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you conn do it The Connolly conundrum - Ireland youngster must deliver for club and country soon

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Aaron Connolly during a Republic of Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown in Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Aaron Connolly during a Republic of Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown in Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Aaron Connolly during a Republic of Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown in Dublin. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

When Stephen Kenny reveals his team for tomorrow’s encounter in Baku, there will be people both inside and outside the camp very interested to see if Aaron Connolly has made the cut.

The manager’s faith in the 21-year-old has become a talking point around his tenure, and it is fair to say that it is not shared by everyone around the group.

Beyond the obvious results problem, portions of criticism aimed at Kenny have overlooked matters that are being discussed in football circles where debate has long since moved beyond Videogate and other non-issues fuelled by mischievous speculation.

In the here and now, the manager’s loyalty to Connolly has the potential to be problematic if he keeps picking the Brighton player and he doesn’t deliver.

Earlier this week, Kenny confirmed that the decision to withdraw the Galwegian at half-time in the Dublin meeting with Azerbaijan was tactical rather than injury-related.

It did subsequently emerge that Connolly had suffered a grade one muscle injury on his glute, which is why he was absent from the subsequent game against Serbia.

Maybe that helps to explain his hesitant showing, with a low-energy display just three days after he was unable to continue against Portugal backing up the viewpoint that Connolly lacks the sharpness to execute what is being asked of him.

Assistant Keith Andrews said last week that they were hoping to press Azerbaijan more aggressively in that worrying opening 45 minutes – and Connolly certainly wasn’t setting the tone as a member of a front three.

With Troy Parrott uncomfortable out of possession on the other side, the Azeris weren’t being put under pressure in their own half and Irish lethargy stemmed from there.

That’s why Kenny’s decision to hook Connolly at the interval was interpreted in some quarters as an attempted wake-up call. Or, from another perspective, it was sending out a message to the rest of the group.

Sources have indicated that the jury is out on Connolly within sections of the dressing room. There was a degree of surprise when, after missing the summer camp, he returned for September to be picked for the opening two qualifiers when doubts surrounded his fitness.

Clearly, Kenny is a believer in what he can bring to the fold.

And there’s a feeling he is taking on a man-management project that others might have approached less sympathetically.

It’s worth remembering that Connolly had been left out of U-19 squads before Kenny’s appointment as U-21 manager eventually led to an international recall.

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Connolly’s electric performances in that sphere justified the decision, even though other figures within the underage set-up had reservations about the player’s attitude.

However, his rapid ascension in 2019 temporarily silenced doubters, with that stunning Premier League brace for Brighton against Spurs catapulting him into Mick McCarthy’s squad for a senior competitive bow away in Georgia.

He has proved incapable of truly building on that, while still managing to survive as a squad member of a Premier League club, a standing that has placed him above the majority of his contemporaries. A life-changing contract means he should be financially secure.

Yet while Graham Potter appears to appreciate his ability, he has shied away from entrusting Connolly with serious responsibility. Short of options with his skillset, Kenny has done so with limited success.

The belief he should be integral to a gameplan is understandable, in the sense that Connolly’s fondness for travelling with the ball and taking on defenders sets him apart from peers who rely on service.

He also has an ability to slip into dangerous positions and annoy defenders, and the versatility to operate in either an attacking pair or front three.

In his Ireland displays across 2021, Connolly has been a magnet for attention but not always in a good way.

Kenny correctly observed this week that penalty-box fouls in Belgrade and Faro went unpunished.

Those games could have ended differently if they had been awarded. There’s no doubting that when Connolly plays, he manages to get involved in moments of substance.

But the counterpoint is that he has already developed a reputation for going down too easily and the theatrical reactions appear to be irking officialdom. It may be harsh to refer to that in the context of instances where he was genuinely impeded but, rightly or wrongly, there’s a boy-who-cried-wolf element to it.

And it could be argued that a confident, fitter Connolly would have responded to the Portuguese opportunity by sticking it away whereas he was sluggish in the final third, seeking to draw a foul with the energy levels fading.

Two years ago, he was explosive over short distances, skipping away from pursuers with his low centre of gravity and quick feet – but he looked to be half a second slower last month, for whatever reason.

It must be remembered that John Egan’s goal in the Algarve came from a corner after a Connolly shot was saved.

He should probably have scored that chance, yet the recurring theme is that he found himself in the right place again.

That’s the dilemma that comes with leaving Connolly out.

His growing pains have generated discussion at club level. It was a strange summer for Connolly, with a girlfriend featuring on Love Island, thus drawing terrace taunts and social media attention. ‘Personal reasons’ were cited as a reason for his absence from Brighton’s season opener against Burnley.

Both of his managers have hinted that Connolly has struggled with aspects of his status.

The Irish Independent understands that Kenny has devoted extra time to Connolly, going to meet the player’s family earlier this year as part of attempts to steer him on the right course. He stays in contact outside of international windows.

Within the game, though, there are experienced professionals who are beginning to wonder if Connolly is capable of maturing quickly enough.

One former Irish international immersed in the UK scene holds the view that his struggles are nothing to do with ability. “He needs to get his head right or he’ll be back playing for Galway wondering where it went wrong,” is the succinct analysis.

It must be acknowledged that the negative stories around temperament are second-hand. In his media interviews, Connolly has come across as reasonably self-aware, open about areas where he needs to improve and lambasting himself for poor decisions.

Indeed, Potter said earlier this year that the youngsters can be too self-critical.

And, after his recent brace against Swansea in the Carabao Cup, he delivered a positive character reference.

“Aaron’s a good kid, he’s a really nice kid, there’s no problem with him at all,” said Potter, “He’s just sometimes young and wants to play and he can get frustrated – he’s a human being, that’s the truth.

“Everyone loves him here, we want to help him, help him reach his full capacity. He’s only young and he’s going to make mistakes and it’s not going to be a straight road for him but the quality is there.”

It paints a somewhat complex picture; he is still a young player and mistakes are part of the formative years but there comes a point where patience is stretched – especially at senior international level.

Kenny’s words on Connolly prior to departing for Azerbaijan were carefully chosen. It backed up the opinion that he might just accelerate his development in a number of ways by slipping out of the Brighton bubble and earning his stripes.

“Sometimes Brighton play with one striker and you’ve got two other international strikers playing ahead of him,” said Kenny,

“You’ve got to wait for opportunities. Sometimes staying still as a striker ... as a number three, it’s difficult to progress. Someone like Troy Parrott, even though he’s gone down to League One, he’s finding his feet, getting a few goals and learning the game.”

Kenny was present for the Swansea show, and that could reasonably be cited as justification for retaining the tyro in the side for this crucial Saturday exam. But should he start and fail, Kenny will be accused of not learning a lesson.

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