They say you can’t miss what you’ve never had. Try telling that to Dundee United defender Mark Connolly.
Despite the joy of winning the Championship title last year, the disappointment of not being able to properly celebrate remains very real for Connolly.
It’s been a tough year for the Irishman, currently battling back from a serious knee injury and coming to terms with the sudden death of his father, Martin.
He’s set a September date for a return to full fitness, with the hunger to be a part of another successful Tangerines’ group driving him on.
Under new head coach Thomas Courts – a “bold appointment” by Connolly’s estimations – the big centre-half is hoping the Terrors can replicate the success of last season’s Betfred and Scottish Cup double winners, St Johnstone.
He knows they’ll be under the microscope from day one but the United man is confident the new era can deliver the goods.
‘We all have burning desire to be successful’
“I think the manager and (sporting director) Tony (Asghar) aren’t silly enough to think there’s going to be no criticism or times we’re not getting results and the chips will be down,” he said.
“I think it shows a togetherness and a trust the club have put in not just the manager but the players, too.
“It’s up to all of us now to repay the club.
“They’re putting the trust in us older boys, the coaches and the younger boys that are getting the chance to play Scottish Premiership football.
“It’s an exciting time and something myself and the rest of the players are all up for.
“From what I’m seeing and from what I’ve heard, it has the ingredients to do very well.
“I want the club to do well. You see people winning stuff, teams like St Johnstone doing the double and there’s a togetherness, happiness and success.
“I just want to feel that here at this club.
“We won the Championship but, obviously, we never got to celebrate it properly with the fans because of Covid.
“We all have that burning desire to be successful and win a cup, finish in the top six and have those celebrations back at Tannadice where we can all come together and enjoy it.”
Connolly convinced Courts is the right man
Once again, the club are setting ambitious targets but, for Connolly, they are achievable ones with Courts at the helm.
After a long sit down over a coffee, he believes the former Kelty Hearts gaffer is the right fit for the Terrors.
“It’s a big change and something a lot of people thought wouldn’t have happened,” Connolly continued.
“I’ve been blown away by how Tam sees things and understands football. He understands our games, the way we all play individually.
“I had a meeting with him last week at the training ground.
“We had a coffee and a chat for a few hours, went through everything from last season, my career, what he sees for me and for the team, standards, everything.
“It was an example of how things have changed in football.
“You’d probably find that five, six, seven years ago you wouldn’t have had those types of meetings with managers.
“I think the club now have a way of doing things and, in my opinion, it suits the players we have.
“It’s a bold appointment but, from what I’m seeing so far, it’s something that fits.”
Competition from veterans and kids alike is welcome says Mark
Part of the Terrors’ vision for the future under Courts is the continued development of young talent.
At 29, Connolly is one of the more experienced, senior pros in the dressing-room alongside fellow-defenders, captain Mark Reynolds and new arrival Charlie Mulgrew.
Despite playing the same position as the aforementioned duo and youngsters like Kerr Smith and Lewis Neilson, Connolly is keen to fill whatever role is best for the club.
“The enjoyment I had near the end of last season playing with the younger boys like Kerr and Archie Meekison, and the likes of Lewis at the start, was huge,” he added.
“You want them to play and go on to bigger and better things and one day look back and think: ‘I played with that young lad, look how good his career’s gone’.
“That’s, obviously, the aim for the football club but for myself, too. I’d love to see them go on and be successful.
“We’ve got Charlie Mulgrew, a Scotland international and a man that’s won the Scottish Premiership numerous times. He’s come in and added a lot.
“Yes he’s a bit older but he’s still fit, eager and wants to do well on the pitch.
“That experience for us is huge. I think it was a great first signing for Tam – it showed an understanding of what is needed.
“Yes, there’s myself and Mark Reynolds, people like that with experience, but you still need a bit more to help not just the younger players but everyone.
“I’m learning every day, especially if I want to go on and do coaching later in life.
“I’m happy to be vulnerable and fight for my place. If I’m good enough, I’m in the team and playing, if not then I just keep ticking away in the background.
“The club is bigger than anyone and we just need to make sure Dundee United are successful.
“That’s all our aim is. We’re blocking out any sort of negative noise that does come.
“It rests on our shoulders and is something we’re all excited about.”
Derbies the headline act
Having another campaign of top-flight football to look forward to after some time spent in the lower league wilderness is huge for United.
However, Connolly insists this season will be extra special with the return of Premiership derbies following Dundee’s finding their way back to the top table.
They’re an opponent, despite the rivalry, he has a lot of respect for and is relishing going head to head with the Dark Blues.
“I think you’d be lying if you said you weren’t looking forward to that one,” he admitted.
“That was one of the first fixtures I looked at anyway.
“Those are the games you want to play in and when you finish your career look back on saying you’ve played in a Dundee derby.
“I speak to a lot of people back home in Ireland and I was telling them the atmosphere we had in them, even in the Championship, was incredible.
“I thought the games were electric. It’s unbelievable.
“It’s not just us, there are derbies all over the place next season with the Edinburgh derby, Old Firm, etc.
“It’s huge for Scottish football and the Premiership but for us as a club as well.
“It’s going to be a big season and the derbies aren’t going to be easy.
“Dundee are coming to us off the back of a promotion and you can see the difference from when we last played them.
“They look a lot more confident so it’s going to be tough but we’ve got to look forward to it.”