Quinta Do Lago, Portugal.
At Ireland’s training camp in Portugal, Luca Connell is telling us how his unexpected call-up has disrupted his summer holiday plans. Not that he’s complaining, mind.
“Yeah, I had Dubai booked with my girlfriend,” he explains. “That was from June 4th to the 12th but with the senior games being on the 7th and the 10th I’ve cancelled that just in the case in the gaffer wants me to go. That’s no problem.”
One of our number wittily interjects: “You mean your ex-girlfriend?” Connell, whose disposition is as sunny as the weather here on the Algarve, leads the laughter.
“Ah, no,” he says. “It’s a lot of money but this is an experience that money can’t buy.”
Although he is only 18 and this is his first senior call-up after playing for Ireland from U16 through to U19, the Liverpool-born midfielder’s determination to answer Mick McCarthy’s call is certainly encouraging but, post-Declan Rice, it inevitably raises the matter about how committed he is to representing Ireland long-term. Initially, he bats the question away. “To be honest, I haven’t thought about that, I’m just focused on now”.
But then Connell asserts unequivocally that should the manager choose to blood him in next month’s Euro 2020 qualifiers, he wouldn’t hesitate about playing in games which would have the effect of cementing his future as an Irish international.
“I wouldn’t hold back,” he insists.
I’ve got to take any opportunity that I can. It’s a once in a lifetime thing. If you turn that down, not just the gaffer but the team wouldn’t be happy with you.
"I’d take the chance, yeah. My target is to get in the senior team, I want to crack on and hopefully I can make my debut.”
The Bolton Wanderers midfielder is not inclined to put too much store in reports that he is already being tracked by England.
“Yeah, I did see a few of the reports and got told about them but it could mean anything, couldn’t it?,” he says. “There was no direct contact. I’m happy where I am. If the gaffer wants to give me a chance, I’m more than willing to take that.”
With his ready smile, mop of hair and an accent moulded in Knotty Ash, Connell could handily pass for Jason McAteer’s kid brother. His Irish connection is strong on his mother’s side. Her parents, Margaret and Peter Simpson, the latter now deceased, both hailed from Dublin and met in Blackpool while on holidays, eventually setting up home in Liverpool which, their grandson observes, “is like a part of Ireland, isn’t it?”
The football influence in his family comes from his father, Andrew.
“My dad nearly made it for Wrexham but he missed out over an injury. He done his ACL in his knee and his Achilles – he hasn’t stopped telling me about them,” he says with a grin.
Although a boyhood Everton supporter – he admits he was “star-struck” when meeting Seamus Coleman for the first time this week – his failure to make the grade at an early age at Goodison opened the door to a move to Bolton.
“I was at Everton when I was six or seven,” he recalls. “They didn’t want to give me a contract. I was playing in a park with me mate’s Dad team. I got injured and a Bolton scout came over and said ‘Does he want to come up for treatment?’ I didn’t want to play Academy football but when I saw the place - it was just open and it was an all-new facility - It went from there.”
His progress went into high gear in January when he made his senior debut by coming off the bench in the final minute of Bolton’s 5-2 FA Cup 3rd Round win against Walsall, the first of what would turn out to be 15 appearances for the team.
“Yeah, I hadn’t had much involvement with the U23s at Bolton so it was basically from the 18s straight to the first team,” he says. "There is a big difference in pace and quality. You’ve got to get up to scratch as quick as you can.
My favourite position? Central midfield mostly, getting on the ball and trying to play. But if the dirty work needs doing, then…
And when it comes to naming his footballing role model, Connell sees no option but to cross Stanley Park.
“I know it’s going to sound bad being an Everton fan but, Steven Gerrard, you can’t fault him, can you? He’s probably the only one I do admire because of what did for English football.”
While Luca bloomed this season, Bolton withered on the vine, crisis on and off the pitch having culminated in relegation to League One and the cash-strapped club going into administration.
With his contract about to expire, Connell has attracted the interest of a number of Premier League clubs as well as, according to recent reports, Rangers - whose manager, the aforementioned Mr Gerrard, currently happens to be staying in a hotel not far from the Irish base in Quinta Do Lago. But the player is happy to leave all that to his agent, Peter McIntosh, who once represented a young Wayne Rooney.
“There’s been a lot of speculation and there’s a lot saying that I am moving,” he acknowledges. “Yes, clubs were speaking to my agent who told me to concentrate on my football. It’s about playing and making the best profile for myself as I can, see what happens, and hopefully I can be successful.”