It takes a lot of effort to dent Mark Connolly’s enthusiasm for Scottish Premiership football. A nightmare teenage debut limited his career in St Johnstone to 46 minutes, but returned with Kilmarnock four years later.
Then there was the smart idea of going through hip problems and causing the knee injury, ending his Rugby Park stay abruptly with a canceled contract.
What could possibly go wrong on the third attempt, another two and a half years later? Right now.
Mark Connolly and his Dundee United teammates will play their first game on Saturday
The Irishman declined the top flight’s interest in signing for Dundee United in January 2019, confident they were on the right track to the Premiership. That journey is completed on Saturday. Tannadice organizes a champion flag day and the visit to St. Johnstone.
For Connolly, it means that he makes good on a vow he made when he and his family reluctantly left Scotland to rebuild his body and his career in the South.
In May 2016, Kilmarnock broke ties with their club skipper a year earlier, who had endured an injury-ridden season.
“We had just bought a house in Kilmarnock, we had a baby, we had plans, so I would have liked to stay in Scotland,” Connolly recalls.
“I didn’t really want to go back to England. Ora was only one at the time, so it was a big deal.
“But with all the injuries I might have had to turn the page about my career a bit and make a new start, show my fitness and play a lot of games.
“That’s what I did in Crawley, where people knew me. Certainly, a few difficult years away from friends and Scotland.
Connolly’s side was promoted back to the Scottish Premiership prior to the new season
“But I’ve taken care of myself in those years to be fitter and stronger – because I’d always hoped I’d get the chance to come back and play in the Premiership in Scotland.
“It was enormous for me to come back. My wife Rosa is from Edinburgh, we met when I was in St. Johnstone and I love it here.
“I love the culture, the way football is played here, the passionate fans, the good people.
“Fortunately, I now have all that with a fantastic club in Dundee United.
“The plan was to return to the Premiership and it has been fulfilled so far. Everything happened for a reason.
“It’s great to be back in this league and I can’t wait to get started.”
While the family ties that kept Connolly’s heart running, his new boss managed to dodge his native Scotland for the duration of a game and coaching career.
Glasgow-born Micky Mellon forged a reputation as a lower-class promotional specialist, with insider knowledge that Connolly was looking for when Tranmere Rovers’ manager signed up to replace Hearts-tied Robbie Neilson.
The reviews were pretty dazzling from former teammates and friends in England.
Connolly has previously had problems after unsuccessful spells in St Johnston and Kilmarnock
Connolly revealed, “All of them from England said how great he was – not just as a manager but as a person. And you can see that immediately.
“I got messages from players asking me to send their regards and how he was doing. That says a lot about him, if you think he has been in a few clubs.
One was James Collins, who used to play for Hibs. He is now in Luton, we spoke recently because we are close friends of the Irish teams and Crawley.
“He was with the manager in Shrewsbury. He just said he was a different class to work for and he didn’t have a bad word to say about him. The flashbacks weren’t as glowing.
The idea of a Mellon team evokes Connolly’s Crawley Town who lost 5-1 to Tranmere in a League Two game in October 2018.
“I actually immediately thought about it when I saw that he was appointed,” admits the 28-year-old.
“His teams are always very difficult to play against, they work hard, they squeeze and have that never-say-that attitude.
“When I saw his name linked, I immediately knew that he would fit well with the club.
“People may not realize how difficult it is in those lower leagues. It is incredible to win as many promotions as he has.
“It was difficult when Robbie left because it was a shock and we didn’t know what was going on.
“We were a bit wary of who would come in and what would happen.
“But the club handled it very well. Tony (Asghar) and the board took a moment to make sure they had the right appointment. ‘
But he is now looking for a successful career in the Premiership at Dundee
Big names like Malky Mackay and Steve McClaren belonged to the sporting director Asghar and the owners talked before choosing Mellon.
“You don’t need a big name for a club to be successful, it doesn’t always work that way,” Connolly noted. “I think he’s a brilliant deal. They have chosen the best fit for the club.
“I think I can speak to all the boys that he’s been great, a breath of fresh air. Hopefully we can do it right for him.
“I also think they wanted a type of person who can develop younger players.
“He’s had a lot of the young boys to make them better, to build their confidence.
“He works hard and has been an incredible man manager so far. He didn’t change anything drastically, he got to know players, read the players.
“I like the way he used to deal with me. He told me I’m 28, he wants me to get better, he thinks he can help me achieve that. And I believe that.
“He didn’t say much at first, looked at training. The chats since then, everything he said about myself as a player, he hit the nail on the head.
“I understand why he was successful as a manager. He understands what players need. I am at a good age for my position in the middle.
“I feel I can get better, fitter and stronger. Anything I can pick up now can come in handy. ‘
In Connolly, Mark Reynolds, Peter Pawlett, Calum Butcher and Lawrence Shankland, Mellon’s squad has a ton of Premiership experience.
However, the new manager quickly emphasized the quality of young talent he had discovered since docking in Dundee.
Louis Appere is tipped to build on his groundbreaking championship season, while Declan Glass, Lewis Neilson, Chris Mochrie, Logan Chalmers and Kieran Freeman – who have returned from Southampton – are an exciting group of prospects.
Connolly has tempered the enthusiasm of the club that immediately competed for a high rank in the division, emphasizing that he has designs for United that will grow into a Premiership force in the coming years as the team and his youth evolve.
“In my opinion, Dundee United is a top six club in Scotland – with a fan base who want and deserve success,” he said.
“We’ve been in the championship for four years, so we can’t just come forward and think we’ll be in the top six and this is going to happen.
“We have to be patient, but we have a new manager who has bought in all the players and I am fully convinced that we can stay up and get the club back in a stable situation.
“Then we can eventually build up to come back in the top half and in European football.
Andy Robertson has made a name for himself at Dundee United and is currently enjoying a fantastic career.
‘This club wants to put young players through again and work with a core of a good team.
“Hopefully I can be part of that, with younger players going to have a great career with Dundee United and eventually play in the Premier League in England.”
Connolly has lofty professional projections for him and his teammates, but is personally satisfied to admit that ambitions are more parochial.
He, Rosa and children Ora and Rohan couldn’t have lived more comfortably in Dundee.
His job now is to make Premiership life so successful this time around that Tannadice remains the football house.
“We bought in Dundee and are very satisfied and happy,” added Connolly.
“No matter what happens in football now, I think we’ll be here as a family.
‘I really enjoy it. I just have to keep working hard and doing good for Dundee United. ‘