Dundee United defender Mark Connolly has revealed how challenging it was to get on with the job while wage-cut talks were lurking in the background.
The Irishman admitted it had been a “difficult few months” following owner Mark Ogren’s announcement that pay would need to be reduced in order to help the club deal with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The hints out of Tannadice throughout the process suggested that the players would play ball in the end and that was confirmed earlier this week.
However, it hasn’t been an easy time for the players, who have continued to pick up results throughout the discussion period and still sit in the Premiership’s top six as they prepare to host St Johnstone this afternoon.
With that particular chapter now closed, Connolly reflected: “It has a been a difficult few months.
“Sometimes, as a footballer, you are tarred with a brush that you earn ‘X’ amount a year but there are a lot of boys who don’t earn anywhere near what people think they do.
“They also have outgoings and families and have a lot of things going on in the background.
“It has been difficult and been (hanging) over our heads but we have managed to get through it and do it pretty well in December when all this stuff was going on.
“Myself, Mark Reynolds and Calum Butcher tried to deal with the club and (sporting director) Tony Asghar as well as we could.
“We understood the situation we are in and it has been a year that no one could ever have imagined,” he added.
“It hasn’t been easy but we have a group of boys who have been brought to this football club not only as footballers but as people.
“The club signed good people and we are all prepared to help in any way we can. That was our view from the outset.
“It took a wee bit longer than we would have hoped for but from day one we wanted to get something done because these circumstances are not good for any football club.
“Here at United we knew what we needed to do and thankfully we came to an agreement.”
Two rising stars
As he looked to a hopefully brighter future, Connolly joked that he is looking over his shoulder as two “top-class” young central defenders threaten to become first-team regulars.
The Tangerines, by general consensus, possess two of Scotland’s stars of the future in Lewis Neilson (17) and Kerr Smith (16).
Neilson starred alongside Connolly at Pittodrie last weekend as United secured a goalless draw with Aberdeen, having been told he was starting just minutes before kick-off due to an injury to Ryan Edwards.
Both players have caught the eye of top English clubs but have remained at Tannadice to further their footballing education.
Connolly believes manager Micky Mellon has a couple of diamonds on his hands, saying:
“The two of them – I’m not just saying this – are absolutely top-class players,” said the Irishman.
“The potential the two of them have is incredible.
“Sometimes as players you forget how young they are.
“For example, Lewis is only 17 but the size of the boy, the way he plays, his calmness, everything about him…
“Lewis is a fantastic player.
“He has absolutely everything and his future can be whatever he wants it to be if he keeps his feet on the ground as he is doing at the moment.
“He certainly was (the best young defender he had played with) until about a month ago when Kerr Smith came through.
“I had heard so many things about Kerr and what he was like as a player and I had heard how many football clubs had phone calls in the summer about him and Lewis, inquiring about them and how good they were.
“The two have done so well and it is worrying for me being a defender and them playing them in my position!
“I think they can both play central midfield as well quite easily and I had a joke with them that if they want to play in there then there is no problem.
“The boys are in my position and I am looking to them at that age the level they can go to wherever they want to go.
“These are exciting times for them and the football club.”
Happy to help
Connolly, like most senior pros, is delighted to be able to help rising stars like Neilson and Kerr, an example of that nurturing instinct coming during the Dons game when both he and captain Mark Reynolds gave their teammate plenty of in-play advice.
“These boys are so calm on the ball that they are a different breed and they have everything,” said Connolly.
“Nevertheless, I am at the stage in my career that if I can help either of them then I am here to help them.”
Today’s game with Saints sees United come full circle, with a home match against the Perth men the fixture that opened their campaign back on August 1.
That gave Connolly the perfect opportunity to look back on the season thus far.
He said: “It’s been a learning curve for a lot of people.
“For us, getting back into the Premiership after so many years, it was always going to be a difficult one.
“There have been times where we should have done better but there also been other times where we’ve got something out of games where we probably shouldn’t have.
“It’s been a bit up and down at times but I think where we’re sitting right now is a healthy position.”