Sunday 15 December 2019

Scouting trips pay dividends for Kenny as O'Connor repays U-21 boss's faith

Boundaries played a vital role in Thomas O'Connor's upbringing so he wasn't surprised when U-21 manager Stephen Kenny waited before affording him the benefit of fine margins. (stock photo)
Boundaries played a vital role in Thomas O'Connor's upbringing so he wasn't surprised when U-21 manager Stephen Kenny waited before affording him the benefit of fine margins. (stock photo)

John Fallon

Boundaries played a vital role in Thomas O'Connor's upbringing so he wasn't surprised when U-21 manager Stephen Kenny waited before affording him the benefit of fine margins.

Calls for the Southampton player's call-up got louder after his loan move to Gillingham early in the season but it wasn't until Tuesday that his debut arrived. O'Connor capitalised on the opening, producing a stellar display in the 1-0 win over Armenia.

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Irrespective of today's result between their rivals Italy and Iceland, Ireland will still have top spot in their European Championship group heading into Tuesday's showdown against Sweden.

O'Connor's contribution from left-back in Yerevan, both defensively and offensively, should be enough to keep him in that berth for the visit of the second seeds to Tallaght for Ireland's seventh game of 2021 qualifying. It was better late than never for the 20-year-old.

Kenny's initial scouting mission on the Kilkenny native didn't end well as Gillingham were hammered 3-0 by Oxford. A similar scoreline was inflicted in his next visit to watch the League One side but O'Connor felt better.

"When Oxford battered us, none of us had a good game," he reflected. "I knew Stephen was watching and could understand why he didn't pick me.

"He came back to watch me against Rotherham a couple of weeks ago and thought I'd played better. I was delighted to get the call-up because the U-21s was in the back of my mind all season."

O'Connor had a lot to consume his mind when growing up in Tullogher-Rosbercon, not just what sport to pursue but which county to represent.

Attending school and playing for a club over the New Ross bridge saw him sometimes wear Wexford colours, such as representing his county at the famous Kennedy Cup tournament.

Yet, home was where the heart was and through his local club, Kilkenny's hurling team came calling. "I loved hurling underage for Kilkenny," he admits. "If I was to ever go back playing hurling, it would only be in the black and amber. All my family are from Wexford but they raised me in a Kilkenny parish. They've nobody to blame but themselves if I end up playing for Kilkenny!"

Lee O'Connor and Jayson Molumby will return from suspension against Sweden. Conor Masterson might also be available, having missed his first game of the campaign with a calf injury, but fellow centre-back Nathan Collins is nursing a knock. Dara O'Shea serves a one-match ban for his red card in Armenia.

Irish Independent

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