New boss, new player, new row

INTERNATIONAL SOCCER: When  Don Givens sighed, announced he would run through this once and then move on to talk about the players…

INTERNATIONAL SOCCER: When  Don Givens sighed, announced he would run through this once and then move on to talk about the players who actually did want to play for their country it seemed briefly as though we had all embarked on some nostalgic re-enactment of his predecessor's last 50 or so press conferences.

In Athens last night, however, we were a full - and perhaps record breaking - 15 minutes or so into the player interviews before the name of Roy Keane was uttered by anybody. We have, after all, a new man at the helm of the Irish team and with him, it seems, we get a new row.

David Connolly's announcement on Saturday night that he wouldn't be joining up with the Irish squad sparked the latest dispute to overshadow the team's preparations for tomorrow's international game. His insistence yesterday that he was harshly portrayed by Givens's account of the pair's telephone conversation at the weekend ensured that the story would be with us for another while yet.

By the time Givens had checked into the team hotel with the bulk of his squad, Gary Breen was arriving later last night by scheduled flight from London, trained and returned to chat with the press he was clearly familiar with the striker's version of events.

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In it, the 25 year-old had aggravated a heel injury playing for his club, decided with Wimbledon's physio that he should not travel in the event that Givens got in touch and then, he admits, been short with the caretaker on the phone. Critically, though, the player claimed that when finally asked if he was coming or not he and answered "no" and heard the phone go dead before adding the words "I'm injured".

Givens' recollection of their exchange went rather differently and as he dryly played it out for the 20 or so journalists in the room you quickly sensed how much now depends for Connolly on the former Irish international having very little influence on whoever succeeds him in the manager's role.

"I said 'Hello David, it's Don Givens. Are you fit?' And he said, 'To what do I owe the honour of this phone call'?" It should be remembered that Givens, as under-21 manager, has been a good deal less indulgent with his players than McCarthy ever was - just ask Brian McGovern, Richie Foran or the players from the first trip to Toulon whose careers at that level were ended after some furniture in a team hotel room was damaged.

To judge by Givens's account, however, Connolly was not exactly intimidated. Givens said he wanted him to join the squad on Sunday and the striker asked why he had not been included to start with. After Givens told him "I make those choices" the former Watford and Feyenoord striker is said to have claimed, "I should be the number one striker for Ireland, not number five".

Ireland's stand in manager then says he asked, "Look David, do you want to come tomorrow?" and when told "no", said, "right David, good luck".

Though Givens added that he was keen not to see the altercation rumble on it remains to be seen whether Connolly, who like Keane is advised by Michael Kennedy, will leave the matter there.

The prospect of another Ireland match being played against the backdrop of dispute between the team's manager and one of his players is surely not, for a start, something that any of his team-mates would want.

But then if the pair decided to settle their differences with a bout of mud wrestling it would be unlikely to distract Glen Crowe. The 24- year-old learned after last night's training session that he will start tomorrow's game along side Gary Doherty in the Irish attack.

Crowe had made a couple of McCarthy's squads before and travelled to Estonia at the start of last summer. It never seemed likely, though, that he would be suddenly thrown in for a competitive game and when the then Ireland manager was struggling with his options up front for that game he ended up choosing to play a less than fully fit Niall Quinn alongside Damien Duff who was playing there for the first time at this level.

A friendly, on the other hand, always held out the possibility of a cap at some stage and the spate of withdrawals over the weekend meant the Bohemians player's name was steadily edging its way into Givens's plans. The call up was, he says, a wonderful surprise and the only downside to everything having moved so quickly since then is that as of last night at least, he does not expect any of his immediate family to be there for his debut.

"I'm very excited about the thought of starting a full international," said the Dubliner who was previously capped at under-21 level. "It's a little bit hard to take in but I suppose I thought that if I kept working hard and doing well I might get a chance at some stage."

Crowe's hard work has made him the top scorer in the Eircom League for the past two seasons and he heads the table for the current campaign too. Still, it almost certainly took Connolly's absence to provide him with the chance of becoming the first player based in Ireland to play for the country at senior level for 16 years.

He may have been insistent last night that the team, after its recent disappointments, could do with a win tomorrow evening, but there's little doubt who Givens would rather be sending out against the Greeks.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times