Aaron Connolly was the surprise inclusion At Jim Crawford’s Republic of Ireland U-21 team, he announced on Thursday his return to the fold for the first time since their 3-1 win over Sweden in October 2019.
It was at the time under the supervision of current President Stephen Kenny, who is now under the tutelage of Crawford, Connolly has an opportunity to revitalize his international career.
Connolly has traded Brighton Beach for Campanile di San Marco in Venice as he aims to kick-start a career that has sagged over the past 12 months.
“I watched Aaron’s matches. He looked sharp in two matches. The match at the weekend against Spal was a tough match for him and there wasn’t much football playing.
“For someone like Aaron, you need to get the ball to his feet or he can come and show off for the ball but he’s looking for a player in the back, so there was a lot of misunderstanding in terms of my midfielders and what I gave the ball away.
“I could see that Aaron was a little disappointed.”
Currently, the Gallagher trades in Italy’s second tier for Venice, as is fellow Connacht and Under-21 international Liam Kerrigan, who is in Como. Connolly is happy to be in Italy according to Crawford.
“One thing about him is that he is happy at the club. He gets along well with the coach and trains exceptionally well. He said he was never fit before in his life.
“They did several doubles, it’s the Italian way, but he’s happy with it. It was a big decision for him, but he needed to get away from the distractions and what you have.
“He is in a happy place now and a happy footballer is a good footballer. We have a nice place to come to the U21s now.”
His last first-team appearance came in September last year, but Crawford is confident he can integrate him again into the Under-21 group.
“I’m sure he’ll add to it, but my job is to make sure there’s a balance. Aaron can’t come in thinking it was like that. We had that conversation.”
“He’s been outspoken in his opinions. He wants to be a part of it and is ready to come in and work hard in training and see where it takes him.
“Whether he plays the first leg or the second leg, we’ll see. In international football, if you have a player with great abilities out there that you can include in the group, why not?
“But I think it was important to have those conversations with Aaron before making any decision.”
The central striking position has been the constant change over the course of the campaign thus far.
Currently injured Colm Whelan, JJ Caywood, Evan Ferguson and Mibo Odobico have all led at some point during the ten qualifying matches.
“He can go in but we also have strikers like JJ Kayode, Mipo (Odubeko) and Evan Ferguson, so you have four top strikers out there and we’ll see how they prepare for the game and we’ll make a decision on behind that.
“Aaron knows it, I told him, it’s not about him coming and starting. He has to prove to us that he is ready to play for the Under-21 team.
“Like I told him, this is the first time in 17 attempts that 21 seconds has gone this far, and on the back of guys who are doing really well, yeah, but there’s a real rally in the group and he needs to go in as smoothly as possible. That’s what we’re going for. With 21s and I think he will. He was true to everything he said.”
Ireland has never qualified for a major Championship at this level, something Crawford and his players are well aware of.
“It’s exciting for players to be involved in games like this, to make some history, and they all know about that. You talk to the players and it’s all the talk. That’s what they want to do.
“It’s at the forefront of their minds and the bigger picture is to get to Georgia and Romania for the finals against major countries. A stage where you’ll take on the challenge but, without a doubt, improve technically and tactically from that whole experience.
“These two games are a serious test but if we can get past that it will be an unbelievable experience.”
The first leg of the qualifiers will take place at Tallaght Stadium on Friday, September 23, with over 7,000 people already secured their seats. The return leg is scheduled at Bloomfield Stadium, Tel Aviv, Israel on Tuesday, September 27.
Republic of Ireland men’s national under-21 team
goalkeepers: David Harrington (Cork City), Brian Maher (Derry City), Luke McNicolas (Sligo Rovers)
Defenders: Iran Kachin (Derby County), Veste Ibossel (Udinese), Andy Lyons (Shamrock Rovers), Mark McGuinness (Sheffield Wednesday, on loan from Cardiff City), Jake O’Brien (RWD Molenbeek, on loan from Crystal Palace), me or . Connor (Tranmere Rovers), Joe Redmond (St. Patrick’s Athlete), Sean Rogan (Lincoln City)
Midfielders: Finn Azaz (Plymouth Argyle, on loan from Aston Villa), Luca Connell (Barnsley), Conor Coventry (West Ham United), Dawson Defoe (MK Dons), Joe Hodge (Wolverhampton), Will Smallbone (Stoke City, for example) On loan from Southampton, Ross Tierney (Motherwell).
Attackers: Aaron Connolly (Venice, on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion), Evan Ferguson (Brighton & Hove Albion), Joshua Caywood (MK Dons, on loan from Rotherham United), Liam Kerrigan (Como 1907), Ole O’Neill (Fulham), Mipo Odobico (Port Vale, on loan from West Ham United), Terek Wright (Bradford City, on loan from Aston Villa).