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Ireland's man of the match rediscovers his love of football

Aaron Connolly made an impact on his first appearance in over three years for the U21s.

Ireland's Aaron Connolly reacts during last night's match.
Ireland's Aaron Connolly reacts during last night's match.
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

AARON CONNOLLY may not have scored last night but he had Israel on the ropes on more than one occasion.

The striker’s pace and intelligent movement caused the visitors’ defence plenty of problems.

With a bit more luck, he would have found the net — one shot in particular springs to mind, when he almost opened the scoring in the 15th minute, only for the goalkeeper’s fingertips to divert it onto the post.

The 22-year-old was also to the fore in one of the match’s key incidents. He sped past Israel’s Stav Lemkin, who was subsequently penalised for taking the striker down.

The defender was sent off and it initially appeared as if Connolly had won a penalty, but the referee adjudged the infringement to have taken place just outside the area.

So Connolly was denied what, even with eight caps at senior level, would have been one of his best moments in an Ireland shirt.

Nevertheless, the Galway native looked sharp throughout and produced the type of performance Irish fans will have been hoping for, winning RTÉ’s man-of-the-match award in the process.

The comeback, of course, is far from complete. Connolly must deliver these types of displays on a consistent basis to get back to previous heights such as when a brace on his full Premier League debut against Tottenham confirmed the youngster’s status as one of the most promising players in English football back in October 2019.

The signs, though, are encouraging, as Connolly appeared to be enjoying himself out there — something that could not always be said during a turbulent last 12 months that saw his first-team opportunities at Brighton dwindle in addition to the out-of-sorts player undertaking an unsuccessful loan spell at Middlesbrough.

It was his first appearance in an Ireland U21 jersey in just over three years, having previously helped a Stephen Kenny-managed side earn a memorable 3-1 victory in Sweden.

“Really good,” he told reporters when asked how it felt to return to the U21s fold. “Obviously a little bit disappointed with the result because I thought we dominated the game in both the first and second half, probably for 80 minutes, and the little 10-minute spell [where Israel were on top], which I thought we saw out well.

“But obviously we got hit with a little sucker punch before half-time. Credit to the boys, we didn’t let it derail us in the second half and we came back out, there was a spell at the start of the second half where they had a bit of the ball

“But the quality of the boys showed and obviously, we got back in it with the goal and we are going to take a lot of confidence from that going to the second leg.”

He continued: “Hopefully, people can see that I am hungrier than ever to play for Ireland. When the chance came to play in a game like that I couldn’t say no. I’m hungrier than ever to put on a green shirt at any level now, just hungry to kick on again and rebuild my career and probably show some people that I am not done yet.”

And naturally, he was frustrated not to get on the scoresheet, with that aforementioned 15th-minute effort a source of particular annoyance.

“I’ve said to my parents there, I don’t know how that didn’t go in, the way it spun off the post and came out, But obviously, it sums up the last year and half of my career really. I just need a bit of luck maybe at times, but besides that, I thought we created chances. If we play like that on Tuesday then I have no doubts we can go through.” 

Asked about his omission from Ireland senior squads in recent months, Connolly replied: “I had injuries, so you can’t play if you are injured. I wouldn’t say I was left out, I’d say I was injured, so that’s all I’ll say on that.”

And he did not hesitate when the offer to play with the 21s came.

“It was only about two weeks ago I spoke to Jim [Crawford]. I spoke with [the FAI's senior football consultant and former head of Brighton's academy] John Morling first. He said: ‘Would I be interested?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ So I spoke to Jim and he talked me through how it was going to pan out. He just said: ‘Come in, work hard and we’ll go from there.’ So that’s what I’ve done. I’ve played tonight and I’m just looking to build on that performance.”

Connolly talked in depth about his past troubles in an interview with Irish Football Fan TV in the summer and reiterated the message that he is in a better place now, backing up those sentiments with his lively performance at Tallaght.

“I said in that interview before, I’ve got love back for the game again. At times it can happen where you kind of fall out of love with the game, certain things happen and you’re not really getting goals. People can probably tell by my performances and certain things that I wasn’t giving 100% to my job, my profession. And if you don’t do that, you’re not going to succeed. So I’m just trying to rebuild and get back to where I was before. 

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“All the boys are top lads, it was easy when I walked in. I knew them all from previously, it was a good group of lads. You can see from the way we performed together, off the pitch we’re just as tight as on the pitch. It’s a top group, it will be disappointing
if we don’t see the job through.”

The player has received criticism for performances in recent months but insists he is well capable of ignoring the noise.

“I don’t really listen to it. It makes no difference to my life. The things that matter are the managers I play under, and I’ll let youse write what you want about me because I don’t
really have any interest in it, to be honest with you.”

Signing for Venezia on loan, Connolly adds, has been been a key reason for recent progress.

“The whole experience is good, it is different, if I wanted to stay with the same culture I would have just gone to the Championship maybe and stayed in England. But I wanted to try something different and it rejuvenated me, which is what I wanted in my career.”

U21s boss Jim Crawford was among those praising Connolly’s performance last night.

“Aaron was outstanding, we have been questioning about bringing him in but I had no hesitation. Once we had those initial conversations and he wanted to come in, he proved to everyone that he adores putting on the green jersey.

“He went so close to scoring in the first half and again at the end of the game, he was a constant thorn in their side, I don’t know how long he will be with the U21s but if he keeps playing like that he will be back in the senior team.”

However, the Irish manager added a note of caution: “He knows well himself it can’t be just one performance, he has to carry that on, to reach the top. It’s not having spells of being a top pro, you have to live being a top pro day in, day out.

“He knows that, he is aware of that, to admit it as he did in an interview, when I saw the interview it got me thinking that we need to make contact and he didn’t let anyone down.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy  / reports from Tallaght Stadium

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