WHAT a 12 months Connor Ellis has enjoyed since he received the 2014 Celtic Ross West Cork Youth Sports Star of the Year award.
The up-and-coming Cork City striker certainly enhanced his reputation further with another impressive campaign that was bookended by winning silverware – he starred for Ireland’s U18 schools’ side that won the Centenary Shield in April while he helped fire Cork City U19s to U19 National League glory in December (his second title at this level).
In between all that were several standout moments, including his senior Cork City debut, scoring his first international goal for the Republic of Ireland, and much more.
What a year it has been for this talented Kealkill teenager, who turns 19 in May.
Kieran McCarthy (KMC): Wow, what a year, so where do we start, Connor? There were so many highlights on the club and international front, but making your League of Ireland debut for Cork City away to Longford Town in July must have been pretty special?
Connor Ellis (CE): ‘I scored my first international goal for Ireland last year which was a big moment, but making my senior Cork City debut was my highlight because when I signed for the club when I was 16, that was always my long-term goal – to play for the senior team. It was a great feeling to achieve that last year.
‘I remember watching on (against Longford) and we were 3-0 up after an hour so I was thinking that there was a chance that I might get on for a little bit. I was brought on for the last seven or eight minutes and it was a nice taste of it.’
KMC: That short cameo of first-team action was important for many reasons, one of those being that you now know the standard you need to work towards to make the breakthrough?
CE: ‘You realise when you’re watching a game at that level that the pace of the game is quite fast – faster than I am used to – so it was good to get that experience and it’s a benchmark that I know I need to work towards.
‘Near the end of the season I was on the bench at Turner’s Cross for the match against Dundalk, and to warm up in front of 4,000 fans, it makes you want to play in that environment every day of the week.
‘I always compare playing in these games to taking a penalty: no matter how much you prepare for it, you only get better by experience and by dealing with that situation when you have to.’
KMC: So, club wise, this year is all about making that breakthrough, forcing your way into John Caulfield’s plans?
CE: ‘That’s the main aim for 2016 – to get a few more minutes under my belt with the senior team. Maybe, when I’m finished the Leaving Cert in July I could go out on loan for the second half of the season.
‘I want to try to get more senior minutes because that will help me improve and get better, by playing with and against the best players in the league. I want to get better and better and it’s about getting game time for me now.’
KMC: 2016 is already shaping up like a big year for you. Obviously, you want to get more senior minutes under your belt, you also have your Leaving Cert exams in the summer, so you need to strike the right balance there.
CE: ‘It’s tough to balance the two (school and soccer), but you have to be realistic too because one injury could end your career and it could be all over.
‘I will take a break from soccer to concentrate on the Leaving Cert. We’re back in pre-season in February so I’ll have a better idea then what my plan is, but I’ll probably take a few weeks off in May before the Leaving Cert. It’s worth putting in the extra effort with school and study over the next few months.
‘(Manager) John Caulfield has been brilliant and very accommodating. He knows how important the Leaving Cert is, and he and the club have been very supportive.’
KMC: Okay, let’s turn to the international front. You made the headlines with Ireland too – scoring the winner for the Republic of Ireland U18s against Luxembourg in July, played against Italy for the U19s, and winning some silverware as well. Another good season of progression on that front, so?
CE: ‘We won the Centenary Shield with the Irish schools’ U18 team where we played England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and I scored three goals in four games.
‘The standout moment was making the full Ireland U19 international squad and scoring the winner against Luxembourg and going on to play against Italy and the Ukraine – they were real highlights.’
‘As for 2016, there’s not too much coming up this year. I’ll be U21 next year and it will be harder to get a look-in as I’m up against fellas who are older then me, but I’ll hopefully get on the home-based squad and see where that takes me.’
KMC: Looking at the bigger picture, what’s the main aim? And how achievable is it?
CE: ‘I’m loving life at Cork City at the moment; the club has been very good to me.
‘I’m like any young football fan, I’d love to go across the water and play in England, but you have to be realistic too. That’s why the Leaving Cert is so important, and after that the aim is to establish myself in the Cork City senior team, get that experience I need for a couple of years and see where that takes me.
‘In a recent Ireland squad, 18 of the 20 players were playing for clubs across the water, and that can be daunting, but once you train and play with them, you realise that you are just as good as they are.’