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Dublin: 7°C Tuesday 9 March 2021

Ireland U21 international says leaving Man United was the 'right decision'

Lee O’Connor has no regrets about departing the Old Trafford outfit for Celtic.

Lee O'Connor (file pic).
Lee O'Connor (file pic).
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

LEE O’CONNOR HAS been a key performer for Ireland U21s of late.

The full-back has been an integral part of a defence that has conceded two goals in eight games, discounting the 2-0 defeat by Brazil during the summer.

He has featured in all of Ireland’s Euro qualifiers so far, alongside Dara O’Shea and Conor Masterson. Darragh Leahy had been slotting in at left-back, but was unavailable last night, meaning UCD’s Liam Scales took his place.

And despite this alteration, the Irish team looked as assured as ever, racking up another clean sheet against Italy following a solid display.

“I think it was a good performance,” O’Connor said afterwards. “We probably had the better chances in the game. We’re kind of disappointed not to come away with three points in the end.

“I like playing with Zach [Elbouzedi]. I played with him a good few times, so we got a good understanding. I think that’ll just continue to grow the more we play.

“That’s the first [qualifying] game that the back four has changed due to Darragh’s injury. But the defensive record speaks for itself.

“Everyone’s got a great relationship. We know each other’s game inside out. I think that’ll just continue to get better as well, as the campaign goes on.”

O’Connor faced a difficult task last night, as he was up against an Italian side that included Luca Pellegrini on the left. The 20-year-old has already featured for Roma and Cagliari in Serie A, while he joined Juventus for €22 million in the summer.

“It’s a good experience. Obviously, he’s come down from the senior team. So he did pose a threat. But I think we dealt with it rather well.

They kind of overloaded the left side. The left-back played more like a left winger. We knew that coming into the game, so we just prepared for it.

“I probably didn’t get forward as much as I would have liked to, but you have to have games where you sit back and defend — the clean sheet was the most important thing.”

It’s been a busy time in O’Connor’s life. The 19-year-old, who is also comfortable playing centre-back or in midfield, left Man United to join Celtic last month.

“I’ve been enjoying it. I’m just settling in at the moment, I’m just looking forward to playing my football and showing them what I can do.”

O’Connor is not the only Irish player at the club, with fellow underage internationals Luca Connell and Jonathan Afolabi also both recently signing for the Scottish Premiership side.

“They’ve been a massive help, especially Jonny — I’m great friends with Jonny. It’s helped me settle in a lot quicker.”

And for all his enthusiasm about this new beginning, the Waterford native admits leaving Man United was not easy.

Obviously, I went as a 15-year-old kid. It was like a second home to me. I’d become very close to everyone. The people I lived with, the players, everyone at the club.

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“It was a tough decision to leave, but at the end of the day, it has to be purely about football and what’s best for my career and I think I made the right decision.

“I had an amazing three-and-a-bit seasons at United. I couldn’t speak highly enough about the club, the people at it, the players, everyone. But I think it was time for me to move on and everyone at the club understood that.”

Now, O’Connor is focusing on the future. Having signed a four-year deal, he is hopeful of ultimately earning a first-team spot with Neil Lennon’s side.

At the moment, I’m just looking to get a run of games [at underage level] and show them why they’ve got me there. Hopefully, the coaching staff will see and next season in pre-season, I can show the first-team manager that I’m capable enough to make the step.

“They put great faith in me. I’m very grateful for that, so I’m just looking to repay their faith now, get a good run of games and have a good performance level

“You want to get into the first team. That’s why I went to Celtic — it’s what I’m looking to do and hopefully I can do it.”

Andy Dunne and Murray Kinsella join Gavan Casey to preview Ireland-Samoa, and discuss the utter farce of the World Cup falling foul of Typhoon Hagibis.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Paul Fennessy

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