Well I didn’t see that coming. The news that Luciano Becchio had signed a new 3½ year contract was greeted with as much adulation as the final score on Saturday. Second place at Christmas, who’d have thought it?
Putting pen to paper has completed Becchio’s transition from second striker to ultimate cult hero with the fans. We’ve been fortunate in the last couple of decades to have ‘worshipped’ some of these heroes – Ian Baird, John Sheridan, David Wetherall to name but three.
We have also had a number of players who quietly got along with their jobs without a great deal of reverence. Chris Whyte was one of those – integral to our first season back in the First Division in 1990-1 and then the title-winning season but won little exaltation. Norwegians Gunnar Halle and Alfie Haaland were no nonsense defenders who rarely had bad games. I always thought Olivier Dacourt was criminally underrated and shamefully discarded by Terry Venables.
The current side has a number of players who have been criticised from the terraces previously but since our upturn in form cannot get enough praise. But there is one player who is barely mentioned in the stands, barely interviewed on LUTV or in other media, and who I think is up there with our best players in this half-season: Paul Connolly.
Connolly was Derby’s captain under Paul Jewell, but when Nigel Clough took charge the captaincy was taken off him (given to everyone’s favourite pantomime dame, Robbie Savage), and he fell out of favour, even going on loan to Sheffield United last January. A work colleague of mine who is a regular at Pride Park told me he was a distinctly average full-back who had no pace and wouldn’t be missed.
He was our third free summer signing after Schmeichel and Paynter, and the various message boards were incredulous about his capture (which I found odd as we had struggled in the second half of last season after Crowe had lost form/been injured, and Hughes and Bromby not in their natural position). Federico Bessone augured more promising reviews given Swansea’s defensive reputation, and it is ironic that our right full back has delivered much more than him.
To be fair to the naysayers Connolly didn’t get off to the best of starts, the nadir being a woeful performance at Bury in pre-season where the entire defence was torn apart by playing far too high up the pitch. Once the season had begun, Connolly’s relative successes in nullifying attacks down our right-hand side meant opposition were attacking the other wing, exposing Bessone’s weaknesses.
Before his injury in September Connolly didn’t get forward too much which meant he was unable to support the winger in front of him. His injury coincided with the terrible performances against Ipswich and Preston, showing that his defensive qualities were greatly missed. Upon his return we he has been quietly going about his business and there is a confidence that opposition wingers will not exploit us (cf. Frazer Richardson). He is vocal and monitors the back line so the shape isn’t lost, and his previous captaincy experience means he is an organiser.
In recent weeks he has created a great understanding with Robert Snodgrass on the right. As well as doing his job at the back he now gets forward to support the attacks. His assist for Becchio’s equaliser last week was outstanding; this week he did a cute pass to Snodgrass before the his tricky run and cross for the goal, and minutes before he crossed a superb ball of Becchio who would have scored if it weren’t for Paddy Kenny’s fingertips.
He is not a perfect player by any means; he is our most booked player so far this season with six. His booking on Saturday was retaliation from a bad challenge, which was a bit needless. He certainly doesn’t want to be outfought, and I don’t mind a bit of bite so long as free kicks are not conceded in dangerous positions. Occasionally his enthusiasm going forward leaves a gaping hole at right back and his speed certainly isn’t his strongest quality. Tyrone Mears, who rivalled Connolly in that position at Derby knew this last week at Turf Moor when most of Burnley’s first half attacks came from that side when Connolly was stranded in the opposition half.
As with all quality right backs (Gary Neville, Lee Dixon and more recently someone like Maicon of Inter and Brazil) if you don’t notice them, they are doing their job. Although not in their class yet Connolly is certainly up there with the best in the division. He is only 27 and could easily fill in as captain should injury hit Jonny Howson. Maybe one day he will even get his own chant, but for now Paul Connolly remains an unsung figure in the team.