'That can erode your spirit' - Kenny says absent Connolly would benefit from 'focus' of regular game-time

The Brighton striker has been left out of the latest international squad through injury, having already slipped down the pecking order.

Aaron Connolly, in action against Portugal in September.
Aaron Connolly, in action against Portugal in September.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

STEPHEN KENNY’S SQUAD announcements have invariably been dominated by the future and those not present. 

Thus it was at Abbottstown yesterday, as Kenny unveiled his selection for the final World Cup qualifiers against Portugal and Luxembourg.

Ireland won’t be going to Qatar and have known that since they lost their opening two games, and so the principal drama of it all has been whether Kenny deserves to have his contract extended to encompass all of next year’s Nations League campaign and then the qualifiers for Euro 2024. 

Kenny has always maintained that he is not “fixated” on his future when asked about it, though was coaxed into giving a little more away yesterday. 

“I see where you’re coming from”, he replied when asked whether he’d like to see his future clarified sooner rather than later.

“Experience tells you that sometimes you can’t influence things. You do things that you feel are right to do, you make decisions based on what you feel is right and you back your conviction and show what you want to achieve, and if that’s good enough, fair enough.

“My viewpoint is that I fully intend on being manager for the Nations League coming up, that’s the way I see it.”

The FAI board will decide whether to renew Kenny’s contract beyond July of next year, with the verdict expected at a meeting in the wake of the Luxembourg game. 

Kenny’s squad is now settling on a familiar shape, and this is the first not to feature a maiden call-up. Seamus Coleman, Alan Browne and Jayson Molumby have all returned having missed the last window through suspension and, in Coleman’s case, injury. They replace Harry Arter, Cyrus Christie and, most notably, Aaron Connolly. 

The reason behind Connolly’s absence became mired in some uncertainty, with his club manager Graham Potter intimating that it was a selection decision from Kenny, rather than down to any injury. 

“He had a heel injury after the Leicester game,” said Potter. “It was only minor but we felt the game against Liverpool came too soon.

“I imagine he would be frustrated and disappointed not to play for his country, because he wants to do that, but at the same time we respect the decision of Stephen. That’s life. You have to perform, you have to play, you have to accept that the coach makes those decisions. That’s what Aaron does.”

Kenny came into his press conference minutes after Potter said this, but clarified it was in fact down to injury. 

stephen-kenny Stephen Kenny speaks to the press. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“That was quick! No, listen, I spoke to Graham mid week. I have a good relationship with Graham and he hasn’t been training for Brighton. I spoke to Aaron yesterday myself and we both decided – he didn’t feel he was really right – although technically, he could possibly be available next Thursday for selection but he hasn’t been able to train or he hasn’t been training at all. He feels sore.”

There is no doubt Connolly has slipped down the pecking order, having hitherto been a favourite of Kenny’s.  Having started in Portugal in September, he was substituted at half-time of the subsequent game against Azerbaijan and hasn’t played since, sitting on the bench for each of last month’s matches. 

Kenny revealed earlier this week that a loan for Connolly prior to season’s start broke down, and hinted that resurrecting that move may suit him as it would give him more focus. 

“Aaron Connolly is one of our best attacking players. I’ve great belief in him. He’s had a tough a little bit with not playing matches and his confidence [has been affected] maybe because he hasn’t been playing.

“He is still only 21, and he’s already scored in the Premier League and he’s done really well in his career to date. It’s very tough.

“He is at a crossroads, whether he gets enough football between now and January or whether he has to decide he has a loan period to get regular football. That is no reflection on Brighton: they have done brilliant work behind the scenes with Aaron to develop him through their academy.

“He probably knows that himself, he’s the type of personality [who would benefit from] a bit of structure. Knowing that in the Championship you have a match Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday; 44 games of that, you discipline yourself. You’re focused on a Tuesday; you are ready to go again on Saturday. That kind of focus, rather than having one match a week where you don’t know whether you’re going to play or not – you’re probably not going to play – and you’re just training.

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“Over a period of time, even to the strongest of characters, that can erode your spirit.

“To have that level of focus would be brilliant for him. If he could get into the Premier League and do it, and that isn’t beyond him either, if he got an opportunity. That would be brilliant, even better. But it’s just very difficult to get sustained chances for any young player as a centre forward in the Premier League.” 

More broadly, Kenny’s vision for this Irish is becoming more clear. Of the 26 players named for this month’s games, half earned their first call-ups under Kenny.

There is also a focus on continuity and refining their system of play, with a view to topping the Nations League group next year and securing a backdoor to Euro 2024. 

“No-one is nailed on for their positions”, said Kenny.  ”I think form will dictate that over the years, over the next few months.

“You’ve got to have a level of continuity, you just can’t pick it on a whim if someone gets two goals, because you’re working on systems of play and looking at other teams and stuff so you just can’t radically change all the time.” 

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella, and Gavan Casey look ahead to Ireland-Japan with the help of Japanese rugby expert Rich Freeman, while the lads also assess ‘Tier Two’ rugby two years out from the World Cup:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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