Stephen Kenny is confident that Aaron Connolly will be fit enough to feature in next Wednesday's opening game of the new World Cup qualification campaign in Belgrade although the manager admits that the striker may not in a position to lead the attack in a fixture that could end up having a huge impact on Ireland's prospects of making it to Qatar.
Kenny's first three international camps were beset by injury and coronavirus-related setbacks and even before he got as far as naming his squad of 29 on Thursday there was a fair bit to contend with as established starters like Darren Randolph, James McCarthy and John Egan all sustained injuries serious enough to rule them out of not just the Serbia game but also the fixtures against Luxembourg and Qatar.
Connolly looked to be out too after having been reported by his club to have fractured a rib and when it emerged he had been included in the squad along with fellow injury doubts Caoimhin Kelleher and James McClean it seemed as though it would be a view to bringing him in to weigh up whether he had a prospect of playing even some small part in the later games.
The manager, though, was upbeat from the outset in relation to the 21-year-old Brighton & Hove Albion forward whose club manager Graham Potter subsequently revealed that having returned to training, he is back in contention for Saturday's game against Newcastle.
“He had an issue with his ribs, it showed up as cracked ribs,” said Kenny. “That’s what they said it was and he seemed to be ruled out but everyone is different in their healing process with rib injuries. Some heal quicker than others and he seems to be making good progress with that. We are confident that we’ll have Aaron next week and he will be available.
As to whether the Galway man might start, or take on the main striking role, the manager seemed far less certain but, he said: "We'll have to see on that . . . he's not played loads of football recently, which isn't ideal. He's not had that many starts. I do think he's an important player for Ireland because he's got other attributes: electric pace and a good attacking instinct, he's a real natural forward. He can play in wide areas or central, so he gives us that as well."
Aside from a source of goals – and Connolly has so far looked first and foremost more like a source of scoring opportunities – Kenny’s other big concern is in the goalkeeping department with Randolph’s unbroken run of 38 competitive starts since he replaced the injured Shay Given against Germany back in October 2015 about to come to an end.
If Kelleher is fit then he will get his first international start in the game against Serbia but Kenny admits that the 22-year-old will have be assessed after the squad meets up in Manchester, a process which will start on Sunday afternoon but then take 24 hours or so to complete.
In the event that the stomach muscle injury that has sidelined Kelleher at Liverpool over the past couple of weeks proves to be too much of an issue then Mark Travers will be the preferred starter, the manager confirmed, despite his substitute status at Bournemouth where the need to have cover for Asmir Begovic forced his club to recall him from a loan spell at Swindon that was going quite well.
“We’re still unsure if he [Kelleher] will be fully fit to play. But he’s not that long out, it’s only been a couple of weeks and he’s a very fit lad. He’s had a very good season; five appearances for Liverpool, two in the Champions League. He’s done very well and I’m sure it wouldn’t take much to get him up to speed if he was okay but we’re not sure whether he’ll be okay, we’ll wait to see on that.
“When we’ve seen Mark playing, though, he’s been very consistent,” he continued. “He made his debut for Bournemouth against Tottenham and got man of the match – he was outstanding in that game. He’s had a good spell at Swindon. They’ve recalled him which is unfortunate because he was getting a lot of games.
“We’ll wait and see whether he plays against Southampton in the cup because he has tended to play in the cup competitions and they have a cup quarter-final on Saturday. It’ll be interesting to see but Mark has already played for Ireland having started one game and come on in one. He’s the next in basically.”
Gavin Bazunu is also in the squad for the first time while Kieran O’Hara has been included too.
Squad: Kelleher (Liverpool), Bazunu (Rochdale), Travers (Bournemouth), O'Hara (Burton Albion); Coleman (Everton), Doherty (Tottenham), Duffy (Celtic), Stevens (Sheffield United), K Long (Burnley), Clark (Newcastle United), O'Shea (West Brom), Manning (Swansea), Christie (Nottingham Forest), Hourihane (Swansea), Browne (Preston North End, Hendrick (Newcastle United), Molumby (Preston North End), Knight (Derby County), Cullen (Anderlecht), Brady (Burnley), McClean (Stoke City), Horgan (Wycombe Wanderers), Curtis (Portsmouth), O'Dowda (Bristol City), Robinson (West Brom), Connolly (Brighton), S Long (Bournemouth), Collins (Luton Town), Parrott (Ipswich Town).
Under-21 squad for friendly in Wales on March 26th: Brian Maher (Bray Wanderers), Dan Rose (Schalke 04); Shane Flynn (Leicester City), Andy Lyons (Bohemians), Mark McGuinness (Ipswich Town), Oisin McEntee (Newcastle United), Andrew Omobamidele (Norwich City), Lee O'Connor (Tranmere Rovers), Mason O'Malley (Scunthorpe United), Lewis Richards (Wolves), Conor Coventry (West Ham United), Conor Grant (Rochdale), Dawson Devoy (Bohemians), Alex Gilbert (Brentford), Conor Noss (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Louis Watson (Derby County), Jonathan Afolabi (Dundee), Will Ferry (Southampton), Gavin Kilkenny (Bournemouth), Joshua Kayode (Carlisle United) Ademipo Odubeko (West Ham), Tyreik Wright (Walsall).