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‘He’s been excellent’ – Jim Crawford hails influence of ‘mature’ Aaron Connolly on return to U21 squad

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Aaron Connolly during a Republic of Ireland U21's training session at FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Aaron Connolly during a Republic of Ireland U21's training session at FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Aaron Connolly during a Republic of Ireland U21's training session at FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Jim Crawford says that senior international Aaron Connolly has a steely focus on delivering for the Ireland U21s in their Euro playoff battle with Israel even though he's been omitted from the senior squad.

Connolly, capped eight times at U21 level, is back in the U21 camp for the first time since 2019, and manager Crawford, who discussed his squad selection with senior boss Stephen Kenny, says there was no issue with the Brighton player, on loan to Venezia, or his dedication.

"He's been excellent. His quality in training has been brilliant," Crawford says of Connolly.

"He's sharp. He'll be a goal threat, that's for sure and around the place, he's been how I expected. The conversations we had beforehand, he's been very mature.

"What I expected from him in terms of leadership, he's been good with the younger lads, he's worked hard in training. And look, I'd imagine it'll be difficult for him.

"We were training around the same time as the senior team and for him to get off our bus when the senior team were training, I wonder is he thinking: 'Should I be over there with the senior team?'

"I had a conversation with him and he said: 'I want to be here, I want to prove that I want to play for Ireland again and give everything I have and help the 21s to the playoff, so his focus now is certainly with the 21s and I'm delighted to have him, particularly with the attitude and the ability he brings," added Crawford.

"We reached out to him to see would be interested because you can’t dismiss his talent when you’ve got such a small playing pool to begin with compared to other countries. He’s playing football, he’s playing at a decent level. He’s showed us through his move to a club in Italy that he’s getting away from all the noise that was distracting him in the UK.

"That was a good step. I was happy enough we were going to get an Aaron Connolly who was focused and ready to deliver.

"Stephen rang us yesterday to ask about how it’s been going, asking about players, what the preparation has been like. It’s something we always we do whether it’s Keith Andrews or Stephen Kenny who rings or vice versa – I might ring them.

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"He’s been asking about certain players. It’s been all positive up to now apart from losing the few players to injuries."

The FAI are expecting a sell-out crowd in Tallaght for the home leg of the playoff with Israel, though Crawford has to reshape his side with injuries ruling out key defender Mark McGuinness and attacker Liam Kerrigan.

Crawford is also excited by the potential of recent call-ups like Dara Costelloe, Anselmo Garcia McNulty and Adam O'Reilly., though the fitness of back-up keeper Luke McNicholas is a concern.

"Dara Costolloe has come in, he's been really good. He's been playing with Burnley's [reserves] and I've seen him playing in the Championship this year.

"He's been excellent and the silver lining in this story is we get a look at him now and he's still eligible for the next campaign, which is great," he added.


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