Let’s begin with a game.
We lay out two quotes, and you guess who said them. Simple.
Quote number one;
“I’m here with Ireland and I’ve been called up. I’m really looking forward to this week and I’m looking forward to getting to know the boys better.
“I’m fully focused on playing for Ireland,” he asserted. “There’s no decision to be made. If I didn’t want to be playing for Ireland, I wouldn’t be here”
Quote number two;
“I’ve read the speculation [about England] but haven’t had any direct contact.
“I wouldn’t hold back from the chance to play for Ireland in the qualifiers because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you turn that turn, not just the gaffer, but the team wouldn’t be happy with you.”
One is Declan Rice, the other is Luca Connell. Can’t tell the difference? We can forgive you for that.
They are, after all, worryingly similar.
On Monday, Irish manager Mick McCarthy sprung a surprise by including Bolton midfielder Luca Connell in his final squad for the upcoming European qualifiers against Denmark and Gibraltar.
Connell, who is 18, was a part of Ireland’s outstanding U19s side who reached the European Championships, winning all three of their Elite round games, while also breaking into Bolton’s first team making 12 appearances throughout the campaign.
The initial reaction was positive, optimistic. An extremely talented young player (we’ll get into that in more detail later) included in the senior squad at just 18 years of age.
It would be unfair to say the positivity has wained, but the narrative has flipped in the last few days as the spotlight begins to shine on the youngster more and more.
Connell was born in Liverpool but is eligible to represent Ireland through his mother’s parents, who were both born in Dublin, however, he has played for the Boys in Green since U17 level.
Understandably, his international allegiance has been a major talking point.
There had been reports that England were interested in speaking to the 18-year old after his impressive performances in the Championship this season
Ever since Declan Rice’s international switch, every English-born Irish player, newly called up to the squad has been met with hesitance, a fear that they could use and abuse Ireland just like the West Ham wonderkid did.
Michael Obafemi was the same if you recall.
Granted, Martin O’Neill didn’t help the situation outlining that he “wouldn’t be rushing” the young striker, but for weeks before his commitment and eventual cap, there was the fear that he would be another who would get away.
This is how it’ll be now going forward. The Rice saga has set Ireland fans’ brains to a default panic setting as soon as they see “born in England” anywhere near a new young prospect. It can’t be changed.
McCarthy outlined midweek that he wouldn’t be “throwing Connell onto the pitch for a minute just to cap him” when in reality that is literally the exact thing he should do. The only thing he essentially can do, to avoid this becoming Declan Rice 2.0.
Kevin Kilbane and Keith Andrews can talk all they want about how he shouldn’t be capped just to solidify his allegiance, or how he might still have “thoughts about going to play for another country” when that’s the kind of naivety which allowed one of the brightest young talents in the Premier League to slip through Ireland’s fingers.
It’s difficult to imagine many Irish fans caring too much about Declan Rice’s “thoughts” if he was still around to help take the Boys in Green to Euro 2020.
If you cap Rice against Moldova, you don’t get the months and months of the “will he won’t he” farcical saga we saw at the tail end of 2018 and maybe, more importantly, you don’t get the ripple effect of doubt which will continue to hang over any new English born Irish call-up from now until god knows when.
Ireland play Gibraltar in the second of the two qualifiers in June, and regardless of how poor the Boys in Green played in the away tie, they will beat their opponents easily at the Aviva Stadium.
The game is a perfect opportunity to cap the 18-year old, even if it’s only for two minutes. Connell stepping across that white line at the Aviva Stadium puts an end to what could well be another international tug of war over the next few months.
Because, let’s not get it twisted; Luca Connell, like Declan Rice, will show that he is good enough to fight over.
At just 18-years of age Connell was given his chance in the most difficult of circumstances at Bolton Wanderers, a crisis club in every sense of the word.
Connell though continually stood out, making a total of 12 appearances for the Trotters, most of which came in the centre of the midfield, the kind of position where you can’t hide on the pitch.
With his contract up in the summer, the likes of Tottenham and Leeds are both reportedly looking at bringing him to their clubs which tells you all you need to know about how highly rated Connell is among footballing circles.
It’s up to McCarthy of course, and maybe he won’t like what he sees on the training pitch this week, or maybe his attitude won’t be the right fit for the team, but this idea that he’s “too young” or “not ready yet” is archaic thinking.
In speaking, Rice and Connell may sound similar and in truth, their situations are indeed alike, but the difference now is McCarthy and Ireland have the chance to avoid a repeat of last year’s saga.
A chance to avoid history repeating itself.
Cap Luca Connell against Gibraltar and the English interest burns out. Don’t, and it spreads like wildfire.