Aiming to enhance an amateur sporting prowess through professional attributes honed during his Australian Rules Football experience, Ray Connellan is seeking to make his mark within the senior gaelic football sphere, at both club and county levels.
The Athlone native, who was a permanent fixture in the Westmeath senior football squad prior to his departure to Australia for pastures professional in 2016, returned to these shores at the start of the summer and has since returned to college where he is studying for an Arts degree in UCD.
Presently in training prior to the start of the Sigerson Cup in January, the naturally talented footballer reflected upon the opportunity afforded to him to make a career within the professional sporting environment.
“I initially trained with the Ireland international rules in 2015 and felt comfortable within the particular playing environment as my athleticism and pace suited the game. Later that year, I attended combined football trials in UCD during which I tested extremely well for endurance, sprinting and jumping, all notable features of Australian Rules Football.
“Based upon my trial performance I travelled to Florida in January 2016 and teamed up with a touring Australian high performance U18 squad for a two week period. It was a positive learning curve from which I earned a two week trial with Melbourne based, St. Kilda, and a two year contract was then offered,” Ray recalled.
The immediate switch from amateur to professional training status arrived in November as Ray made the arduous journey to begin his career within the St. Kilda environs.
“The intensity was immense during training sessions and I immersed my being into the sport, initially learning how the game flowed in comparison to gaelic football and honing my skillset as I adapted to the AFL playing environment. It was a significant and substantial jump in level,” Ray noted.
Seamlessly transitioning to the new sporting demands requested, Ray featured prominently for the club’s VFL team, Sandringham, and over the two year contract duration played in excess of forty times for the St. Kilda affiliated club.
“Playing as a half forward during my first season I was making an impact and discussions were had with the St. Kilda head coach with regard to making my professional debut but unfortunately, the campaign concluded before I had the opportunity to realise my dream,” Ray acknowledged.
Returning to start his second pre-season and with his fitness levels of the highest order, Ray was hopeful of making that elusive inaugural first team appearance but during a crucial period playing form deserted him and the signs became ominous for his AFL future.
“It was a very difficult time to be a St. Kilda player, the club was not performing well and there was immense pressure on our head coach, a difficult scenario in which to thrive. With the lack of communication forthcoming, I was of the view my contract would not be renewed and sadly this was to be the case.
“You dedicate your life to carving out a professional sporting career, you become obsessed with your objective and then in the space of a twenty minute conversation the dream dies,” Ray remarked.
Having returned home in September 2018 and with harboured thoughts of a professional career a memory, Ray was readjusting his mindset when he was offered a second opportunity to fulfil his sporting desire.
“Having had numerous discussions with family members, I questioned whether a return to Australia was the right choice to make, but in January 2019 I made the journey once again with Essendon affording me the opportunity to display my playing skillset.
“Essendon instilled belief into my game and playing me in my preferred role as half back I definitely flourished. Operating in a semi-pro capacity, my form was such that I hoped to be picked by an AFL club in the inaugural players draft and even had some discussion with Brisbane with regard to my future, but a torn hamstring put paid to any opportunity which my have been presented,” Ray commented.
With the injury finally came the realisation that a career in the AFL was not to be, and despite a feeling of intense disappointment, Ray knew he made the correct decision to return home once again.
“I wanted to come home and was very aware that the opportunity had now passed me by, but once I made my decision, there was an immediate sense of relief and I could start to look to a revised future,” Ray continued.
A summer spent in Boston with friends, during which Ray was part of the Donegal team to win the New York football championship was the ‘downtime’ Ray needed, but now thoughts have firmly turned to matters gaelic football as he settles into third level education life.
“I’m looking forward to the Sigerson Cup campaign and hoping to return to training with the Westmeath football squad over the Christmas period. Jack Cooney has been in touch and detailed the team’s hopes for the season ahead and I am excited to have the possible opportunity to wear the county jersey once again, having not played for Westmeath since the Leinster football final loss to Dublin in 2016,” Ray stated.
To matters club football, Ray enthused when referencing the recent appointment of former All-Star, Liam McHale, to the position of Athlone senior football team manager.
“The club have made a statement with Liam’s appointment and it is now down to the players to buy in to his management style and return the club to winning ways,” Ray reiterated.
A refreshing interviewee, complete with prime playing attributes and positive mental attitude, the return of Ray Connellan to the gaelic football scene will enhance his playing surrounds from which both club and county teams are certain to benefit.