A week ago Luca Connell's exit from the Republic of Ireland squad due to injury would not have been headline news; losing a player a great many of the country's more casual supporters are far from familiar with still does not seem such a big deal but Mick McCarthy made it clear yesterday that had the 18-year-old been able to stick around he might well have made his senior international debut against Gibraltar on Monday week.
Speaking at the national finals of the Spar-sponsored 5s at the Aviva Stadium, McCarthy said that he had been unexpectedly taken with the Bolton midfielder during last week’s training camp in Portugal. The original intention was that the Liverpool-born defensive midfielder would head home after that but such was the impact he made, McCarthy found himself having to sound the teenager out about whether he would be genuinely happy to come off the bench in a competitive game. Happily, he answered in the affirmative.
Duty of care
“I did, actually, yes,” said the manager. “I asked him: ‘If I put you on for three minutes, in one of the games, somewhere down the line, would you be pissed off with me or do you want to play for Ireland?’ And he said: ‘I want to play for Ireland, that’s what I want to do.’
“It’s a kind of duty of care as well,” he continued. “He has just turned 18 and it would be easy for me to put him on the bench at the moment, he is full of hype and all that but if he gets two minutes then that’s him done. But he actually told me that’s what he wants to do.”
It is surprisingly rapid progress for a player who only featured a dozen times in a struggling Bolton Wanderers team last season and who has earned Irish caps at three different age levels but not yet Under-21.
But, observed McCarthy, “I did say at one of the press conferences that it depends on whether he rips it up, and pretty much, he did, with his personality and his performances in training. He impressed everybody; he was a breath of fresh air around the place.”
Unfortunately for Connell, he picked up a thigh strain in one of the squad’s training sessions after arriving back in Dublin and so he returned home to England yesterday with the other players, the manager suggested, already talking in terms of “next time”.
On a day that Declan Rice was in the papers, playing down talk of a move to Manchester United on the basis of how happy he is at West Ham, the risks involved are all too apparent to McCarthy and while he seems content, for the moment at least, that this story will have a happier ending, he acknowledged that players in his position are bound to be treated with some scepticism.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “It’s funny, because of the set of circumstances that have happened, we question everyone now.”
McCarthy is also set to be without some rather more experienced squad members for Thursday's training game against Stephen Kenny's Under-21 side. Alan Browne was another to suffer a setback last week and Jeff Hendrick is at his brother's wedding while Shane Duffy and Callum O'Dowda are struggling to completely shake off minor injuries.
There is a more pressing issue of the goalkeeping front with the manager possessing no experienced cover for Darren Randolph who nevertheless needs something resembling game time after 3½ weeks without any.
“Darren has to train, I can’t just wrap him up in cotton wool until we play,” said McCarthy, “he wouldn’t be ready to play [against Denmark in Copenhagen next Friday].”
McCarthy did have Bournemouth's Mark Travers in the squad but he suffered a freak injury to his thumb last week and neither of the two goalkeepers now providing back-up to Randolph in the squad, Sean McDermott and James Talbot, have experience of playing at the highest level.
A recall for Rob Elliot had been given serious consideration, said the manager, but rejected on the basis that the 33-year-old did not kick the ball competitively this season while Talbot, for one, has been the subject of very positive feedback.
“We explored all avenues and I could have brought him [Elliot] in for his experience but he’s not played a game, I’d sooner have someone who has played. It’s a concern but nothing I can do about it.”
The long lay-off for so many of his players is clearly a concern for McCarthy who nevertheless seemed unsure of the potential downside when asked if Christian Eriksen having to play in a Champions League final six days before the game against Ireland might be a good thing.
“Not unless somebody clumps him,” observed the manager drily.