Watching him speak about Dundee United youngster Kerr Smith like a proud dad, you know Mark Connolly’s father will have been looking down on his boy smiling.
Back in February, Connolly’s old man, Martin, sadly passed away aged just 67 after a short battle with cancer.
He was a huge person in Connolly’s life, helping to shape him on the pitch as a commanding centre-back and off it as a husband and father himself.
The loss hit the Irishman hard, with Wednesday night’s 3-0 Premiership defeat at Kilmarnock marking his first start and 90 minutes since the end of January.
For all he was keen to praise 16-year-old centre-half Smith for his display on his full debut, and fellow-youngsters Flo Hoti (20) and Archie Meekison (18), Connolly’s own progress has been marked.
That is something that won’t be lost on those who know him best nor his father watching over.
Connolly’s last appearance in tangerine, too, came at Rugby Park on February 27 in the Terrors’ 1-1 draw with Killie.
He got 35 minutes off the bench that day and, speaking after the game, was holding back the tears as he paid an emotional tribute to his dad.
In midweek, the boot was on the other foot as captain for the evening Connolly raved about teenager Smith.
Although, aged 29, he isn’t quite old enough, Connolly went on about Smith like he was one of his own.
‘I went home on the bus to my family and there were a lot of positives…I am genuinely so proud and happy for the young boys’
“For me, it has been a difficult situation with what happened a few months ago and then being out of the team and the team getting results,” the father-of-two said.
“I got a chance on Wednesday night and I tried my best. I thought I did OK. All I can do is try to keep in the eye line of the manager.
“If I am playing, fantastic. If not, I will always do my best to help people around me. The football club is always bigger than any player.
“I went home on the bus to my family and there were a lot of positives and I am genuinely so proud and happy for the young boys.
“We are bitterly disappointed with the end result and the three goals all came from mistakes. Other than the goals, I thought we did quite well.
“There was our 16-year-old centre-half (Smith) who was fantastic and Flo in midfield was brilliant. Young Archie came on and was fantastic, too.
“We did well and wanted to play football in a particular way and I think we did at times.
“Sometimes we were a little bit sloppy, Kilmarnock are an experienced team and fighting for their lives, so it was always going to be difficult.
“We were in absolutely no doubt we wanted to win the game and get a result but unfortunately it didn’t work out.
“For me, I was absolutely delighted with the players who played on Wednesday night, particularly the young boys.
“Kerr, who played beside me, was fantastic. He’s 16 years of age and it’s incredible.
“It’s the way the football club wants to go, bringing young players through, and this boy’s ready.”
Tangerines kids will be better for the experience of going up against Lafferty & Co
A 10-minute first-half hat-trick from Kyle Lafferty won the day for the Ayrshire side, who alleviated their relegation worries with three points.
Despite being on the end of a three-goal reverse, Connolly believes the Tangerines’ kids can take a lot from going up against the likes of Northern Ireland international Lafferty.
Looking back at his own apprenticeship in the game, it’s something Connolly’s not sure he could’ve dealt with at 16.
He added: “I remember being 16 and moving to Wolves and being in with the first team and then at 17 I moved to Bolton.
“You realise how well these boys have done against experienced players like Alan Power and Gary Dicker in that midfield.
“Young Archie came on and was brilliant. That’s the way I am looking at it – we stuck to the way we wanted to play.
“Our average age was pretty young and I’m very proud to have played alongside those boys on Wednesday.
“We are disappointed but they can hold their heads high and it’s an exciting future ahead.
“Those boys are ready and, in my opinion, I thought they looked brilliant.
“Of course, there might be some mistakes and errors when you are playing against someone of Kyle Lafferty’s quality, an international player.
“As a more senior player, though, I come away from it thinking all the young lads were top class and, trust me, the manager is not putting them in if they are not ready.”
The gaining and passing on of wisdom for Connolly
Connolly now hopes to pass on all the wisdom he’s gained from over a decade in football to Smith & Co.
“I want to help as much as I can,” he continued.
“I went away to Wolves and Bolton probably too early – I left my apprenticeship at Wolves with Mick McCarthy too early.
“Kerr signed a new deal here and it’s fantastic. He could have gone elsewhere but he’s chosen to stay here and that’s fantastic.
“He’s training with us every day, doesn’t look out of place and all I can do is help him as much as I can with my experience.
“I can help him with the mistakes I have made all through my career, and tell him after the game how brilliant he was, which he was.
“He made a few mistakes but everyone does. The positives far outweighed the negatives.
“This football club is wanting to go in a direction and you saw a glimpse of that on Wednesday night.
“Those three boys played on Wednesday but others did, too. Jamie Robson came through the academy. Louis Appere came through the academy.
“We have loads of boys – I feel like an old man!
“I’m 29 now and I was thinking to myself that I am the oldest in the team by a good few years.
“I think the average age of the team was about 14!
“I am genuinely so disappointed, though because I was raring to get a result and wanted to help the younger boys around me.
“The three goals we can look at and do better.
“In the second half, I feel we could have scored two or three goals. The boys played a style of play and we dealt with situations fantastically.”
Whatever happens in the careers of Smith, Hoti, Meekison et al, what’s clear is Connolly will continue to make his old man proud.