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'He said: I want to be here, I want to prove that I want to play for Ireland again'

Jim Crawford is delighted to have Aaron Connolly on board for the crucial upcoming clashes with Israel.

Aaron Connolly has eight Ireland senior caps but is with the 21s squad this week.
Aaron Connolly has eight Ireland senior caps but is with the 21s squad this week.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IRELAND U21S boss Jim Crawford has praised Aaron Connolly’s attitude since coming into the camp as he aims to help them secure a historic playoff victory over Israel.

The 22-year-old has eight senior caps, but he was left out of recent senior squads owing to injury issues and indifferent form at club level, admitting last July that his football career has not “kicked on”.

After seeing his game time at Brighton limited and undertaking an unsuccessful loan spell at Middlesbrough last season, the striker is now hoping to reignite his career on loan with Venezia in Serie B.

“He’s been excellent,” Crawford said during a press conference today. “His quality in training has been brilliant. He’s sharp. He’ll be a goal threat, that’s for sure and around the place, he’s been how I expected.

“The conversations we had beforehand, he’s been very mature. What I expected from him in terms of leadership, he’s been good with the younger lads, he’s worked hard in training.

“And look, I’d imagine it’ll be difficult for him. We were training around the same time as the senior team and for him to get off our bus when the senior team were training, I wonder himself, is he thinking: ‘Should I be over there with the senior team?’ And I had a conversation with him and he said: ‘I want to be here, I want to prove that I want to play for Ireland again and give everything I have and help the 21s in the playoff.’

“So his focus now is certainly with the 21s and I’m delighted to have him, particularly with the attitude and the ability he brings.

“Aaron has come in and he’s keen to make an impression. Certainly, he’s stamped his authority in training. He missed a game with his club because of a tight groin so we had to monitor that but he’s been training really well. He’s looking forward to the games.”

And asked whether there were any talks of other senior players who are still eligible to play with the 21s dropping down, Crawford replied: “No, no. It was really Aaron who would have been the only one. We reached out to him to see would he be interested because you can’t dismiss his talent when you’ve got such a small playing pool, to begin with, compared to other countries.

“He’s playing football, he’s playing at a decent level. He’s showed us through his move to a club in Italy that he’s getting away from all the noise that was distracting him in the UK. That was a good step. I was happy enough we were going to get an Aaron Connolly who was focused and ready to deliver.”

While the addition of Connolly is a bonus, Crawford will be without several other players for the upcoming two-legged playoff, some of whom would have a good chance of starting.

Colm Whelan, Joel Bagan and Gavin Kilkenny were all not included in the original squad because of injury, while Barnsley’s Luca Connell, Como 1907’s Liam Kerrigan, Sheffield Wednesday’s Mark McGuinness and Cork City’s David Harrington have all since been ruled out.

Burnley’s Dara Costelloe,  NAC Breda’s Anselmo Garcia MacNulty and St. Patrick’s Athletic duo Adam O’Reilly and David Odumosu replace the absent quartet.

Reserve goalkeeper Luke McNicholas is also a doubt for the upcoming games.

And Kerrigan, in particular, is set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines after it was confirmed earlier this week that he has suffered an ACL injury.

“Liam Kerrigan rang me to say that he injured his knee and he didn’t know the extent of the damage until he received his MRI results. He got back on the phone with me and he was devastated [after the results came through]. He’ll be out for a length of time. It’s a blow to the squad because he’s come in the last window and he did extremely well.

“He’s gone to Como and he’s just gone into their team. He’s playing very well there, so it’s disappointing for everybody. For myself and the squad we wish him a speedy recovery, I think he’s going into surgery now next week. So there’s a long road to rehab in front of him.

“Will Smallbone has been in touch with a similar injury. I don’t think his [injury] is as severe as Will’s was. But I think that just shows the strength of the group where you’ve got people reaching out to each other in circumstances like that. 

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“Mark McGuinness picked up a knock in a game, he missed the last game. He’s not back training yet with Sheffield Wednesday. By all accounts, he’ll be out for four weeks. But we’re still not ruling him out. If he gets back between now and the weekend, we’ve got to review the situation. But at this point in time, I think it’s a slim chance of recovery.

“David Harrington has obviously got a shoulder injury at present. We just couldn’t risk him. We need everybody 100% physically and mentally coming into this camp and when the game starts we need everybody right. And no issues with regard to injuries, that’s what we need in order to get through the playoffs.

“Luca Connell misses out with a tight hamstring. They are big losses to the group. They’ve been good characters to have around the place too.”

Crawford, however, is confident that their replacements can make the step up.

“They’ve been very good. Dara Costelloe has come in, he’s been really good. He’s been playing with Burnley’s [reserves] and I’ve seen him playing in the Championship this year. He’s been excellent and the silver lining in this story is we get a look at him now and he’s still eligible for the next campaign, which is great.

“I think you all know about Adam. His output in relation to his work ethic that he clocks up in terms of distance covered, and high-speed running, it’s a real strength of his. To have him around the place, it’s a little bit different to what we already have. If we need him, he’s somebody that won’t let down his country and he’s been here with the other underage teams — he knows the drill with regards to international football.

“Anselmo, he’s been excellent this year, he’s played the right side of the defence, he’s been really really good. You see teams that are trying to box him in on his right foot because he’s a left-footed right centre-half with his club, but he’s clever enough in possession to get out of those tight situations. Another one who we’ve got for the next campaign as well, so delighted to have him and I know they’re delighted to be involved with the 21s team in such a big game.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy  / reports from Abbotstown

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