Conneely ready to take second chance at promotion
If in football you make your own luck, somewhere along the way you need it to fall your way.
Galwegian Seamus Conneely will turn 30 in July but it’s very likely he will be muting celebrations with pre-season the priority ahead of the new League 1 season.
Many years have passed since he last came close to ever playing at the level, but now it is within touching distance again.
Promotion will be sealed for Accrington Stanley and their captain this weekend if they produce a win over Exeter City, and the remaining matches will be spent battling it out with Luton Town for the right to go up as champions.
The resources of the clubs are quite different, with the Lancashire outfit operating on one of, if not, the smallest budget in the 24-team division. Home crowds average around 1,300, training facilities are borrowed and the Wham Stadium could undoubtedly do with an upgrade.
For one fixture, they were outnumbered by the away support against Coventry City in a crowd of 2,828, with the reverse fixture attracting 28,000 and the away contingent making up about 1% of that.
The value of contracts at the club are less than many of the better ones of the League of Ireland, but Accrington offer an opportunity to players craving one, and often to those considered not worthy of a second chance by others.
Promotion should not even be a possibility, but this has been on the cards.
Their group of players assemble at the stadium daily in a town of 35,000, drive to a local leisure centre and use the 4G pitch as their base.
Facilities are better for sides in levels below, but this is a club that passes little heed of the drawbacks of being without, and thinks more about what could be.
Hard work, astute management and most of all belief has taken them to the verge of their greatest ever season and the ground will be packed to the rafters on Saturday after nine wins in 10 and seven in succession.
"We don’t feel unbeatable," Conneely tells RTÉ Sport.
"We know in every game we’re going to be tested, but we just feel so confident and when you’re on a run like we are, it grows and grows.
"I don’t want to speak about being close to League 1 because we don’t feel we are. We have to take one more step. We have a difficult game on Saturday against a side with the same target as us. We are by no means there yet."
That may be the case, but just one win in the next six matches will seal it for Stanley. It has taken longer than hoped for both club and player, but the time spent along the way has not been wasted.
He began his career in his native Galway, playing non-league for Mervue United and the NUIG university side, with move to Galway United following.
International recognition at Under-21 and Under-23 level arrived and after close to 100 games for the Tribesmen, Championship side Sheffield United moved for him and with it the opportunity of a big future in the game.
He signed an 18-month contract with the Blades but failed to make a first-team appearance amid a period of managerial upheaval and relegation.
The drop to League 1 should have helped, but as another new face took over in Danny Wilson, he was eventually sent out to Alfreton Town on loan, playing nine times.
However, with his contract about to expire, the writing was on the wall.
United missed out on promotion in the League 1 play-off final, but there was no deal on the table for 23-year-old Conneely so he had to consider his options.
He had a desire to stay in England, especially having now met future wife Lauren in Sheffield, but Sligo Rovers, midway through their season and top of the league, offered an 18-month contract that was too good to turn down, and more importantly a chance to play first-team football again.
It was a nice environment to come into. Sligo used Conneely’s versatility as the league title was wrapped up and within a year he had penned another one and-a-half year deal after becoming an important part of the squad.
"I was very happy to sign with Sligo and I had three brilliant years there. As soon as I joined the club I felt part it of it there and I knew other Galway lads like Iarfhlaith Davoren and Alan Keane.
"It was such a period of success and we had a great set-up and a great group of lads. I have terrific memories of it and it was a great move for me."
Injuries restricted him to finding top gear at some points, he was on the bench in winning the FAI Cup in 2013 which is one regret, and Sligo’s golden period was about to end.
A disastrous start to the 2014 league season, albeit with a distraction in another medal in the Setanta Cup, saw Ian Baraclough depart and John Coleman take over – and there were uncertain futures all around the club, including Conneely’s.
Coleman led them to a Europa League first round win over Lithuanian opposition, with the London-born man in the middle of the park, and in the first leg of the next round away to Rosenborg, he was widely considered man-of-the-match for the Bit O’ Red in a shock 2-1 win.
On the biggest stage he had ever played, the Galway man controlled the game against a team operating at a much higher level with international players in their midst, and Coleman would not forget it.
After just 88 days in the north-west, Accrington approached Sligo about giving their vacant managerial role back to Coleman. He targeted some of the players he spotted in his time there to bring with him.
Sean Maguire was on loan at Sligo when Coleman arrived and he brought the now Republic of Ireland international with him to England, a move which certainly aided his development before finding his stunning form at Cork City.
There was talk of others – and Coleman had already spoken to Conneely about making the move given his contract was about to end.
The attributes to be a success were there in the mind of the former Rochdale boss given Conneely’s versatility, class on the ball and persona around a club.
"Seamus was one we identified from Sligo," Coleman said at the time.
"We had a number of good players at Sligo but some were tied up with contracts. Seamus has had experience playing in England and was keen to come back.
"He ticks all the boxes and he is an assured player and his experience will tell. I know what he can do, I know he can deliver and I know what he is all about."
Against the odds, Conneely was back in the Football League having been looking at future unemployment in weeks previously. It was a 52-week contract, different from the 44-week in the League of Ireland, and Accrington was just 90 minutes from his future wife’s home.
But that was not quite coming full circle.
After establishing himself in the squad, Conneely played more league games than any other Stanley player in his first full season.
They defied all expectations to stand just one result away from promotion to League 1 going into the final day.
The woodwork was hit three times, clubs around them got the points they needed, and Accrington were held 0-0. It was the only time in 23 home games they had failed to score. There was devastation at what looked like a once-in-a-generation chance squandered.
"If I’m honest, I don’t think John Coleman is over it to this day. I’m the same. We were so close and there was a last-minute goal elsewhere. It was a combination of all different circumstances and all we needed was one goal. It was devastating."
They tried to recover last season but a mid-table finish followed, missing out on the play-offs.
There were good moments, beating Premier League Burnley in the EFL Cup and taking West Ham all the way at the Olympic Stadium only to suffer further heartbreak thanks to Dmitri Payet’s stunning free-kick. Conneely was now captain of a young side that obviously had potential.
"The Cup runs were a great experience. Burnley are a rival to us and playing in the Olympic Stadium was fantastic as well where we were beaten with the last kick of the game. I don’t think the previous season hung over us, maybe it did to an extent now that I look back, but the season fizzled out in the end."
Going into this campaign, and having moved on from the hurt of two season’s past, there was belief that they could challenge again, albeit as usual only within the camp.
"John sat us down at the start of the pre-season. We were about to start running and he sat us on the grass and I think he used to the word ‘promotion’ about 11 or 12 times during the time he spoke to us. There are five us still here from the time we missed out on two years ago. It’s still with us.
"John is a great man-manager. The secret to his success is very much that – his secret – and he just has this desire to put together a squad of hungry players to try to win. You don't have too much choice I suppose when you don’t have the resources of others but he just seeks out players he thinks have the same desire.
"They are players that are not using Accrington as a stepping stone per se, but they come here to better themselves and a start and when you put it all together, and with a team spirit of everyone working together, you can achieve things. It’s very much a squad-effort."
Their start was decent, but since the turn of the year the Reds have been an unstoppable force.
Injuries kept Conneely out for a small part of the run but he has returned in top form, with a goal and assists, and will play his 28th match of the season with the captain’s armband this Saturday knowing it could be the best day of his career.
It’s quite clear, even if they do operate at the third level in England next year, Stanley will not change. They have garnered publicity recently with the news their owner may have infringed on Football League rules by buying burgers and chips for the team when they win a game – an undeclared bonus is the concern.
Promotion would mean so much to a small community club now that could be competing against clubs like Sunderland and neighbours Bolton, but also to a player who had to take the long way to do so.
After over a decade in the game as a professional, it has not been a conventional journey.
Team-mate Jimmy Dunne was recently called up to the Republic of Ireland Under-21 squad for the first time.
He joined Manchester United at 15 before moving to Burnley and is on-loan at Stanley this campaign.
Impressive performances have seen Dunne become a fan-favourite and no doubt Coleman will try to keep hold of him, if Burnley allow.
"He’s a very good lad," said Conneely of his fellow Irishman.
"Burnley will be watching how well he is doing. He has shown he can do it in League 2 at a young age and he has a lot more to come."
Dunne has had to prove his worth, having not received recognition on the underage international stage until this spell with Accrington, but he can look to his team-mate for inspiration that breaking new ground can be achieved at any point.
"I don’t think I would have got back to the Football League if John Coleman hadn’t become manager at Sligo," Conneely reflects.
"It was just by chance really.
"I feel very privileged to have had the career I had so far. This season has been very enjoyable. I’ve spent all my working life as a footballer which is more than so many players can say. I’m 30 in the summer and I hope I have a few more seasons to come."
Chance is one thing, but grabbing it in the style Conneely and Accrington have done is another. This will be a promotion earned the hard way in the most impressive of fashion.