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'He was at the crest of a wave... Then he went to Celtic and had a couple of injuries'

Jim Crawford has backed Luca Connell to come good after a frustrating few months.

Luca Connell (file pic).
Luca Connell (file pic).
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IRELAND U21S BOSS Jim Crawford has backed young midfielder Luca Connell to come good after enduring a frustrating time lately.

The 19-year-old midfielder, a late call-up to the Irish squad that will play Wales in a friendly later today, burst onto the scene at club level during the 2018-19 campaign.

He was just 17 years old when he made his first-team debut in the FA Cup for Bolton, and the youngster went on to make 10 appearances in the Championship that season.

Since then, however, Connell’s progress has slowed. In June 2019, he joined Celtic. Almost two years on, he has yet to make a single senior appearance for the Bhoys, with injury problems a contributing factor.

Earlier this month, he signed on loan at Queen’s Park, who are currently top of the Scottish League Two table.

Having been linked with a number of Premier League clubs, including Tottenham, when he was impressing at Bolton, Connell’s career has not quite hit the heights he would have hoped to reach since then.

On the plus side, last Saturday, Connell played the first 74 minutes of his new team’s 3-0 win over Stranraer — his first league outing at senior level in almost two years.

Crawford believes the loan move will “do him the world of good”.

The Ireland U21s boss said: “Luca is a player with really good potential, so the more first-team games he plays, he’ll get better, and he understands that. I think we’ve a lot more to see from Luca.

“He was at the crest of a wave playing first-team games at Bolton. He was attracting a lot of interest and rightly so, he was playing well.

“I was delighted for him, because when he came into the [Ireland] 18s a number of years ago, he was playing well and enjoying his football.

“Then he went to Celtic and had a couple of injuries. Celtic then weren’t playing too many games at U21 level. He’s been playing in-house games and this age is such a vital age that you just need to be playing competitive games, whether that’s U23s with your club in the UK or first-team games out on loan, you need to be challenged.

“He’s at that now, he’s gone on loan, made his debut [for Queen's Park] on Saturday, done well, tired towards the end of the game, which is to be expected. So [later today when Ireland play Wales] will be another few minutes under his belt to help him on his way for the rest of the season.”

Crawford was also asked whether Connell’s stalled progress of late had impacted the player mentally.

“Players will always experience peaks and troughs through their careers but, over such a short period of time, he’s a first-team player at Bolton, he’s getting invited into the senior Ireland camp.

“Then, all of a sudden, he goes to a huge club, Celtic, and for whatever reason their 21s football is stopped. All of a sudden they’re not playing games and that can affect a player, certainly with regards to their development, but also mentally too, because that’s all the boy knows, preparing to play a game at the weekend.

“But I’ll tell you what going on loan has done, it’s given him a new lease of life. He’s buzzing from playing at the weekend. 

“I was laughing with him yesterday saying that he’s got a real chance of silverware at the club. It’s important he’s playing games, it really is. Hopefully he’ll play a lot of minutes between now and the end of the season and then he’ll go back to Celtic and he’s got to re-evaluate the situation.”

The Irish boss also insisted there was no doubting Connell’s prowess, regardless of the level he is playing at.

“I know his ability, he’s been with me with the 18s and he’s a real talent, he loves getting on the ball, he’s very comfortable on it. He can start your passage of play, no problem with his range of passing. He’s always working on angles to get on the ball, to get you playing. I know what he brings to the table in that respect.

“It’s the other aspect, if we don’t have it, getting after other people, and that comes with playing games. We’ll see how long he can play against Wales tomorrow but, once he’s playing competitive games, where there are points at stake, I’ll be happy — that, coupled with the fact I know what he can give to the group, was one of the reasons he’s been brought in.”

Crawford also spoke of the other late call-ups to his squad, Norwich City goalkeeper Sam Blair, who was born in England but qualifies to represent Ireland through his grandparents, and Stoke forward Ethon Varian.

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“Norwich were very good with regards sending us games of Sam. He’s a very confident goalkeeper.

“With regard to goalkeepers in our own country, we’re in a transitional period.

“We’ve a lot of things going on at the minute to help develop goalkeeping coaches with our coach education, because coach development is player development — that’s the way we look at it.

“We’re working hard unearthing goalkeepers and Sam falls into that. He’s come in, he’s trained well and he’s a confident boy and he’s been great around the place.

“It’s disappointing that with [Schalke goalkeeper] Daniel Rose, the whole lockdown situation in Germany, I was talking to him about it and he’s very disappointed. He’s another very exciting prospect too.

“And then Ethon Varian has been on the periphery for a long time with me. With the 18s, he was always on the standby list, but never made a breakthrough. He’s been performing well with Stoke City’s U23s, he’s captaining the team. John O’Shea saw him play against Reading’s U23s a number of weeks ago and was highly impressed. He’s played up top, he’s played wide on the right, and one thing he’ll give you is energy, desire and passion, and he can score goals too. He’s been good this week and is somebody who I look forward to seeing how he develops over the course of the campaign.”

Crawford also had words of encouragement for another player who could become an important squad member over the next few months — Bohemians’ Dawson Devoy.

“You know what Dawson brings to the table with regards his ability. He surprised me last year with Bohemians in the first team. He even kept Dan Mandroiu on the bench for a while with his performances. I think he’s a phenomenal player. At this stage, I think everyone else in the group is well ahead of him fitness-wise from playing games, most of them anyway, apart from Luca.

“He’s still finding his feet, finding his tempo. Certainly over the next couple of weeks where he’ll be playing competitive minutes with Bohemians, he’ll be fine, and certainly in with a shout for the June window [when Ireland will play a tournament in Spain]. I’ve so much admiration for the player, he’s the type of player we’re looking for with the U21s, how creative he is, he sees passes, I think he’s a fantastic talent and somebody I’m really looking forward to working with. I know at Bohemians, they think equally highly about him.

“He’s certainly a player with high potential. Only for the homesickness, he’d be still over [in Britain], but that’s part and parcel of growing up. I know he does harbour ambitions of coming back over again and all he has to do is keep training hard. He’s working with good coaches and this can certainly be a springboard for him to go back over to the UK, playing international football.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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