Connolly doubt as McGrath is recalled

 

DAVID CONNOLLY, named yesterday in the Republic of Ireland squad of 20 for the meeting with Wales at Cardiff on February 11th, could miss the game because of injury.

Even as Mick McCarthy was preparing to announce his squad, Connolly was on his way for treatment after damaging his leg in Watford's scoreless draw with Luton Town on Monday evening.

The full extent of the damage has not yet been ascertained but given the player's long history of injury problems in recent seasons, his prospects of recovering in time to make the Cardiff deadline are far from bright.

With Keith O'Neill, the other acknowledged runner in attack, already out because of torn ankle ligaments, Connolly's misfortune is likely to mean a first chance for the Wimbledon striker, Jon Goodman.

Goodman, the latest English-born player to declare for Ireland under the ancestry rule, is himself only recently recovered from injury and at this point in his rehabilitation, is still some way from match fitness.

Yet, the options are so limited that McCarthy, who shrank initially from the gamble of putting him in the team, may now be forced to make a u-turn and advance the timing of his debut.

The squad announced yesterday will surprise nobody in either its personnel, given the constraints in which the manager had to work, or the heavy emphasis placed on maturity.

The mid-summer optimism which brought so many new players to senior international status, has now been replaced by the pragmatism of winter and the evidence is there for all to see.

Back for the first time since McCarthy came to power are two pillars of the Jack Charlton regime, Gary Kelly and John Sheridan. Even more significantly, perhaps, Paul McGrath returns for the first time since the 2-0 defeat by the Czech Republic at Prague in April.

After opting out of the American tour, McGrath was left out of the three World Cup games which followed, but, even then, the suspicion was that once the rains came and Ireland needed a stabilising influence for the difficult games in Macedonia and Romania in April, he would be back.

So it's proved and McCarthy had no elaborate explanations to make when he delivered the news which, one suspects, will meet with the approval of the great majority of the team's supporters.

"If has always been my intention to look at Paul for these two games because of the experience he has to offer the team," he said. "Originally, his absence was down to lack of match practice, but I've been to watch him on three occasions in recent months and he looks as assured as ever."

McCarthy felt no need to canvas the advice of Derby's manager, Jim Smith, but had he done so, he would have been reassured still further. "The man's a marvel," says Smith. "He doesn't train but even at 37, he's still the classiest defender in Britain. Without him, we'd be in the mire."

Gary Kelly is some 15 years younger than the teammate he unashamedly admires but his sense of challenge is no less urgent. With the new game plan calling for three central defenders, he must convince the manager that he is a better bet than either Jeff Kenna or his great friend, Jason McAteer, for the wing back position on the right flank.

Also back in favour is Terry Phelan who has yet to play in the current World Cup competition and his selection, together with those of McGrath and Kelly, means there is no place in defence for Curtis Fleming of Middlesbrough.

Sheridan, who gained the last of his 34 caps in the European Championship play-off against Holland at Anfield in December 1995, will attribute his recall in part to the move which took him from Sheffield Wednesday to Bolton Wanderers.

Given the opportunity of regular first team football at Burnden Park after languishing in the shadows in the closing phase of his stay in Sheffield, the midfielder has grabbed it to remind the Irish manager that he is still the most accurate passer in his squad.

Roy Keane, whose availability for international football is a point of recurring debate, figures among the six midfielders selected and up front, the French club, Nancy have indicated that Tony Cascarino will be released for the game.

For those with an eye on emerging talent, the choice of Mark Kennedy, now gradually re-emerging from a traumatic period with Liverpool, will be a source of satisfaction.

"The squad is good enough to do the business for us, but, while I want to win the game, the more important thing by far is how we go about it," said McCarthy. "It's a chance to work on things that need to be done before the games in April and it's a very important fixture for us."