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The last Irishman to play a Champions League game is on the hunt for promotion in England

Eoghan O’Connell is aiming for a return to League One next season.

EOGHAN O’CONNELL’S DETERMINATION to ensure that none of his potential goes to waste is manifested in the sacrifices he would have made with the benefit of hindsight.

It’s unlikely that many footballers would trade the opportunity to play alongside Virgil van Dijk, and against Lionel Messi, for the rigours of life in the fourth tier of English football.

Barcelona v Celtic - UEFA Champions League - Group C - Camp Nou Eoghan O'Connell of Celtic tracking Barcelona's Lionel Messi. Source: EMPICS Sport

A competitive debut as Van Dijk’s partner at the heart of Celtic’s defence was “absolutely phenomenal”, he says. “Amazing” is his description of the night he shared the pitch at the Camp Nou with the likes of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

O’Connell cherishes the memories. He’s not reluctant to acknowledge how fortunate he was to be in such esteemed company while still a relative novice. However, for a man intent on getting the maximum yield from his career, those experiences haven’t clouded his judgement.

Two-and-a-half years since he played for Celtic in front of a crowd of over 70,000 at the home of Barcelona, the Corkman is contributing to Bury’s bid for promotion from League Two. The only regret for O’Connell is that he didn’t make such a move sooner.

The 23-year-old defender is part of a four-man Irish contingent at Bury, which also includes Joe Murphy, Stephen Dawson and leading goalscorer Jay O’Shea.

Having suffered the disappointment of relegation from League One last season, the Greater Manchester club are on course for an immediate return. They’re currently in second place in a division that rewards its top three teams with automatic promotion. 

“We’ve had a decent streak of results recently but it’s still quite tight. Some of the teams behind us have a game or two in hand, so there’s a long way to go yet,” O’Connell explains.

“In League One and League Two, if you can put a bit of a run together you can get yourself into a good position. That’s what we’ve done. We’re confident because of that, but we’re also aware that a couple of bad results could change everything.”

Bury v Sunderland - Pre Season Friendly - Gigg Lane O'Connell is contracted to Bury until the summer of 2020. Source: EMPICS Sport

O’Connell’s transfer to Bury in the summer of 2017 ended a six-year spell at Celtic, who he joined at the age of 16. The move to Scotland certainly wasn’t the first significant sporting feat achieved by a member of his extended family.

The O’Connells are steeped in GAA tradition with Blackrock/St Michaels on Cork’s southside. Eoghan’s uncle Ken O’Connell won an All-Ireland minor football medal in 1993. His cousin Tom Linehan was a member of the Cork U20 team that reached last year’s Munster final. Damien, Eoghan’s father, was a striker with Cork City during the 1990s. Older brother Andy has also played for the League of Ireland club. Another cousin, Paul O’Connell, didn’t do too badly on the rugby pitch in the colours of Munster and Ireland.

In March 2014, three days after Celtic were confirmed as champions of Scotland for the third consecutive year, manager Neil Lennon gave Eoghan O’Connell his seal of approval. O’Connell’s parents were among the 50,000 attendance at Parkhead to see their 18-year-old son starting alongside Virgil van Dijk in a 1-1 draw against Ross County.

“Neil Lennon was brilliant with me,” O’Connell recalls. “I kind of knew at that stage that I wasn’t ready to play, but they needed me to go on the bench for a few games after Christmas. Then in the March I was given my debut.

“It was definitely an incredible experience. When I was walking off the pitch I looked up into the stand and saw my mother crying. I probably won’t ever forget stuff like that.”

The opportunity to play with Van Dijk has taken on increased significance for O’Connell since the Dutch defender joined Liverpool from Southampton last year. A lifelong supporter of the Anfield club, he renewed his acquaintance with Van Dijk last July when Bury played out a goalless draw with Jurgen Klopp’s side in a pre-season friendly. 

Soccer - Scottish Premiership - Celtic v Ross County - Celtic Park O'Connell (right) with Liam Henderson after making his first-team debut for Celtic. Source: Jeff Holmes

“For me he is the best centre-back in the world, an unbelievable player,” says O’Connell, who also partnered Kolo Toure in the centre of defence during his time at Celtic.

“When [Van Dijk] first signed for Celtic, I remember going out on to the training ground and being blown away by the size of the guy. He’s just a huge man. When the talk started about him leaving and he went to Southampton, I was urging him to go to Liverpool even then.

“Before the start of the season we played Liverpool so I got a chance to chat to him after the game and he gave me his shirt, which was nice. Hopefully he can help Liverpool to go on and win the Premier League now.”

The outlook seemed particularly bright for O’Connell when Brendan Rodgers took charge of Celtic ahead of the 2016-17 season. After he played all 90 minutes in both legs as they got the better of Astana in a Champions League qualifier, the manager spoke in glowing terms about the contribution of his “outstanding” young centre-back.

“He’s a wonderful young footballer,” Rodgers said. “He dominates in the air so he wins his headers. If you want to reach the highest level then you’ve got to be able to dominate the ball. For a kid, he passes it really well. He has an in-built brain for the game.”

Despite such lofty praise from his new boss, opportunities were scarce for O’Connell in a formidable Celtic side who won a domestic treble by remaining undefeated in 47 games.

In total he made 13 senior appearances for Celtic between the spring of 2014 and the autumn of 2016. That period also included loan spells at Oldham Athletic and Cork City, both of which were cut short by injuries. 

inpho_00004300 Damien O'Connell, Eoghan's father, with Cork City in 1996. Source: Matt Browne\INPHO

His last game for Celtic was the 7-0 defeat to Barcelona, in which Lionel Messi notched a hat-trick. O’Connell’s introduction as a second-half substitute makes him the most recent Irishman to feature beyond the qualifying/play-off stages of the Champions League.

While it would be an exaggeration to claim that his career has been plagued by injury problems, O’Connell’s progress has undoubtedly been impeded by the prevalence of such setbacks.

He impressed during a rare injury-free spell while on loan at Walsall, after which he deduced that his career would be best served by making a fresh start away from Celtic.

“Celtic offered me another year but I knew my time was up,” he admits. “I had been at the club for a long time while not playing as often as I would have liked. It has probably cost me as well, if I’m being honest.

“I was with the squad but spending a lot of time on the bench. Instead I could have spent that time playing games somewhere else. If you look at my CV, I actually don’t have a huge amount of appearances to my name. A lot of people at my age have already played 200 or 300 games.

“Making my debut at 18 was obviously very special. The problem was that I didn’t follow it up with the type of game-time I needed to develop. I know I’ve had injury problems but for long periods then there was actually nothing major that held me back, so there was a lot of lost time.  

“I was training with Celtic’s first-team but most of the time I was going back then to play games with the reserves. They can often be kind of nothing games and they don’t do a whole lot for a player in terms of gaining experience. 

Celtic v FC Astana - UEFA Champions League - Third Qualifying Round - Second Leg - Celtic Park O'Connell tangles with Astana's Patrick Twumasi. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“Getting out and playing first-team football — whether it’s in League Two or wherever — is huge. In a lot of ways I don’t think it matters massively what league it’s in, as long as they’re competitive matches at a half-decent level. 

“It’s obviously easy to say that now, because back then I was a young lad who just wanted to get into the Celtic team. You’re holding out hope that it’ll eventually work out. But there’s no doubt that leaving Celtic was the right move for me.

“Looking back, I probably would swap the great experiences I had for the chance to play regularly somewhere else. At the end of the day, 20 minutes in the Nou Camp isn’t going to make your career.”

Injuries have also hindered O’Connell at Bury. He sustained a knee problem on the eve of his first season, the majority of which was then spent on the sidelines. Last weekend’s win over MK Dons marked his 18th game of the current campaign, although that number would be much greater had he not been ruled out for a couple of months as a result of a calf issue.

By now he’s due some good fortune when it comes to avoiding the physical obstacles which have been frustratingly frequent. If his luck turns, he’ll back himself to capitalise.

Forest Green Rovers might be providing the opposition these days instead of Barcelona, but O’Connell is adamant that the player now chasing promotion from League Two is an upgraded version of the one who got a taste of the Champions League. 

“I think I’ve always done well enough when I’ve been able to stay fit,” he says. “If I can get a clear run of games I feel I can definitely show what type of player I am. By the law of averages I’m probably due a clear run. 

Lincoln City v Bury - Sky Bet League Two - Sincil Bank Celebrating after scoring against current League Two leaders Lincoln City earlier this season. Source: Nigel French

“I’m 23 now and I’ve often been told that I’m a bit of a late developer when it comes to growing, so maybe that has played a part as well. Hopefully the injuries are behind me now — for a while anyway — and I can push on.

“I think I’m still improving. I might have played in some big games at Celtic, but I actually believe I’m a better player now than I was then. When I’m fully fit, as I think I showed at the start of this season, I’m capable of being a very good player. 

“I’m doing everything I can off the pitch to try and stay fit. Hopefully I’ll get that clear run of games and see where that takes me.”

For O’Connell, the recent plight of a former schoolboy team-mate was a reminder that staying resilient in the face of adversity is a challenge that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

He has known fellow ex-Ireland U21 international Brian Lenihan since he first kicked a ball at the Corinthians club as a five-year-old. In April 2018, Lenihan announced his retirement at the age of 23 after recurring injuries had restricted him to just two games for Hull City in the four years since he joined the club.

However, in a courageously candid interview, Lenihan later revealed that he called time on his career for the sake of his mental health, having endured “a dark, dark period” while battling depression.

Eoghan O'Connell with Aljaz Krefi O'Connell playing for Ireland U21s against Slovenia in September 2016. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Lenny has come out very bravely and explained his own situation, which obviously must have been unbelievably tough for him. I think he’s in a much better place now and it’s great to see him getting back on his feet again. What a player he was as well,” says O’Connell. 

“After listening to a lot of what he said in his interview, I can understand where he’s coming from in terms of the pressures of dealing with injuries and not getting to where you think you should be. 

“When you’re over here away from home, you can spend a lot of time on your own and you have a lot of time on your hands when you’re finished training every day at one or two o’clock. You can end up staring at the wall and over-thinking things. Particularly when things aren’t going well, I can certainly see how you could easily find yourself on a downward spiral.

“When I’ve had my lows with injuries and stuff, I’ve kept telling myself that there’ll be something around the corner to turn me back in the right direction. There’s a lot of ups and downs in this game. The lows can be quite low, but you just have to keep pushing on as well as you can. 

“Lenny’s situation probably opened a lot of people’s eyes to the reality of it. Setbacks in your career will never be easy to deal with, but I’ve definitely tried to keep in mind recently that there’s more important things in life.”

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Paul Dollery

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