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'skipper needs minding' Aaron Connolly left on sidelines as Stephen Kenny ponders Seamus Coleman's role

Brighton youngster needs focus of more games but Irish boss says skipper needs minding


Contrasting fortunes: Séamus Coleman, left, and Aaron Connolly. Photo: Sportsfile

Contrasting fortunes: Séamus Coleman, left, and Aaron Connolly. Photo: Sportsfile

Contrasting fortunes: Séamus Coleman, left, and Aaron Connolly. Photo: Sportsfile

There are some things that Stephen Kenny can control as Ireland manager, and other things he can do very little about.

Listening to the Ireland manager speak about the respective situations of Séamus Coleman and Aaron Connolly yesterday, it was tempting to wonder how much easier life would be for Kenny if the Brighton youngster was blessed with the same temperament as Everton’s skipper.

But football dressing-rooms are similar to any workplace, in the sense they are made up of different characters and personalities, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Kenny admitted that Coleman might only be able to play one of the games with Portugal and Luxembourg, because of the demands he has put on his hamstring over the past year by always putting the team first.

Perhaps an individual with a more selfish outlook might have avoided that scenario, but the wear and tear of the Donegal man’s work-rate is making life somewhat complicated for him right now.

He’ll be reporting for duty next Monday all going to plan, whereas Connolly will be back in Brighton.

There was a bit of crossed wires around the communication of his absence, with Graham Potter strongly suggesting it was down to Kenny’s selection decisions, whereas the Ireland boss – who spoke with both Potter and Connolly this week – said a conversation with the 21-year-old shaped the call.

“He will have a big part to play in our future, but he felt he wasn’t right,” said Kenny, fresh from his 50th-birthday weekend.

What was clear reading between the lines was that if Ireland desperately needed Connolly right now, he would have been asked to travel. But his positioning on the bench for the duration of the October double-header with Azerbaijan and Qatar points to where he stands in the pecking order.

Kenny withdrew Connolly at half-time in September’s draw with Azerbaijan – and that looks to be the point where he finally lost faith in the striker’s ability to deliver in the short term.

There’s a sympathetic tone to his words on the diminutive forward player, yet there’s also a sense that he is trying to send a message too, feeling that his current existence as a Premier League fringe operator is not helping as he tries to adjust to the pressures of his profile.

“He’s done really well in his career to date,” said Kenny, as he thought out loud about whether a loan move in January would help. “And it’s no reflection on Brighton, they’ve done brilliant work behind the scenes there, with Aaron developing through their academy with other players.

“He’s the type of personality where – in the Championship – the structure where you’ve got a match Tuesday, a match Saturday, a match Tuesday, a match Saturday, 44 games or so of that, you discipline yourself then. You have that kind of focus rather than having one match a week, and you don’t know whether you are going to play or not – and you’re probably not going to play .

“Then you’re just training and over a period of time that can, even to the strongest of characters, erode your spirit, if you like. To have that level of focus would be brilliant for him. If he can get into the Premier League and do it, then that would be brilliant, even better. It’s just very difficult to get sustained chances for any young player as a centre-forward in the Premier League.”

Connolly’s challenge now is get himself into a better position come March, with Kenny’s words likely to find favour with individuals around the group who think the Mervue United product needs to learn more about the trade.

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Kenny hasn’t called up anybody to take his place, with the return of Jayson Molumby and Alan Browne adding depth to central midfield, with Harry Arter dropping out.

Seáni Maguire is playing regularly for Preston while Scott Hogan and Michael Obafemi have scored at Championship level since the last squad gathered, but management seem happy to stick with as settled a squad as possible. Will Keane is retained and is the only uncapped squad member.

Coleman’s presence is a boost, much as Matt Doherty has thrived in an Ireland shirt this autumn and Andrew Omobamidele has grown into the role on the right of the back three.

Kenny expanded on his options in the wing-back department with Coleman and Doherty competing on the right, and the Spurs man is also a contender for the left after his starring show in the away game with Portugal. But James McClean did little wrong in Baku and the fit-again Enda Stevens is in the discussion, too, with Ryan Manning in reserve.

The reality is that there will be rotation between the two matches – and with Coleman, it may just come down to whether his experience is more important for the Dublin full house and the free shot against the Portuguese, or the revenge mission in Luxembourg which still has big implications for Kenny.

“It’s something we have to examine,” said Kenny. “There’s such pressure on him to play all the time, he just wants to play for Ireland, to play for Everton. He always wants to play – and it has taken its toll, with four hamstring injuries in a year. You do have to look if he can do two or three (games). He’ll want to put himself forward.

“We did find that when we refreshed the team for the second game (Qatar in October), we did get benefits from that. We made five changes from that game in Azerbaijan and these are the things we want to consider.

“That level of competition at wingback – we think that’s really good, a good standard, You would like to replicate that level of competition in every area if we could.

“It gives us real competition and proper dilemmas. We’ve got to consider how we manage that.”

Managing Ronaldo will be occupying minds, too. Ireland suffered a familiar fate in September, doing a very good job of keeping the Manchester United star quiet in general play, until he found space twice in the dying stages to convert a pair of headers and secure a crucial win.

Kenny was asked a broad question about where Ronaldo stood in the pantheon of greats, and gave a lengthy answer without committing to any view.

“He transcends a few decades which is incredible,” he said. “Where he ranks compared to so many greats through different eras, you can’t really say one is better than the other, because of different times.

“Pele, there were great players before Pele. And the game that Maradona had to endure, before the law changes on yellow cards and red cards... the changes in laws were based on how he was treated. Messi and Ronaldo have hugely benefited from that. He (Ronaldo) has evolved so much. Ronaldo at 36 is different to 26.”

His combination of world-class ability and the mental strength to match it is an incredible cocktail. Irish managers can only look on with envy.


Goalkeepers: Caoimhín Kelleher (Liverpool), Gavin Bazunu (Portsmouth, on loan from Manchester City), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth).
Séamus Coleman (Everton), Matt Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Ryan Manning (Swansea City), Enda Stevens (Sheffield United), James McClean (Wigan Athletic), Shane Duffy (Brighton and Hove Albion), John Egan (Sheffield United), Andrew Omobamidele (Norwich City), Nathan Collins (Burnley).

Midfielders: Conor Hourihane (Sheffield United, on loan from Aston Villa), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle United), Jason Knight (Derby County), Jayson Molumby (West Bromwich Albion, on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion), Alan Browne (Preston North End), Jamie McGrath (St Mirren).

Forwards: Callum Robinson (West Bromwich Albion), Troy Parrott (MK Dons, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur), Adam Idah (Norwich City), James Collins (Cardiff City), Will Keane (Wigan Athletic), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham United), Daryl Horgan (Wycombe Wanderers).

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