From the outside looking in, Dundee United defender Mark Connolly has endured a year from hell.
On and off the pitch, Connolly has been through the wringer.
Injuries meant the 2020/21 season was a stop-start one for the Irish centre-half and the sudden death of his father, Martin, from cancer turned his world upside down.
— Mark Connolly (@Mark5Connolly) May 14, 2021
Some may have given up, but the United man is built differently.
Laid up with a knee injury suffered in the penultimate match of last term, a 2-2 home draw against Motherwell, Connolly has had plenty of time to think.
His perspective on the events of the past 12 months are refreshing and inspiring as he targets a return to fitness by September.
‘I’m robust and know how to deal with it’
“I hadn’t played many games before the two at the end of last season so I was excited to get some minutes but then I got injured,” he reflected.
“People say it’s bad luck but it’s just the sort of thing that’s happened to me at this time in my life.
“I’ve just got to deal with it and can’t look back. I can’t sit and wish things didn’t happen.
“I’ve just got to think: ‘This isn’t a time where things are going as well as I wanted them to but there could be a time in the next couple of years when things go brilliant’.
“It’s been tricky with the timing but I got to go back home and see my mum, bring the kids and my wife to visit my dad’s grave.
“The kids hadn’t been back in a few years to see them so it was nice to be in Ireland.
“I’ve been relaxing, watching lots of football and just mentally switching off from a lot of things.
“I’ve got that bit between my teeth now to crack on and get ready again.
“I’m robust and know how to deal with it mentally as well as physically. I think I’m quite strong in that sense.”
‘It felt like a knife in my knee’
The 29-year-old is on the road to recovery, six weeks on from his battle with the Steelmen at Tannadice.
Not only did Connolly damage his knee in the dying moments, earlier in the match he received stitches for a head knock.
Cuts to the cranium healing and left knee in a brace, he is in far better shape now.
Reflecting on the game, Connolly recognises he was in the wars but at the time it didn’t feel that way.
“I remember going up for a corner, I got pushed and landed on it,” he said.
“There was a pain in the front of my knee but I thought nothing of it – I didn’t pass any remarks.
“I didn’t know what it was. When I was running back I think everyone thought I had cramp.
“When I got back to the 18-yard box it felt like a knife in my knee.
“I genuinely didn’t know what it was, though, and I thought it would be fine.
“At the time, I still had the stitches in my head and that was all I was worried about.
“I came off the pitch at the end and went to Marcin (Szostak), the physio, to have a look at my head.
“I had a shower, got changed and I was about to leave when I said to him: ‘Marcin there’s something not right with my knee’.
“He had a look and, at first, he thought I’d ruptured my PCL because of how much movement there was in the knee.
“In the next few days, the pain kicked in and I think it was just adrenaline getting me through.
“I had to wait a little bit to get the scan and we thought it was going to be about 9-12 months.
“Eventually, though, we got the scan that said it was a grade two so it wasn’t fully ruptured.
“It’s a tear in my PCL which means it’s probably only about four months – which isn’t too bad.
“It was better than what we first thought so I took the positives out of it.”
Connolly no stranger to battle scars
Previous experience means the long lay-off is less of a blow to Connolly.
In fact, he’s optimistic he can make a speedier recovery than expected.
With the approval of a specialist, he hopes to be more human than bionic in the next few weeks as he tries to get back on to the training pitch.
“I’ve been through similar before,” Connolly added.
“Unfortunately, I never really have a niggling injury, it’s usually more serious.
“I did my right knee when I was at Kilmarnock and had a big operation on my hip there.
“I’ve broken my collarbone as well so all my injuries have been quite big.
“Even in the Dundee derby I ruptured my hamstring.
“I’m just one of those people that I should probably stop and not do certain things but, unfortunately, it’s just in my nature.”
Connolly continued: “I’ve got my brace on still, the specialist wants me to have it on for 12 weeks to support the knee because there can be a bit of laxity there.
“I’m halfway through that and going to see him in two weeks’ time so, if he’s happy with it, hopefully I can get out of the brace and push on with the rehab.
“I’m now fit to do bike stuff and small exercises but the first few weeks I was back in Ireland so I wasn’t really doing much.
“Now, since I’ve come back, we’ve upped the rehab and I can focus on a date to get back. That’s a goal in my mind now.
“I’ve healed quite well with injuries before so I’m hoping I can get back faster again but just make sure it’s right.”
Missing out is a burden
With the rest of the squad back in for pre-season, Connolly admits it has been difficult driving to St Andrews every day knowing he can’t join in.
That feeling is a first for the big defender and one you feel is a real burden for such a charismatic leader in the Tangerines’ ranks.
However, Connolly is willing to accept the gym is his home for the foreseeable and is working hard to have the smoothest rehab possible.
He revealed: “It’s been tough with all the boys back training and they get to interact more whereas I’m away to the gym, doing stuff with Marcin and Kyler Burns, the fitness coach.
“You’re away from it all but my mindset now is to get back as quickly and healthily as possible.
𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐁𝐨𝐲𝐬 𝐀𝐫𝐞 𝐁𝐚𝐜𝐤 👊
📺 DUTV subscribers can take a look as the players and staff returned to the High-Performance Centre at St Andrews University for the first day of pre-season training#UnitedTogether
— Dundee United FC (@dundeeunitedfc) June 21, 2021
“Sometimes you can feel sorry for yourself but I don’t have time for that.
“I just have to get on with it and deal with it as best I can.
“There are days that are going to be tough but, so far, it’s been fine.
“This is the first pre-season I’ve missed in my career and that’s a tough one to take but fingers crossed I come back not too bad.”
Cheering on Scotland at the Euros
Strangely for an Irishman, Connolly has found some solace in the fortunes of Scotland at Euro 2020.
He’s sat down to watch every game with Scottish wife Rosa and kids Ora and Rohan.
Despite the stick he’s getting back home, Connolly is loving how much his kids are gripped by football.
“I’ve got a lot of Scottish friends and even if I was over in Ireland I’d always cheer on Scotland and want them to do well,” he laughed.
“My wife Rosa is from Edinburgh and the two kids are half-Scottish but a few people back home are sceptical because they’ve got Irish passports!
“The kids have got their Scotland kits and have been cheering them on.
Kids are half Scottish 🤷🏻♂️🏴 pic.twitter.com/2N2DpyaUrx
— Mark Connolly (@Mark5Connolly) June 18, 2021
“My little girl’s school got to watch the first game against the Czech Republic and it brought me back to being a kid at school watching Ireland play Spain in the 2002 World Cup.
“They got beat on penalties in the last 16 but we should’ve won it actually!
“She came in from school and was shouting: ‘Come on Scotland!’
“It’s just brilliant, the whole tournament for Scotland has been amazing because it hasn’t happened in a long time.
“It’s huge for the younger generation, hopefully they’ll buy into supporting Scotland more.
“My daughter was so excited when she found out they were playing another two games at least!”