DOWN the road in Merseyside they are looking at Wanderers’ midfielder Luca Connell as one that got away.

A breakthrough star of Nicky Spooner’s exciting Under-18s side which reached the play-offs last season, the 17-year-old has already been drafted into the first team reckoning by Phil Parkinson this summer.

Liverpudlian Connell has played for the Republic of Ireland at youth team level but has been within the ranks at Lostock from a tender age.

And though Liverpool and Everton have continued to keep tabs on his progress, Spooner was delighted to see him take to the field last weekend in the 2-1 friendly win at Halifax.

“You get a lot of pride seeing the lads step up,” he told The Bolton News. “I’ve known Luca since he was eight years old.

“We signed him at nine, when we could, and he’s come all the way through the system.

“He’s a Liverpool lad, so we had to get ahead of the bigger clubs over there. We took him in but they’ve been sniffing at him for years and recognise his talent.”

Connell has made his reputation in the Bolton youth side as a goal-scoring midfielder, netting nine times in his 25 appearances last term.

But after a second-half reshuffle at The Shay he found himself covering at left-back for the final 25 minutes of the game.

“He actually played left-back for Ireland at the Euros,” Spooner said. “We see him as a midfielder but you’ve got to learn different positions. He can get up and down the pitch and has a good left foot.

“He’s very comfortable and not a lot flaps him, so we never had any worries when the first team took him along.”

Connell has not been the only Under-18 to make an impression on first team boss Parkinson.

Ronan Darcy was knocking on the door at the tail end of last season and Eddie Brown was plucked from training on Tuesday to take his place on the bench against Morecambe – replacing Adam Le Fondre midway through the second half.

Spooner is hoping the lure of first team experience can fire his players to progress even further when the competitive football starts again next month.

“We told the lads to make sure they come back fit because looking back at last season the gaffer was short on players and there were opportunities,” he said. “The manager has worked with these kids for two years now and he knows what they are about.

“That’s the benefit of having the academy and the first team at the training ground. Over the years it was 10 miles up the road, it was different getting a kid to make up the numbers in training. Now it’s 10 yards.

“For example for the Halifax friendly they were a bit short, so they asked us to name a name. And then for Morecambe they needed another one.

“The manager has had Ronan Darcy training with them on a regular basis, and Eddie Brown got his chance against Morecambe. The first team trust them, they are good footballers.”

David Lee’s Under-23s continued their pre-season preparations with a 0-0 draw at Clitheroe on Wednesday night, the team featuring a handful of the players making the transition between Spooner’s group and the development squad.

For Connnell and Co, making a push for regular football under Lee and Jimmy Phillips is the challenge set down by Spooner in the coming months.

“The next step is to get that mixture of football for the Under-18s and the 23s, know what it’s like playing around the first team environment and then after all that it’s down to the manager,” he said.

“We’ve seen the first year scholars train with the first team in pre-season. Now they are back on site, some of the Under-18s can get that opportunity. But it only comes with hard work.”