Ireland hope Ryan McConnell: 'I couldn't say a bad word about United'
HE has been told before that once you leave Manchester United, the only way is down.
But for Donegal lad Ryan McConnell, a departure from Old Trafford on a free transfer, at the end of a three-year spell at the club, is just the beginning of the next phase of his career.
"There's no disgrace in getting released by Man United," McConnell told The Herald yesterday.
"They do say that the only way is down when you leave United, but you can start off at the top and drop down. I have learned a lot in the time I was here, I felt part of the family and it will be hard leaving it but I have to take it on the chin."
With fresh questions over the future direction of Irish football due to the national team's poor displays in the Euro 2016 campaign, the spotlight has again turned on the system of exporting 16-year-olds to England.
Irish players will still go abroad - West Brom and Stoke City have just signed two highly-rated young Irish boys - but others still come home and this summer, Premier League sides like United (McConnell), Everton (Ben McLaughlin), Aston Villa (Graham Burke), West Ham (Sean Maguire), Norwich (Kyle McFadden) and West Brom (Philip Gannon) have released some of their young Irish talent.
"It is so hard to break through at United. They have the money to go out and buy any player in the world that they want, so you have to be so good to make the breakthrough and it's hard for an Irish lad," McConnell says of his time.
"But at the same time it was a great experience, I learned a lot and I am happy I came here, not many people can say they played for Man U. You learn a lot and pick up good habits from the senior pros, players like Jonny Evans were really good to me, helped me out a lot," added the Letterkenny native.
Footballers often take different paths once they leave Old Trafford.
Two of the current Ireland senior squad didn't quite make the grade at United but have gone to have very good careers at Premier League and international level (Robbie Brady and Paul McShane).
Christy Fagan, in Europa League action for St Patrick's Athletic in Latvia last night, tried a few roads after he was let go by United in 2008 and had spells in Spain, Scotland and England before settling into a League of Ireland career, and last summer Fagan scored away to Legia Warsaw in a 1-1 draw in the Champions League.
Fagan carved out a decent career for himself in the League of Ireland but another Irishman to try his luck at United, Donegal lad Joe Coll, is still waiting to do the same.
The peak of Coll's soccer career since his United exit in 2012 (Coll chose to leave before his contract ran out as he didn't see a future at the club) was a spell on the bench for Derry City and the keeper is now playing GAA back in Donegal.
Sean McGinty, an English-born player who declared for Ireland via the parentage rule, was tipped for a big future when he joined United from Charlton as a 15-year-old. But McGinty's career has been on a constant downward slide and he's just been released by League One side Rochdale.
United released five young professionals at the end of last season and McConnell was not surprised to get the axe, as last season was ruined by injury to the extent that he made just one appearance for the United U21/reserve side. The door to Old Trafford is not completely closed, as the club have invited him to come back and use their training and medical facilities so he can work on his fitness and reach a state where he can impress another club.
There's even a slight chance of a reprieve and a new deal, though he's not banking on that.
"I am back in England and training at United, I will do pre-season with them as the U21 team manager knew I was injured and needed to get fit, I will do the pre-season and take it from there," says the defender. "I am better off being here, I am in the shop window if I am over in England. There might be a chance United could give me something but I'm not sure about that."
But McConnell is entitled to think 'what if?' in terms of that injury. "Last year was a nightmare in terms of injuries. The previous season was really good for me and I captained the team but last season was a disaster, I barely played at all due to injury, I only played in three minutes of one game for the United U21s," he admits.
"I had an operation on my groin the first year I was at United but it flared up again after that so I was out for a long time, it was never-ending.
"It's hard to miss out on a year at this stage of your career because you're not getting games, if you're not playing for the club you can't expect to get into the Irish squads."
For now, the Donegal man will work away at United, grateful for the support of the club and his manager there. "United have been very good to me," he says.
"The manager here with the U21s, Warren Joyce, is very knowledgeable about football and has a lot of contacts in different leagues so I am sure he will help me out.
"Since I found out I was being released a lot of people have helped, the head of education at United came to speak to me about my options, it's a great club and I could never say a bad word about United, it was just unfortunate with my injury.
"Finn Harps were on to me about training there but I was happy to come back to Manchester and train with United. If it goes well I will get a club over in England, if not I will go home and try my luck in Ireland. My preference would be to get a League One club, I have to be realistic as a move to the Championship may not suit as I need to play games. Once I can get a club and get a few games I'd be confident that things can move on for me."