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Dublin: 7 °C Friday 22 November, 2019

Irish teenage starlet will prioritise regular football over 'big' club allure

Luca Connell is expected to move on from Bolton in the coming weeks, amid a flurry of interest in the youngster.

Ireland's Luca Connell.
Ireland's Luca Connell.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IT’S BEEN AN eventful 12 months for Luca Connell.

This time last year, only those with an intricate knowledge of underage football will have known about the youngster.

Yet last January, the young midfielder made his senior debut for Bolton. He came on as an 89th minute sub in their 5-2 FA Cup win over Walsall and later that month, enjoyed an eye-catching full debut in the same competition, despite his side losing 2-1 to Bristol City.

Subsequently, Connell went on to make 10 Championship appearances — an impressive feat for a teenager. Despite his side’s perilous position — they ultimately finished 23rd and were relegated — manager Phil Parkinson still did not shy away from giving the youngster game time.

And the 18-year-old’s performances clearly impressed Mick McCarthy, with Connell a surprise inclusion in the senior squad for the recent qualifiers with Denmark and Gibraltar, though he ultimately had to pull out through injury.

Prior to that setback, McCarthy did not rule out the prospect of Connell getting game time and the youngster was satisfied with the impression he made during his short spell with the team.

[Mick] didn’t tell me in words that I had a chance of featuring, but I’ve got an idea if you’re doing well and you’re getting good feedback, then you’re putting yourself in the mixer. You never know, you could get called up at any time. I was happy with [my time with the senior squad]. Hopefully, if I keep working, my chance will come again.”

One member of the coaching staff that will have been particularly impressed by Connell is Robbie Keane, after the youngster rose to a challenge set by the Irish legend.

“There was a goal about 30 yards away,” he recalls. “[Robbie] said ‘I’m going to hit the bar and put it in this goal, which is facing that goal,’ and he done it. He said to a few of the lads: ‘Go on, have a go.’ I just thought: ‘Go on then,’ so I had a go and done it first time, luckily. He was just like: ‘Pffft, well done.’”

And while Connell did not feel out of place alongside his senior colleagues in terms of ability, he admits to being stretched to the max physically during an intense few days in Faro, Portugal.

“I felt, being honest, quality wise, yeah not too bad, I didn’t feel far off. But fitness wise, I noticed the difference. But we all had our time off and I had a big longer off. I could feel in the first few days, I could feel it in the double sessions, but at the end of the week, I was up to scratch with them and I enjoyed it a lot.”

Luca Connell with Seamus Coleman, Callum O'Dowda, Shane Duffy and Ronan Curtis Luca Connell with Seamus Coleman, Callum O'Dowda, Shane Duffy and Ronan Curtis back in May. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Connell has won admirers at club level too. Tottenham, Wolves, Everton, Celtic and Norwich have been among the teams linked with the talented midfielder. 

With Bolton in administration, it is widely expected that the Liverpool-born player will move on this summer. For now though, he is focused on his Ireland commitments, after being named in Tom Mohan’s 30-man training squad ahead of the U19 Euros. 

The competition takes place at the end of July in Armenia. Ireland are one of eight sides competing, with group games against Norway (15 July), France (18 July), and Czech Republic (21 July) to look forward to.

Connell is expected to be in the travelling party and suggests his future will not be resolved until after the tournament.

“I’m just waiting,” he says. “Hopefully my agent’s on it when I’m back. When I get back, I’ll get something sorted.”

And is it fair to say the Celtic links are particularly strong?

“As you read in the media, they all sound ‘strong’. One day, one’s leading it [and the next] the other one’s leading it. 

“Anywhere would appeal if it was a good move and it was right for me and I enjoyed it.

“It has been busy [this summer]. There have been quite a few teams involved, but teams come and go by the day. You’ve just got to see which ones stick by you and take your chance on one and hope that’s the right one for you — I’m sure it will be.

“Obviously, everyone knows about Celtic. It’s a massive club. It’d be an honour to represent them if that’s what the final decision was. I’m keeping my options open and hopefully I can get [a new club] in the next few weeks.” 

Yet more so than the size of the club, Connell says a key criteria is whether these suitors can offer the youngster regular first-team football.

I just want to make sure that I’m playing wherever I go. It shows in the media that all these big teams are interested, but I think at this age it’s important to be playing and then the money hopefully will come with that.”

And given all the highs Connell has experienced over the past year, does it feel somewhat strange for him to be back playing U19s football for Ireland in comparatively low-key surroundings?

“No, because this is where you come from, this is where I was before that. I was treating the first team as ‘if I work hard and do well, I could stay there,’ but I always knew that there was a chance of me coming back and working with the 19s. We’re looking ahead to the Euros and I can’t wait for it.”

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Paul Fennessy

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