Aaron Connolly and James McClean 'undercooked' but available in Serbia

Stephen Kenny has also confirmed that Mark Travers will start in goal tomorrow night.

Aaron Connolly.
Aaron Connolly.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

STEPHEN KENNY SAYS Aaron Connolly and James McClean are “undercooked” but available for selection in tomorrow’s World Cup qualifier with Serbia in Belgrade [KO 7.45pm; Live RTÉ Two]. 

The pair made the squad in spite of missing recent games at their respective clubs, but the Irish manager says both are available for the opening game of Group A tomorrow night.

“They’re both under-cooked, if you like, because James obviously had an issue with his heel and was recovering from an injection and was off it for a while, so he wasn’t very advanced in his training programme, he hadn’t done too much”, said Kenny at his pre-game press conference. 

“James has incredible determination to play for Ireland, I think that’s obvious – as it is of so many players – so he trained yesterday and is super-keen. He looks in brilliant physical condition, but obviously he’s not done too much of late.

“Aaron, again, is a little bit under-cooked. He hasn’t played in a while, had the rib injury, couldn’t train and has come in on the back of just probably three days’ training, so he’s a little bit under-cooked, but trained yesterday. He did some finishing.

“When you train at the stadium, you get the chance to hit the back of the net, it becomes real. He and Callum Robinson who have both not played that much – Callum has obviously not played for a while for West Brom – so every time they hit the back of the net in training, it’s a good feeling for them and hopefully they can bring that into the game.”

Kenny confirmed goalkeeper Mark Travers will make his senior competitive debut against Serbia with Darren Randolph and Caoimhín Kelleher both out injured, but wasn’t drawn on any other aspects of his team selection.

He merely stressed Seamus Coleman is “very important for us” when asked if the captain would return to the team for the first time since October 2019, while Coleman himself said he didn’t yet know if he was playing  when doing his pre-game press duties. 

Kenny also wasn’t drawn into confirming Shane Duffy will start tomorrow, though again issued a strong message in support of his defender, currently enduring a difficult time in a bad Celtic team.

“Listen, Shane has sort of been dissected at the moment and the microscope is on him in relation to ever aspect of his performances, but sometimes players get a move to a club and for some reason, it doesn’t work out. You mustn’t forget the terrific form he had for Brighton in the Premier League for a number of years and for Ireland. He was named twice International Player of the Year, so that kind of form doesn’t leave you overnight.

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“These are things that we have to consider.” 

The Irish squad and staff returned a slate of negative Covid tests prior to departure for Belgrade yesterday, though Kenny has lost several first-choice players to injury, including John Egan, James McCarthy, Conor Hourihane, Callum O’Dowda, and Randolph. 

Those injuries, along with a wretched run of form (no wins in eight games; no goals in seven) does not mean Kenny will have his team sitting deep and knocking the ball long tomorrow night, however. 

“You can’t on one hand give instructions and then just all of a sudden rip everything up and just say we’re going to defend well with a low block and just knock it into the channel. So I think the answer to that is a clear no on both fronts.  Having said that, I do respect Serbia, I’m not naïve. I realise they have a lot of very good attacking players and a lot of talent and we will have to be cognisant of that and we’ll have to defend well.

“It’s important that we defend well, we are not neglecting the importance of defending. It is hugely important to defend well because they have got players who could punish you.”

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Gavin Cooney

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