Football: Ireland call on Connolly to convert chances

  • @stevetongue
A STRIKER on loan to a Dutch Second Division club, who was sent off the last time Ireland were involved in a play-off, is the man Mick McCarthy's team have turned to in search of the goal they must score against Turkey tomorrow. David Connolly has been told he will replace Robbie Keane, whose foolish yellow card after scoring in the 1-1 draw in Dublin on Saturday means he is suspended for the return leg.

The manner in which Connolly set-up the goal only a few minutes after coming on as a substitute confirmed he is on one of the hot streaks which have marked a short career that has also touched icy depths. At Watford he burst into a struggling side in 1996 with eight goals in six games, almost helping save them from relegation to the Second Division. That led to a call-up and cap for the Republic - both his parents are Irish - and another inspired spell, with five goals in four internationals, including one hat-trick.

Finishing as runners-up in the World Cup group meant a play-off against Belgium. The first leg, like the current one, was drawn 1-1 at Lansdowne Road, but in the return Connolly, trying too hard to impress as a substitute, received a red card within minutes of coming on and Ireland went down and out.

At the squad's hotel yesterday, he was unwilling to look back at that incident but happy to talk about the subsequent dramas of an exciting move to Feyenoord that went wrong after a change of coach, a disappointing loan spell with Wolves last season and now a more successful farming-out to Excelsior, the Rotterdam club's nursery side. Self-confidence has never been a problem for the little striker but good performances have now revived his fortunes, goalscoring record and international prospects.

"I can't see myself playing again for Feyenoord while he [Leo Beenhakker] is the manager," he said. "I think I made the right decision in going there, it was a great opportunity, but managers have their opinion on players that no one will change. The problem is on his side not mine.

"The standard at Excelsior is pretty similar to the English First Division. Mick McCarthy came out to watch me and was quite impressed. I'm getting recognition there if not in England, where I'd like to return eventually, because it's the place to play at the moment. But I'm playing week in and week out, which is something I've not done for two years."

Shortly after McCarthy's visit, a hat-trick against the First Division side Fortuna Sittard in a cup-tie continued an impressive run. The Irish manager confirmed: "He's playing very well. He's a goalscorer who also has good movement off the ball and is quick and sharp and brave - he'll throw himself across the keeper and the last defender. He gives us something different.

"I suppose he's sort of exploded onto the scene and then with a career move that didn't work out he seemed to stand still, but now he's back."

McCarthy is confident that Niall Quinn, having been replaced after injuring his neck in the warm-up on Saturday, will be fit to play tomorrow alongside Connolly in a partnership that could flourish in the manner of Quinn's with another former Watford man, Kevin Phillips. Mark Kinsella, badly missed in midfield, is available again after suspension, and the other four players who sat out training yesterday are all expected to return.

The manager let it be known that he was less than thrilled with the rudimentary facilities provided for training but is aware that now is not the best time to stir up the locals. Contrary to some prognostications, Bursa, where McCarthy and the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland were welcomed with a bouquet of flowers, has not exactly proved to be hell on earth.

McCarthy has a line-up for the game in his mind and will make it public today if everyone is fit. He openly discussed the options for the one problem position on the right of midfield - Rory Delap, Jason McAteer or Damien Duff - but like Connolly, would not talk about the Belgium game of 1997. A repeat is clearly too painful for anyone to contemplate.