Connolly could play any where in attack, says McCarthy

Connolly could play any where in attack, says McCarthy
FISH TO WATER: With his confidence sky high after his debut double for Brighton against Tottenham on Saturday, Aaron Connolly finds his stride during yesterday’s training session. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

You’d be hard-pushed to find anyone in Irish football not entirely delighted about Aaron Connolly’s dream weekend which saw the 19-year-old’s two-goal debut in the Premier League followed by a call-up to the senior Ireland squad.

But if there is one man entitled to have some mixed feelings about the Galwegian’s breakthrough, it would have to be Stephen Kenny who now loses one of his star players for Thursday’s sell-out game against Italy in Tallaght Stadium.

“I rang him up on Saturday,” says Mick McCarthy of his U21 counterpart, “and as soon as he knew it was me he laughed, he knew it was coming. I have said all along I don’t want to take players from his squad but this is irresistible, it’s too good an opportunity to turn down.

"One of our 21s comes and scores in the Premier League and not to take him? You’d have all thought I was completely potty. And you’d have been right if I’d have left him with the 21s.”

Even before the Brighton forward’s brace and man of the match performance against Spurs on Saturday, both Kenny and McCarthy had acknowledged Connolly was on the brink of a call-up for the Euro qualifiers away to Georgia next Saturday and at home to Switzerland the following week.

What perhaps has changed on the back of his stellar performance at the weekend is that he must now be a good deal closer to a starting place for Ireland than a place on the bench.

Previously, McCarthy had suggested that crunch European games away from home would not be ideal for debutants but, as he was at pains to remind us yesterday, he had added the significant qualification at the time that someone playing and scoring in the Premier League would radically alter that picture.

“In fact, I probably said about Troy Parrott that if he is in the Premier League scoring goals and playing well, he’s a shoo-in for this squad,” the manager recalled.

And that applies for the rest for them. When they are playing U23 football, it’s not men’s football, it’s not the senior international team, it’s not the Premier League. That’s when I said that it was not for debutants. But if somebody gets into the Premier League and has done what Aaron has done, well, that gives me something to think about.

“Now he has handled his Premier League debut — although handling a debut for your country is something else again. It is a step up in your own mind as a player, certainly. Psychologically, emotionally, stood there listening to the national anthem and, all of a sudden, he’s got all that going on in his head about his family and that he is playing for his country.

“But he may well be just one of those who is young enough and not bothered, and that just allows him to go out and play. He did that on Saturday, that’s for sure.”

For Brighton, Connolly plays as a centre-forward, as his first goal against Spurs underlined, but his second, which saw him run into the left-channel before cutting back infield and firing inside the far post, was more like what he does for the Irish U21s where Stephen Kenny deploys him as a left-sided forward who does some of his best work coming in off the flank.

For McCarthy, such attacking versatility is nothing but a bonus.

“It is, yes, he really has got pace and that scares most people,” he said.

We’ll be playing 4-3-3 with three up front and he could play in any of those three roles. You have to be fairly flexible and fluid when you play in those positions, you cannot play in straight lines. So I don’t doubt that he could play in any one of them

And if McCarthy does decide to start Connolly on Saturday in Tbilisi, he won’t feel like he’s taking a risk.

“No, not in my head, that’s not the case,” the manager said. “Because he is a forward player. I think you can get away with it as a front man although I know the front men will be screaming ‘no, you can’t’.

"But I think that you can, in that the responsibility that it’s not going into the other net is certainly different to keeping a clean sheet. It’s other people trying to stop him and that’s the difference between a defender and an attacker.

“Somebody is trying to stop him whereas if a young defender goes out and has a bit of a meltdown and cannot handle it, you could be two or three down before you can do anything about it.

“And if it’s about keeping your temperament and composure and being given the licence to just go and play as a debutant, then I think he would thrive on it.”

In injury news, James McClean reported into camp nursing a stiff back while, in his latest update on major concerns Shane Duffy and David McGoldrick, McCarthy said he is prepared to “wait as long as I can” to see if either or both will be recovered enough in time to join Thursday’s travelling party to Tblisi or, if the Saturday game comes too soon, then possibly for the following Tuesday’s match against Switzerland in Geneva.

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