time with Tir Chonaill Gaels are fond, but his first season ended with what he describes as the worst moment of his career. The Gaels suffered a 2-11 to 1-12 loss after extra time to Down champions Lavey in an All-Ireland quarter-final in Ballinascreen in 1990.
It was a game they shouldn’t have lost but a few refereeing decisions influenced the outcome, according to Connolly: “It was pure robbery. Some of the decisions the ref made were scandalous. Rogue officials cost us the game.”
But there were more good days than bad. Many more. After the success of ’90, another four London SFC titles followed, including a 2001 final victory of St Brendan’s when his crucial late goal helped the Gaels to win a replay.
Connolly had seven years in the Antrim jersey but he also lined out for London during his time in the city. Losing to Leitrim after extra time in a Connacht SFC quarter-final in 1997 is another one he reflects on, wondering what might have been.
While he’ll be familiar with the older Tir Chonaill Gaels clubmen, Connolly will be starting from scratch with the class of 2012 when training begins in a fortnight’s time.
“The problem I have now is that I don’t know the players and the players don’t know me,” he says. “I’m climbing from the bottom of the ladder so it’s going to be a long process.
“Because I don’t know the players, it’s probably going to be the biggest challenge I’ve ever had. But I’m going to try and turn a negative into a positive. The committee will have to be patient but I’m confident we’ll get things right by the time the championship starts.
“The one thing everyone will get is a chance. The league and the likes of the Conway Cup will be used more or less to try players out, so I’ll hopefully have an idea of what my best team is come the summer.”
Connolly has ruled out the possibility of bringing on board London captain Sean McVeigh for this season. McVeigh is also an All Saints clubman and played at midfield under Connolly during last season’s successful Antrim IFC campaign.
However, McVeigh intends to give championship commitment to All Saints again in 2012 so Connolly says he won’t attempt to lure the 27-year-old from Parnells.
“I’m trying to build a team for the championship so there’d be no point in bringing Sean McVeigh in if he’s not going to be available to us for the championship. I can only build a team around players who we’ll have for the whole year.”
Tir Chonaill Gaels have been replaced at the summit of London football since they last won a senior title in 2009. Neasden Gaels knocked them off their perch a year later but Fulham Irish are now top of the pile. Connolly has been recruited to deliver the club’s 14th London SFC title and he knows anything less won’t suffice.
“That’s my expectation,” he admits. “I haven’t seen any of the other clubs but they’re the standards I’ll be setting and if players can’t live up to those standards they’ll be shown the door. I’ll be disappointed if we can’t do it. But it won’t happen overnight. It’ll take a lot of hard work.”
Tir Chonaill Gaels celebrate their 50th year in existence this season but Connolly insists that won’t increase the pressure on him to succeed.
“No matter what year it is, I’ll be looking to win the championship. Any game, whether it’s a challenge match, a league match or the championship, I always look to win.”
Will Connolly’s latest spell in London be another short-term arrangement, or does he plan on sticking around for a little longer this time? That’ll all depend on what he can achieve as manager of Tir Chonaill Gaels.
If things go according to plan, he may set his sights higher by aiming to succeed the man he played alongside in the London half-forward line.
“I told Paul Coggins (London manager) at the AGM that I’m after his job,” Connolly jokes. “I’m happy enough to stay and see how it pans out but I need the full support of the club and the players.
“There are no guarantees and if it doesn’t work out I’ll hold my hands up and accept that, but I’ll absolutely give it my best. If it’s a successful year I’ll stay for another year – then I’ll take the job off Coggins!”