Monday 14 October 2019

Three-way striking dilemma for Ireland: Where does Aaron Connolly fit in Mick McCarthy's plans?

Manager has several factors to ponder as Brighton star plays his way into Georgia picture

Forward thinking: Aaron Connolly chats with Ireland boss Mick McCarthy at Abbotstown yesterday after his call up to the senior squad. Photo: Sportsfile
Forward thinking: Aaron Connolly chats with Ireland boss Mick McCarthy at Abbotstown yesterday after his call up to the senior squad. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

For Mick McCarthy, you sense that a refreshing change lost its novelty value somewhere around the 20th question.

The Ireland boss has become accustomed to taking queries on players that aren't in his squad. It's a recurring gripe.

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He brought up Ciaran Clark, James McCarthy, Ryan Manning and Shane Long yesterday, with a nod to comments in various places about their absence from his plans.

But they were all way down the list compared to the main talking point on the Monday of a massive week for Ireland's Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.

It was all about a 19-year-old kid from Oranmore in Galway named Aaron Connolly, a player that is now very much in the Irish squad and in the reckoning for involvement in the business end of the campaign.


David McGoldrick is unlikely to be fit in time for the first game of Ireland’s double header. Photo: Sportsfile
David McGoldrick is unlikely to be fit in time for the first game of Ireland’s double header. Photo: Sportsfile

There were only so many questions that McCarthy could answer given that he was speaking before the teenager's first training session with the senior group.

What about that Spurs display? Can he play in Tbilisi? Is it a risk? What about everything you said last week? What about his temperament? Is he fitting in?

A threshold was always going to be reached.

"You guys ask the questions and it's me who has to make the decision," said McCarthy,

"If I don't pick him, it (reaction) is, 'I can't believe he's not picked him, he scored two goals against Tottenham'.

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"If I do pick him and he has a meltdown and doesn't play well, it's, 'I can't believe he gave him his debut'."

He was smiling as he made the point, having gone through this drill before.

If all of his answers were to be summarised, the basic point is that Connolly's heroics on Saturday showed he could do it against the big boys, but there's still a slight concern about pitching him into a competitive qualifier because of the additional pressure that might accompany a game of magnitude for your country.

Those mental factors present the 'step up' rather than the actual standard of play.

But there is another question to consider and that is the simple matter of where Connolly might play if he does come in for a senior debut.

It's a happy type of dilemma.

Given that McCarthy said he would only bring in members of Stephen Kenny's U-21 squad if they are going to figure, then it's safe to assume he will get on the pitch in Georgia or in the Geneva clash with the Swiss.

McCarthy has said he will play a front three as usual in Tbilisi, although that shape is much closer to a 4-5-1 if Ireland don't have the ball - which was often enough against the Swiss.

And that is why he must contemplate where the Mervue United product and one-time Castlegar hurler (his father Mike still togs out there) fits into his plans.

David McGoldrick is odds against to figure in Georgia, with Switzerland a more realistic target for both the Sheffield United player and Shane Duffy.

Therefore, the vacancy in the centre of attack needs to be filled and McCarthy's positive words about James Collins suggest the combative Luton player is in the frame. We know that the Yorkshire man likes that type of option.

On the right side, Callum Robinson is the man in possession and the manager likes his understanding with Seamus Coleman.

James McClean has played all of the matches on the left side, although Enda Stevens' suspension means the Stoke player is a candidate for left full-back.

"Absolutely" was the firm response when Matt Doherty was put forward as Stevens' stand-in and the 60-year-old has previously said that he wouldn't like to lose McClean's energy from further up the park.

Balance is important to McCarthy and he felt that deploying Doherty ahead of Coleman in Gibraltar didn't work.

Hence, he was happier with Robbie Brady and then Robinson in that right wing position as their runs inside freed the space for the Everton player to rove.

McCarthy is confident that Connolly could operate in all three forward positions, but the alliance with the full-back has to be taken into consideration for the wide berths.

It still requires a leap of faith to believe that he would be thrust into the number nine role in a McCarthy team.

Therefore, the real value of the week in training may be ascertaining if a Doherty/Connolly union would work on the left. Or a McClean/Connolly combination. Or maybe even a Coleman/Connolly duo on the other side.

Stephen Kenny has previously stated that the Brighton starlet isn't the type to be covering ground beyond the full-back and clearing danger like McClean.

McCarthy stressed that opponents will have to think about what Connolly can do with the ball, rather than vice versa, and that's why he would be more fearful of selecting a 19-year-old for this type of test.

Nevertheless, he is sure that the player can apply himself to whatever task he is set.

"He is very quick to start with," he stressed, "Sometimes it's not a willingness to work hard but the nous that if someone gets a run on you, that you get yourself into the (right) position if you're playing against some of the really quick full backs.

"I don't think he would shirk that responsibility."

McCarthy has other options to consider.

Seáni Maguire is similar to Connolly in terms of versatility, whereas Scott Hogan is arguably more comfortable in a front two and thus an impact sub option.

The newcomer has a range of skills that could skip him to the top of the queue. But the speed of his rise will be determined by how he fits into the collective.

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