Deep into this summer like no other for in-demand Luca Connell, the green of Ireland rather than Celtic constitutes his main attraction. The 18-year-old Liverpudlian was the baby of Mick McCarthy’s squad at the May training camp in Portugal, propelled into the senior ranks following a breakthrough season in the Championship for Bolton Wanderers.
A very real prospect of his elevation being crowned with a full cap during the double-header against Denmark and Gibraltar was thwarted by an untimely thigh injury. Any game-time on the pitch in the Euro 2020 qualifiers would have finally mothballed fears of him emulating Jack Grealish and Declan Rice by defecting to his homeland.
The player himself has dismissed that notion, supported by assertions of McCarthy’s assistant Robbie Keane, and the fact he’s intent on spending the best part of the next month in camp with Ireland U19s evidences his allegiance.
Speculation surrounding Connell has instead switched to his club situation. A dozen appearances for a Bolton outfit dogged by financial problems meant his contract situation got closely monitored by suitors. Now he’s a free agent, the teen is taking control of his own destiny.
Celtic have leapfrogged a number of English Premier League in the queue for his services but they’ll have to wait until his duties for Ireland are completed before working with him up close. Connell will be on the plane with the U19s trekking to Armenia on July 9, the same day Celtic face FK Sarajevo in the first leg of their opening Champions League tie.
“Everyone knows Celtic are a massive club,” said the midfielder, who is also comfortable operating at left-back.
“I’m ready to go to the Euros in the next few weeks and I’m pretty certain that I’ll be available. It’s a massive tournament and a good achievement personally if I do get picked.”
As the youngster surveys his various options, the main selection criteria centres on his activity levels. A taste of first-team action, albeit in a struggling team last term, has diminished his patience levels.
Many a player, even Virgil van Dijk, used the Scottish league as a springboard and it seems windows, rather than wealth, forms his motivation.
“I just want to make sure I’m playing, wherever I go,” he notes. “I’ve read in the media that lots of big clubs are interested but I think at this age it’s important to be playing. Then hopefully the money will come with that.
“It has been a busy summer. I’ve had quite a few clubs interested but they come and go by the day. Let’s see which ones stick by me.”
McCarthy definitely isn’t losing faith in Connell. He could have drafted into his squad an older player, such as Danny Crowley flourishing in the Netherlands, but the Ireland boss trusted his instinct and felt vindicated by his wildcard approach.
The rookie wasn’t out of place during his week in the sun, one incident demonstrating the comfort he felt in the surrounds.
“Robbie Keane asked us to strike the bar with a ball from 30 yards, making sure it rebounded into the goal facing opposite,” Connell explained.
“I just thought: ‘Go on, then,’ so I had a go and did it the first time, maybe luckily. Robbie was just like: ‘Pffft, well done.’ “Quality wise, I didn’t feel far off but there was a noticeable difference in the fitness required. I could feel it in the first few days, especially the double sessions before getting up to scratch by the end of the week.”
Reverting to his original age-group from the senior ranks could be a challenge for a player, yet not for Connell.
“I had a great time with the squad, learning lots from the likes of Jeff Hendrick, but this is where I came from,” he says.
“A lot of the U19 lads have asked me about the experience of being around the seniors. It is a higher standard but this group of players are capable of rising to that level.”