MARK Connolly has agonised helplessly on the sidelines as Kilmarnock have free-fallen into relegation trouble in recent weeks.
It has simply compounded the pain the big Irish defender endured when he suffered a broken collarbone during their match at Inverness in February.
The journey back down the A9 that evening was a form of sheer torture for Connolly as he was exposed to driving habits of the Kilmarnock kit man which are unlikely to feature in an advanced school of motoring handbook.
“Because of the injury, I didn’t come back on the team bus that day,” recalls Connolly. “I got in the kit van to come home with the kit man. I told him to miss every pothole on the way home – but he actually hit every one!
“I was waiting to see if I was going to hospital in Inverness, but the physio wanted to get me to the surgeon he knows in Crosshouse Hospital near Kilmarnock.
“So we were on the road for three and a half hours and the kit man had a packet of wine gums next to him which he was eating the whole way. He wasn’t really concentrating on the road and we honestly must have hit every bump on the way home! With a broken collarbone, that’s quite a painful thing.”
We must have hit every bump. With a broken collarbone, that’s a painful thingMark Connolly
Connolly was initially informed that the injury would bring a premature end to his impressive first season with the Rugby Park club which has resulted in him being named Player of the Year by the Kilmarnock Supporters’ Association.
But, after missing nine matches, the former Wolves, Bolton and Crawley Town man made his return to action as a late substitute in last Friday night’s 3-1 loss at Motherwell. It was a seventh successive defeat for Gary Locke’s side, leaving them in danger of filling the relegation play-off place, and Connolly is desperate to play his part in helping them arrest the slump against Partick Thistle at Firhill on Saturday.
“I feel I’m ready to start a game now,” said the 23-year-old. “I played an hour for the under-20s on Monday and I feel fine.
“I spoke with the manager before the Motherwell game last week and we hummed and hawed about me playing. But I don’t think I was ready to start. I came on and felt a little bit off the pace.
“But I’ve trained fully since then and feel good, so hopefully I’ll be in contention for Saturday. I’m fully fit, my legs feel fine and strong now.
“I was told I’d be out until the end of the season but it feels great now. I’ve maybe come back a little bit earlier than expected but I wouldn’t be putting myself in a position where there was any chance of making it worse.
“I spoke with the surgeon and he gave me the full backing to come back, so hopefully it will be fine.
“It’s been difficult to watch since I got injured. It’s so different to when you’re playing, because you can’t influence anything. I’m not saying I would have made any difference but you always want to be there to help your team-mates out.
“We were doing quite well but we’ve had a difficult last couple of months. Hopefully, we can get the right result on Saturday and then secure our place in the Premiership.
“We just need to stick together now. We’ve got the players in the dressing room who can get the results we need.
“The biggest thing is confidence. At the start of the season, even the middle of the season, we were playing well. A lot of the times, it’s just down to hard work and maybe we’ve taken our foot off the gas a little bit.
“But I know this means a lot to the players. It means a lot to me. I’ve just bought a home in Kilmarnock and I’m very happy here.
“Since I came here, everyone at the club – the cleaners, everyone – have welcomed me with open arms.
“We will be doing everything possible to get the win on Saturday. We can’t worry about the teams around us. We need to win on Saturday then see how the other results go.
“I want us to win the last two games and finish the season on a little bit of a high note, then get ready to push on next season.
“It’s not going to be easy against Partick. They are on a good run at the moment. We want to win the last two games, regardless.
“It’s in our own hands. We’re not relying on anyone else to keep us up. That’s the biggest thing. It would be different if we needed Ross County or Motherwell to lose. We just need to win and that’s a good incentive for us. The last few days in training, you can see the lads just can’t wait for Saturday.”
Connolly backs Locke to keep Kilmarnock up and lead them to better things next season.
“It has been difficult for the manager,” he added. “From what I’ve seen, he’s got bags of ability as a manager. He is one of the best young managers in the league. I’ve really enjoyed working with him.
“We went six unbeaten under him, then we’ve lost seven in a row. Once you’re on that kind of run, it’s hard to pick it up. I do feel for the manager but he’s not feeling sorry for himself. He wants to do well and has big plans for the club. Everything looks bright at this club.”