Thursday 13 December 2018

Dundalk-born striker Michael O'Connor confirms switch from Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland

Michael O'Connor has declared for Northern Ireland
Michael O'Connor has declared for Northern Ireland

Steven Beacom

Linfield striker Michael O'Connor has confirmed that he has declared to play for Northern Ireland and revealed his first aim is earn a call-up to Ian Baraclough's Under-21 squad.

Dundalk native O'Connor previously represented the Republic of Ireland at Under-18 and Under-19 level but has decided to switch allegiance, stating that he believes it is the right decision for him.

The 20-year-old forward's grandmother Patricia was born in Belfast, which offers him the opportunity to turn out for Northern Ireland.

O'Connor's move bucks a trend that has seen more players opt to go from north to south in recent years. Stoke's James McClean and Brighton's Shane Duffy are two of the most well known players who came through the Northern Ireland ranks at under-age level before deciding to play senior international football for the Republic.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill and the IFA have been disappointed to lose a number of players to the FAI, so O'Connor's decision will be viewed as a positive one at Windsor Park.

O'Connor has played in the Champions League for Dundalk and with Finn Harps and Shamrock Rovers previously. He joined Linfield in the summer and has become a huge favourite with the fans due to his all-action style and ability to create and score goals, including a winner against Big Two rivals Glentoran at The Oval in a vital league game.

Also on target in Tuesday's 2-1 victory at Portadown in the BetMcLean Cup, O'Connor spoke about his international future, which has been the subject of some speculation.

"It is true that I've declared for Northern Ireland," he said. "My nanny Patricia is from Dundalk like me but she was born in Belfast, and I think it is the right decision for me, so going forward hopefully I will be playing for Northern Ireland.

"I just turned 20 in July so I can play in the next campaign for the Under-21s, and hopefully if I'm doing things right and scoring goals for Linfield I'll get the nod."

Earlier this year, Baraclough's Under-21 side just missed out on a Euro 2019 finals play-off spot with Glenavon's Mark Sykes to the fore. Baraclough plans to build on the momentum and O'Connor wants to be part of that.

For now, though, the Linfield striker is focusing on his club's highly anticipated league encounter at home to champions Crusaders on Saturday one week after the Blues were knocked off the top spot by Ballymena.

O'Connor, whose older brother Ciaran plays for Warrenpoint, said: "Obviously after the defeat to Ballymena it was good to get back on our feet with a victory at Portadown and we'll look forward to facing Crusaders.

"I had a wee spell of not scoring, so it was nice to score again, though the most important thing was to get the win.

"The Crusaders match is a massive one for us. All of them are when you are at Linfield. I love being at the club and I love the fans, who have been great with me. It's a real honour playing for Linfield because it is such a great club and it's fantastic working with the manager David Healy and all the players."

After Crusaders, the Blues travel to holders Dungannon Swifts on Tuesday for a League Cup semi-final, a trophy Linfield haven't claimed since 2008.

"We haven't won the competition for a long time so it was important for us to beat Portadown and move into the semi-finals," added O'Connor.

"Dungannon have been playing well lately and it's not an easy place to go. The plan will be to enter that game with momentum and hopefully we can reach the final and win the League Cup."

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