Roy Curtis: 'By leaving Aaron Connolly sitting idly by, Ireland squandered a glorious opportunity'
Oct. 12, 2019
Mick McCarthy testily railed against such comparisons, entirely missing the bigger points.
They were the ones that announced that it didn’t remotely matter how Connolly compared to Keane, the relevant question was whether he offered a more potent threat than a lower division journeyman like James Collins?
If he might represent an upgrade to a team which has scored just six goals in six qualifiers, and in which no Irish striker has found the net in more than six hours in the company of Gibraltar (195 in world rankings) and Georgia (94)?
And if, of the options available to McCarthy, the boy prince was the best equipped to inject the moment of authentic, game-changing class that Ireland eternally struggle to locate and which might have brought Euro 2020 looming into brilliant focus?
In the tiny thimble of time he was afforded, one in which he delivered a sharp, serrated edge desperately lacking before his arrival, the 19-year-old offered an emphatic answer.
If his omission falls slightly short of a scandal, it was another depressing example of the inherent and suffocating conservatism under which Irish football prefers to operate.
McCarthy was celebrating a point won in his post-match interviews, but he was railing against the consensus: The one announcing that here was a low-hanging three-points a sloppy, tentative and unimaginative Ireland declined to seize.
By leaving Connolly sitting idly by, Ireland squandered a glorious opportunity to truly seize the Group D initiative. It is a decision that might haunt the manager all the way to next summer.
What a surge of anticipation the arrival of the coltish new kid on the block sent across the Tbilisi arena.
It was the high-octane expectancy of an audience who believe they may be present on the evening a new star – one Ireland have for so long yearned – announced himself.
With just one full appearance under his belt, Connolly already has more Premier League goals from play than Marcus Rashford has accumulated in the last six months.
Last week he tormented Spurs, a team that, even after its recent implosion, belongs on an entirely different level of achievement to the artisan, limited Georgians.
Where was the gamble in asking the Oranmore wunderkind to pick up where he had left off in Brighton and, why, given the impoverished Irish display, was he given so little time?
Somehow McCarthy permitted a tedious, soul-sapping, monochrome and ghastly 78 minutes and four seconds to pass before Connolly crossed the whitewash.
If Colette Rooney might struggle to tweet a cutting slight at Rebekah Vardy in the time he was on the field, still the 19-year-old brought an entirely different dimension, a first hint of Irish menace.
Connolly’s pace and anticipation altered the narrative, triggering palpitations in a home defence that could have spent the opening 80 minutes on a holiday hammock.
In the hierarchy of a goal-scorer’s assets, momentum and self-belief are close to the top rung of the ladder.
Connolly has both in abundance, along with searing pace, and he almost gave his parents, who had travelled overnight via Istanbul, a reward for their cross-continent jaunt.
First, exhibiting the anticipation absent all evening, he pounced on a defensive mistake and needed just a millisecond to skim a left-foot shot that demanded a vigilant save.
Then, in injury time, exhibiting a sprinter’s take-off, the ball bobbling then hanging in the air, his half volley from the left of the box rifled into the side-netting.
It was a half-chance at best, yet – impressively – Connolly’s post-match interview revealed an elite level, no-excuses mentality, one that insisted, against all the evidence, that he really should have seized the day.
"I probably should have scored. I might have a sleepless night tonight. At 0-0 in an international game you’ve got to score. As a striker in a situation like that you have to score. I’m gutted," he said.
There was a beyond-his-years maturity and reflection to Connolly’s words, even if he was in a minority of one in believing he had squandered some gilt edged chance.
McCarthy perhaps made a legitimate argument that most Irish fans would have taken 12 points from six unbeaten games at the outset.
But the concerning trend of disappointing performances – outside of Connolly’s blistering cameo there was little about which to enthuse – took a further sharp downward turn here.
The poverty of Ireland’s play was on a par with that grim 2017 night at the same venue when Martin O’Neill’s side were outpassed by 621 passes to 214 and enjoyed just 26% of possession.
Here that rose to 46%, but the visiting side were again second best against a team from football’s nether reaches.
Until Connolly's too-late, but tantalising arrival illustrated where Ireland had been deficient in those endless minutes he sat caged in his sideline pen.
When, at last, he was set free, the immediate sense was of a superior safecracker liberated to pillage the Georgian vaults.
That and a nagging foreboding that McCarthy might come to rue his stubborn refusal to hand the keys to the kingdom to the boy who would be king.