Just five years ago, Dylan Connolly was having to combine his football with working in a Dublin warehouse.
Now, he views joining AFC Wimbledon and having an opportunity to progress his career in England as a dream come true.
For those that may have missed our extensive interview with Dylan in the Millwall programme, it is reproduced in full below.
His impressive wing-play helped to upset Premier League West Ham last month, and his performances have made him an instant hit with Wimbledon supporters, but playing football for a living is certainly not a scenario that Dylan takes for granted.
“I always played football, but when I left school I had to find a job because I wasn’t playing at a very high level and I wasn’t getting paid enough to live on," recalled Dylan. "I had to work as well as playing football. So while I was playing for Shelbourne, I worked in a warehouse for about six months. It was a fixing company in Dublin that sold nails, hardware and construction equipment. I was 18, and this was just before I moved to Ipswich.
“I’m so thankful that I went down that route – it opened my eyes to what the real world is like, and showed me how lucky I am now to be playing football. Now I’m doing something I love. We had a good team at Shelbourne, but I wasn’t getting paid enough to pay the bills so I had to go out and find another job.”
For Dylan, being involved in the FA Cup win against West Ham has made all that extra graft worth while. “It was surreal – it’s what dreams are made of. When you’re a young kid in Dublin watching English football on the TV and you see the underdogs beating Premier League teams, you don’t really think it’s something you’ll ever be part of. It meant a lot to be involved in that game in front of a packed stadium, with my family here and everyone back home watching me. I’ve had some special nights and matches in my career, including playing in European competition, and winning trophies with Dundalk, but being a part of the West Ham game is right up there. People back home told me how proud they were of me after that. It showed that you can come from Dublin, after growing up in a tough environment, and go on to play in England.”
Following spells in Ireland with Bohemians and Shelbourne, Dylan caught the eye of current Republic of Ireland boss Mick McCarthy, who was then manager of Ipswich Town. A move to England followed, but it didn’t exactly go to plan. However, Dylan believes he now has the maturity to cope with leaving home again after joining Wimbledon.
“I was doing pretty well at Shelbourne. Terry Connor and Mick McCarthy came to watch me, and they liked me, so I got an opportunity to go to Ipswich. Quite a few clubs in England had shown interest in me. I went on trial at Man United, Bolton, Brighton and Wolves, but then Ipswich came in for me.
“I’m a lot more mature and experienced now than I was when I made that move. I think I’m at the right stage in my career now to take this opportunity. I was only a kid really when I joined Ipswich. I was going back to Ireland every two or three weeks because I really missed home – I was a real home bug back then! Obviously, I still love home, but right now I’m loving it here. I’ve only been home once in the last eight weeks. I’m living the dream, so I aim to make the most of it.
“My dad’s brother Peter lives not far away from where I’m staying – he lives in Mortlake, so I go down there quite a lot. It’s like home from home, really. He was at the West Ham game and so too were my cousins. Seven or eight of my family came to watch me, so it was a great night.
“In terms of the squad here, I always have a bit of banter with Shane McLoughlin, Kwesi, and the other lads. No-one can understand me, so I can slag them off and they don’t know what I’m saying!”
Dylan includes his U21 appearances for Ireland as among his career highlights so far, along with scoring in the Europa League for Dundalk away at Levadia Tallinn. “It was special playing for my country – there’s nothing better than putting on that green shirt. When you stand up for the national anthem it makes you so proud. You know you have to perform for your country, and it was great to represent Ireland. You get to travel the world: I’ve been to Slovenia, Slovakia and Andorra – places I probably would never have visited otherwise. We played against Italy home and away. We should have beaten them away, but we were very unlucky. We hit the crossbar and they just managed to beat us 1–0.
“At Dundalk we won titles: we won the league and cup double. I scored in the Europa League qualifiers and for Ireland Under-21s. I scored against Andorra and against Russia as well. They were big moments in my career, and memories I’ll have for ever.
“I got 15 caps for the Ireland U21s, but they’ve stayed in my mother’s house back home! I got Mark Noble’s shirt after the West Ham game – I asked him for it. He’s a very good player, I like the way he plays, and he’s been playing in the Premier League for years. I don’t really collect memorabilia, but I do keep jerseys from each of the clubs I’ve played for in my career.”
Having made a name for himself with his speedy raids down the right flank, Dylan is keen to improve on other aspects of his game. In the more immediate future, he’s determined to fight all the way for Wimbledon in the battle to stay in League One.
“I got a phone call when I was in my off season with Dundalk, asking if I was interested in coming to England. I talked with my agent and he said that the manager really wanted me, so I decided to come over. It was a chance I really wanted, and I’m thankful I took it because I’m really enjoying it. I thought this was the right option for me at this stage of my career. I’m happy I made the choice to come here.
“There’s loads of stuff in my game I need to work on. I think every player can improve, and it’s no different with me. I want to add goals and work on my left foot. I have to work on being more precise on my end-product, getting those crosses into the right areas. I want to add more goals and assists to my game.
“I take each game as it comes and give 100 per cent in every game. I don’t think about another match when I have one right in front of me. I just want to work my socks off in every game to try and get a result for the team. I want to help the team get as many points as possible, from now until the end of the season, so that hopefully we can stay in the division. We’ll fight until the end – I can assure everyone we will be doing that!”
Dylan showed plenty of early determination as a young lad to win football matches, even going in goal! “I was four or five when I started playing. My mum took me along to my local team in Dublin. I was training with the U7s, even though I was only four. I really wanted to go and play football games, but I was just training for a year or two. Then I managed to get into the U6 team. I started out as a centre-forward, and then I was a winger, and I even went in goal to try and stop us conceding all the time! Just because we were losing, I said ‘Let me go in goal!’ It was only for a few games.”
It's unlikely that Dylan will be challenging Aaron Ramsdale for the No.1 jersey any time soon, but all of us at AFC Wimbledon will settle for Dylan producing the form he showed against West Ham on a regular basis.