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Friday 20 September 2019

I want to play for Ireland - that's what I want to do

In-demand teen Connell makes pledge to Ireland manager

TEEN SENSATION: Luca Connell has promised Mick McCarthy that he wants to play for Ireland. Pic: Sportsfile
TEEN SENSATION: Luca Connell has promised Mick McCarthy that he wants to play for Ireland. Pic: Sportsfile

As he has only turned 18, Liverpool-born footballer Luca Connell is probably too young to be getting married.

But he has looked someone in the eye and said he has no wishes to be with anyone else.

Thankfully, for the sake of Irish football, the person in question is Mick McCarthy, who says that Connell has given as clear an indication as possible that if he is to have an international career, it will be with the green jersey on his back and not the three lions on his chest.

For a lad who only made 12 appearances for a side just relegated to England's third tier, 10 of those games ending in defeat, there is a lot of talk about Connell around the Ireland camp.

He travelled to Portugal with the squad last week, initially just to gain the experience of training as McCarthy planned to release the teen from his squad, unless he "ripped it up", in McCarthy's words.

Connell, a Scouser who qualifies via his Dublin-born maternal grandparents, did exactly that - he ripped it up in training and would have been kept on with the senior squad for the Euro 2020 games, only for injury to cause his departure.

There were fears that Connell could be lured into the fold of his native England - it's a year and two days since a man called Declan Rice was Ireland's man of the match in a senior friendly in Paris, and we all know what happened next.

But McCarthy, who stressed last week that he would not rush into capping Connell to prevent England nabbing him, says he sought a commitment from Connell, who is bound to leave Bolton this summer for bigger things, about his international allegiance.

"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'," McCarthy stated.

"It's a kind of duty of care as well. He has just turned 18, it would be easy for me to put him on the bench. At the moment, he is full of hype and all that and 'I will play', but he gets two minutes and that's him done - and then he gets another opportunity he might have preferred. But he actually told me that's what he wants to do."

Pledges

Of course, two men called Grealish and Rice made similar pledges of allegiance in the past, Rice in particular as a badge-kissing, national-anthem-singer, only to defect after pressure from outside forces.

McCarthy knows the same could happen. Agents likely to remind Connell this summer that he's far more marketable as a potential England international than an Irish one.

"I cannot do anything about it," McCarthy said. "It's funny, because of the set of circumstances that have happened we question everyone now. Now he wants to play for us, wants to play for Ireland.

"If he changes his mind, he changes his mind. But he wants to play.

"It would be easy for me to stick him on and say 'there you go' and it might be wrong of me as well.

"I did say at one of the press conferences that it (Connell making the final squad) depends on whether he rips it up, and he did, pretty much, with his personality and his performances in training. He impressed everybody, he was a breath of fresh air around the place."

So McCarthy has to cope without Connell for the days ahead, a schedule that has a training game (behind closed doors) against the Irish U21 squad today, then a flight to Denmark for the Euro 2020 game on Friday week and a Monday night date at home to Gibraltar.

With Jeff Hendrick given time off for a family wedding, injuries to Connell and Alan Browne, on top of a long-term injury for James McCarthy and the absence this week of Conor Hourihane and Glenn Whelan (they are on a post-playoff break but will report in for duty on Saturday), McCarthy is light in the midfield area for today's training game.

Browne is a real loss as he has yet to play under McCarthy, due to injury in March, and he's eager to make a name for himself with Ireland.

But players are coming in from the fringes.

At a press conference yesterday, McCarthy on promotional duties for FAI sponsor Spar, he name-checked Ronan Curtis (Portsmouth), Callum O'Dowda (Bristol City) and the uncapped Josh Cullen (on loan from West Ham to newly promoted Charlton) as three who had impressed.

He hinted that James McClean and Robbie Brady would start as his wide midfield players in Copenhagen but that Curtis and O'Dowda were next in line.

"If I'm to change it with two new wide players, they ought to know they're going in on merit and they could change a game, it's not just about getting a cap. I believe they have the ability to do that," McCarthy said. "Josh Cullen certainly, he's really impressive. He pretty much ran the show yesterday morning."

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