The evening after his two goals helped beat Tottenham before the international break, young Brighton centre forward Aaron Connolly went for a meal with his father at the Harvester pub that sits opposite the club’s training ground in Lancing.
Only 19, Connolly’s goals at the Amex came on his first Premier League start. His father Mike, an Arsenal fan, didn’t know his son would play but jumped on a plane from Ireland anyway. It turned out to be quite a day.
‘It was probably one of the best days of my dad’s life,’ laughs Connolly. ‘That night we both just sat there as if to say: “What has just happened?”. We were just trying to let it sink in. It hasn’t yet. I couldn’t even eat. I was just on a different level.
New boy on the block Aaron Connolly has got people talking at Brighton and Hove Albion
The 19-year-old hit a brace on his Premier League debut as the Seagulls defeated Tottenham
Connolly put the club crest to his lips and relished the moment after achieving a life goal
‘I dropped him at Gatwick then went to my girlfriend’s house to watch Match of the Day. We were third on. It was crazy seeing my face on there. I have watched that programme since I was young.’
Connolly is speaking at Brighton’s training ground but is not alone. By his side are 21-year-old midfielder Steven Alzate, another recent Brighton debutant. Alzate played against Spurs, too. Both players have emerged from the club’s burgeoning academy. Connolly joined the club at 16 from Ireland while Alzate was spotted by academy scouts playing at Orient when he was 17.
Given their opportunity by new Brighton manager Graham Potter, their impact is being felt at all levels.
Brighton academy head John Morling tells Sportsmail: ‘At the Spurs game our Under 23s were there. Our 9s were there. The 11s were there. The next morning all the under 9s wanted to do an Aaron Connolly. When players break through, it is a big motivation for others. It’s worth its weight in gold.’
Following his league success Connolly then featured during the international break for Ireland
At Brighton Connolly came through the youth ranks along with team-mate Steven Alzate
Alzate also featured against Spurs, keeping some senior stars on the bench as a result
Brighton’s academy has been productive for a while. For example, defender Ben White is on loan at Leeds and attracting interest from top clubs. But first team manager Potter seems committed to blooding graduates himself, fielding nine in the recent EFL Cup game against Aston Villa.
Connolly says: ‘The previous manager [Chris Hughton] gave me my debut against Barnet and I will never say a bad word about him. But this new gaffer is a breath of fresh air. He has looked after me and Steve. We were hoping for that chance to impress. He showed a lot of faith in us by letting other players leave the club. It’s all about repaying that trust now.’
With Potter allowing attacking players like Anthony Knockaert, Florin Andone and Jurgen Locadia to go on loan, he quite literally freed up space in the first-team dressing room.
Alzate explains: ‘We were invited to move in to the first-team room after pre-season. They moved us over to their canteen too. They wanted us properly part of it.
‘The only problem was that one of the seats in the dressing room was better than the other. There were only two and one was right by a pillar so we were fighting over the good one! But a few lads left on loan so we are OK now.
‘But seriously, for us we have to be careful we don’t think we are there for ever. We have to keep proving we belong.’
Brighton are at Villa on Saturday and both Connolly and Alzate may be involved again. The emergence of young talent can put senior noses out of joint and the most high profile casualty so far has been club record striker Glenn Murray, relegated to the bench.
‘Glenn has been so good with us and has helped me a lot,’ says Connolly. ‘What he has done for the club has been unbelievable and what he has done for me has been unbelievable too.
Both players posed for a team photo with the Brighton staff this week to cement the family feel
‘He hasn’t made me feel unwelcome, it’s been the opposite. Every day in training. Even today as we were leaving he said a little something to me.’
Alzate jokes: ‘I play a few different positions so it’s not one person I am keeping out. It’s the whole bench! But they are senior players. I am aware of that. They probably feel they should be playing so it drives us all on.’
Academy head Morling is acutely aware of the time and money invested in players like Connolly and Alzate. The credit must be shared, too, he says. That is why this week he arranged for the two players to have their photograph taken with club staff. He explains: ‘This is why we work in youth development. This is what you get back. Money can’t buy those feelings like the Spurs game. It means a lot to a lot of people.
‘Coaches, medical staff, player services staff, social media staff, education, accommodation, psychologist, recruitment staff and that’s just at Brighton. Then there are the staff at their previous clubs and we haven’t even talked about parents and family. They have all had a percentage part in it.
‘The players have trained thousands of hours just waiting for that opportunity. Then when it comes they have to take it. But the drive has to come from the board down and it has to be strong all the way down. If it is like it is here, you have a chance of getting an end product like these two.’
For Connolly in particular it’s been quite a fortnight. A week after his starring role on Match of the Day, he made his debut for the Republic of Ireland.
Already in Ireland, there is quite a fuss. He is the first Irish teenager to score twice in the Premier League since Robbie Keane in 1999. ‘I didn’t sleep after the Tottenham game as scoring in the Premier League is something I always dreamed of but then I dreamed of playing for Ireland too,’ he smiles.
‘In 20 years I will have to decide which. For now I am happy just to keep playing.’
Brighton Academy head John Morling speaks with great pride on the players’ progress
Alzate is English and from London but parents Janice and Hector are both Colombian. So Gareth Southgate’s England scouts may have to look elsewhere. ‘Yeah, I want to play for Colombia,’ he says. ‘We have a training camp next month and I want to be there. I feel more Colombian than English. I can’t turn that down really.’
Alzate missed four months of football with a stress fracture in his back when on loan at Swindon last year and briefly worried for his future.
Connolly, meanwhile, had to do two trials at Brighton when he was 16 before Morling and his staff were convinced he had what it takes. Currently, it’s payback time and Connolly laughs when told that youngsters at Brighton are already copying his moves.
‘Well it can’t have been the celebration,’ he says. ‘That was just off the cuff. I can’t even remember it. But it’s good to hear as I was like that when I was nine, too. I tried to do everything that Thierry Henry did. Not that I could do any of it.’