Republic of Ireland Under-21 manager Jim Crawford admits that Friday’s friendly against Wales (1pm, live on fawales YouTube) is an opportunity for Luca Connell to regain the career path he’s lost ground on since joining Celtic.
While their 2022 European Championship qualifying group gets underway for some nations next week, Ireland will have to wait until September’s double-header away to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Luxembourg for their competitive action to start.
This week’s gathering for the warm-up game in Wrexham, coupled with a tournament in Spain during June, will act as preparation for what will be Crawford’s first full campaign at the helm.
Connell, 19, was only drafted in as a replacement squad member on Monday, hardly a status envisaged just under two years ago when he was fast-tracked into the senior panel.
Mick McCarthy rewarded the left-sided player with a call-up following his breakthrough season in the English Championship.
Connell’s Bolton Wanderers side were slipping towards relegation but the dozen appearances the then 17-year-old accumulated made him a target for clubs once he became a free agent that summer.
His choice of Celtic on a three-year contract seemed curious and he remained out of the first-team picture at Parkhead, eventually moving to Scottish League Two side Queen’s Park on loan last week for some game-time.
“It is a fair thing to say,” Crawford responded when asked if Connell’s career trajectory has struck a bump.
“I know Luca from my time as under-18 manager and he’s a player with really good potential. He was on the crest of wave playing first-team games at Bolton, rightly attracting a lot of interest.
“He went to Celtic and had a couple of injuries. They weren’t playing too many games at under-21 level, instead arranging in-house matches.
“At his age, it’s vital to be playing competitive games, whether that’s under-23s with your club in the UK or first-team games out on loan.
“It’s huge because you need to be challenged. He made his debut for Queen’s Park on Saturday and this international on Friday will get another few minutes under his belt to help for the rest of the season. I think we’ve a lot more to see from Luca.”
Connell was one of three late call-ups, along with Norwich City goalkeeper Sam Blair and Stoke City’s Ethon Varian.
Mipo Odubeko of West Ham United, who has played in two FA Cup ties this season, is once again unavailable.
“I can only comment on what I know,” added Crawford about the striker named in the initial squad only last Friday.
“I’ve been approached by a third party in West Ham to say that Mipo has been involved with their under-23s, then the first team and the FA Youth Cup game on Monday. Fatigue is a huge part of it.
“If the player isn’t ready, we’ll accept that but he’s certainly in our plans for the June window.”
Rotherham United forward JJ Kayode is with the squad in Wales but has been ruled out by a foot injury sustained while playing for his on-loan club Carlisle United.
Republic of Ireland Under-21 squad
Goalkeepers: Brian Maher (Bray Wanderers), Sam Blair (Norwich)
Defenders: Shane Flynn (Leicester City), Andy Lyons (Bohemians), Mark McGuinness (Ipswich Town on loan from Arsenal), Oisin McEntee (Newcastle United), Andrew Omobamidele (Norwich City), Lee O'Connor (Tranmere Rovers on loan from Celtic), Mason O'Malley (Scunthorpe United), Lewis Richards (Wolves).
Midfielders: Luca Connell (Queen's Park on loan from Celtic) Conor Grant (Rochdale), Dawson Devoy (Bohemians), Alex Gilbert (Brentford), Conor Noss (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Louie Watson (Derby County).
Forwards: Jonathan Afolabi (Dundee on loan from Celtic), Will Ferry (Southampton), Gavin Kilkenny (Bournemouth), Joshua 'JJ' Kayode (Carlisle United on loan from Rotherham United) Ethon Varian (Stoke City), Tyreik Wright (Walsall on loan from Aston Villa).