Aaron Connolly is standing in the tunnel behind the back of the main stand in Tallaght talking to his parents. He is still in his gear, boots and all. His new Ireland team-mates are coming and going, most showered and togged, but for the young supporters waiting outside the gate Connolly is the player they are waiting to nab.
For a man who had not played under-21 football for Ireland since 2019, much of the pre-match build-up was about his inclusion in the squad. And all of the talk afterwards was about him, too.
Having not played with Stephen Kenny’s senior side in 12 months, the call-up to the under-21s could have been viewed in a number of ways by the Brighton & Hove Albion player, who is currently on loan in Italy with Venezia. But his man-of-the-match display in the 1-1 contest against Israel in the first leg of Ireland’s Euro under-21 playoff indicated a player very much willing to do the heavy lifting and heave the coals upon on his own inner fire.
“Hopefully people can see that I am hungrier than ever to play for Ireland. When the chance came to play in a game like that I couldn’t say no,” said Connolly.
“I’m hungrier than ever to put on a green shirt at any level now, just hungry to kick on again and rebuild my career and probably show some people that I am not done yet.”
And the Galway man says he did not need time to even consider his answer when the under-21 management called. “I couldn’t say yes quick enough.”
Jim Crawford got the idea to invite Connolly in after an interview by the player in which he talked about his determination to fulfil his potential.
“I said in that interview that I’ve got the love for the game back again. At times that can happen but you kind of fall out love for the game and certain things happen and you’re not really giving your all for it.
“People could probably tell by my performances and certain things that I wasn’t giving 100 per cent to my job, my profession, and if you don’t do that you’re not going to succeed. I’m just trying to rebuild all that now and just get back to where I was before.”
And Connolly says it has been a comfortable adjustment to slide back in with the Irish under-21 squad.
“All the boys are top lads. I knew some from previous underage age groups and yeah for me it was easy. I think you can see by the way that we performed and played together that off the pitch we’re just as tight as on the pitch.”
Connolly thought he had announced his return with a goal in the first half against Israel but somehow the ball, deflected off the post by the goalkeeper, stayed out.
“I’ve said to my parents there, I don’t know how that didn’t go in, the way it spun off the post and come out, but obviously it sums up the last year and half of my career really.
“I just need a bit of luck maybe at times, but besides that I thought we created chances. If we play like that on Tuesday then I have no doubts we can go through.”
The Irish bench felt Connolly should also have had a penalty in the 80th minute when fouled, but the referee instead gave a free on the edge of the box – while at the same time sending off Israel’s Stav Lemkin.
“To be honest I didn’t actually know where I was on the pitch, I couldn’t really tell. Everyone else that I spoke to seem kind of convinced that it was a penalty. So, I’ll have to look at it back,” says Connolly.
Crawford believes Connolly’s performance justifies the decision to bring him in with the under-21s again.
“Aaron was outstanding, we have been questioning about bringing him in but I had no hesitation, once we had those initial conversations and he wanted to come in, he proved to everyone that he adores putting on the green jersey,” said Crawford.
“He went so close to scoring in the first half and again at the end of the game, he was a constant thorn in their side, I don’t know how long he will be with the under-21s but if he keeps playing like that he will be back in the senior team.”
Crawford feels Ireland can take huge confidence from the performance in the first leg to next Tuesday’s decisive match in Tel Aviv.
“I thought we were the better team, we created the better chances, it was disappointing to concede when we did, we were on top of the game and it’s always hard to take, conceding from a set piece as we work very hard on them.
“We have nothing to fear going into the second leg in Israel, I said to the boys the most important part now is to rest and recover, polish up on a couple of things heading into the second leg, but it’s there for us, they have got a taste of it and we have nothing to be afraid of.”