Aaron Connolly eager for central role after being sidelined in Slovakia

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Aaron Connolly is eager to play a central role for Ireland.
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Brendan O'Brien

If Aaron Connolly's Ireland career was to end here and now it would be remembered not for the promise displayed over five caps but his absence when a Covid calamity condemned the attacker to a watching brief as the Republic lost to Slovakia in a Euro 2020 playoff semi-final.

He realises the magnitude of the opportunity lost last month. Still only 20, and with the likelihood of a long career ahead of him, he spoke yesterday about the possibility that he may never have the occasion to play for his country again in a game that could propel them towards a major tournament.

Football, as the saying goes, is a funny old game after all but there was no-one laughing when Connolly and Adam Idah were ruled out of that tie in Bratislava after moving seats on the flight over and finding themselves listed as close contacts of an FAI staff member who then tested positive for Covid-19.

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I left my seat but I didn't know I was going to sit beside someone who had a positive test.

Regrets? The staff member's subsequent false positive finding only added to the frustration felt at digesting the game whilst in isolation, obviously, but don't expect contrition over his and Idah's perfectly innocent decision to opt for a row further down the chartered flight that left Dublin that day.

“No and it's frustrating when people say that. I left my seat but I didn't know I was going to sit beside someone who had a positive test. I could have stayed in my seat and someone beside me could have had it and I would have got away with it as I'd moved down the back.

“To see stuff like that is frustrating, even on social media. I moved my seat but how was I meant to know where someone who tested positive was sat? I don't look back and think. 'I wish I had sat there'. It happened and I've moved on.”

A starter against Finland six days later, his thoughts for now are purely on England. Or, to be more accurate, on what he might accomplish against them. This may be Wembley, and it may be the old enemy, but the Galwayman isn't interested in all that tradition or baggage. As Stephen Kenny has pointed out, Darren Randolph was the only current squad member born when Stuttgart happened in 1988.

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For Connolly, this is a big game but none more so than any other 'big game'. It's an opportunity to prove his chops and it has come at an opportune time for a man who has played just 16 minutes for Brighton & Hove Albion since returning to England's south coast from the last international camp.

The additions this season of Adam Lallana and Danny Welbeck to a roster that already boasted Neal Maupay and Leandro Trossard have contributed to that. Andi Zeqiri, another signing, made the bench against Tottenham Hotspur at the start of the month when the Irishman didn't even make the squad.

Connolly accepts that he simply has to play better if Graham Potter is to use him more but Kenny was clearly taken by his efforts at centre-forward for the club earlier this year and has suggested more than once that this, rather than a role on the flanks, may be his best fit in green.

Connolly is all for that and David McGoldrick's retirement from international football has opened a door that may have otherwise remained closed for a year or two for a man whose raw pace is a very different proposition to the Sheffield United man's poise.

One thing the two do share is a less than stellar goalscoring record and Connolly was honest enough to admit that he has to start adding to the four goals managed in 35 appearances for club and country to date. The good news is that he has every confidence in making that happen.

Wembley

It's not just the idea of gracing Wembley that fails to phase him. Ask him how it feels to follow in the footsteps of a man like Robbie Keane at a time when Ireland is in the midst of a severe goal drought and he embraces the idea with open arms.

“No, I love it. I love hearing stuff like that and I love the pressure. It's nice, at 20 years of age and 19 for Adam, to have pressure like that on you and fans and coaches expecting things of you.

“I'm never going to shy away from that. I like the way people put pressure on because it makes you feel wanted and they obviously think you can do something great. I'm sure me and Adam will have no problem with that.”

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