Saturday 21 September 2019

Lee O'Connor: The 'very impressive young man' and Celtic's latest Irish recruit

Lee O'Connor of Republic of Ireland
Lee O'Connor of Republic of Ireland
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

AS a young kid from Waterford at Manchester United, it was inevitable that Lee O'Connor would be compared with John O'Shea.

The fact that he was a versatile defender that could play at centre half or in either full back position meant that the statement went far beyond geography.

O'Connor is also a popular and well adjusted teenager who has been regarded as captain material by both club and country on his move through the ranks

But he will not be following in O'Shea's footsteps by making the breakthrough into senior football at Old Trafford.

Instead, he has relocated north to Celtic after an unexpected move was completed ahead of the close of the Scottish transfer deadline last night.

O'Connor is the latest Irish prospect to make the move north of the border, following in the footsteps of Luca Connell and Jonathan Afolabi - two of his team-mates from his underage international career.

Connell left Bolton this summer after training with Mick McCarthy's senior side, while Afolabi earned a three-year contract after his impressive displays in the European U19 Championships - in a side captained by O'Connor.

Both players suffered a gut-wrenching end to that competition when suspension ruled them out of the semi final loss to Portugal.

It was a boost for Tom Mohan that United allowed O'Connor to travel for that tournament.

But it possibly also told the player that his future lay elsewhere. He had gone through the visa requirements to travel with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's team for their tour of China. However, they decided to go with other options and have now allowed O'Connor to depart on a permanent basis.

He was registered for United's Champions League panel ahead of their showdown with Barcelona in April, and was around the first team on a number of occasions without ever making the bench.

O'Shea and Darron Gibson did make the breakthrough this century, but O'Connor has arrived at the same crossroads that led Paul McShane and Robbie Brady to go in a different career direction - after outlasting other United hopefuls that fell by the wayside earlier.

In the name of development, it's probably a percentage call to go elsewhere in search of first team football although it will be far from straightforward at Celtic where there are a number of young prospects seeking to break into Neil Lennon's plans.

Indeed, his arrival was announced just after Celtic confirmed the capture of Dutch teen Jeremie Frimpong from Manchester City, another recruit from a big academy that can play in a number of positons.

Lennon could speak to his old boss Martin O'Neill if he wanted a recommendation. Ten months ago, O'Connor was brought to Denmark to train with the Ireland seniors in what proved to be O'Neill's final game in charge.

"He's a very impressive young man," said O'Neill at the time. "He's a quiet lad, as Nicky Butt said to Roy [Keane] about him. I've been very impressed with him — as a person and as a player. I don't think he's one of those lads who will get carried away with it."

O'Connor has since graduated into Stephen Kenny's U21 squad, nailing down a place as the first choice right back.

Yet he has also gained a lot of experience in the centre of defence for Manchester United's U-23 team.

He's short of six foot, which means that some managers will harbour concerns about his physicality when it comes to trusting him in a central defensive position at senior level.

O'Connor is a technically assured performer, however, and has time on his side in an attempt to figure out his future.

The news that United had opted to let him go did surprise fans that had closely followed his progress across his three years in England.

His challenge now is to prove that Solskjaer and his staff have made a big mistake.

Online Editors

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