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The 21-year-old closing in on his 70th Ireland cap at all levels

Lee O’Connor has been enjoying his first taste of regular senior football at Tranmere.

Lee O'Connor (file pic).
Lee O'Connor (file pic).
Image: PA

LEE O’CONNOR is certainly no stranger to international football.

The full-back is one of the most experienced players in Jim Crawford’s Ireland U21 squad, and there are even individuals in the senior team that would not have put on the green jersey anywhere near as often as the young full-back.

The Waterford native has been a constant presence in Irish underage sides in the last number of years and also has one senior cap to his name so far, lining out in a November 2019 friendly against New Zealand back when Mick McCarthy was manager.

“Lee’s been an amazing stalwart at underage football, I was just told today that he was approaching his 70th cap, which is fantastic,” says Crawford. “It speaks volumes for the player to earn that many caps at that level.”

O’Connor was an important player for the U21s in the last campaign when they narrowly missed out on qualification for a first-ever major tournament and he is expected to play an important role again for the upcoming game against Luxembourg on Friday.

“We had a good squad last year and we’ve seen that many people go up to the first team so that’s hopefully what it’s about,” he says. “I’ve been around for a long time so it’s down to me and the other senior players to help the younger lads because there are a lot of younger lads here so it’s up to us to help them along to make sure we’re ticking away.”

O’Connor has been making decent strides at club level too. The defender enjoyed his first sustained run of first-team action last season.

With first-team football hard to come by at Celtic, he went on loan to Tranmere, appearing 42 times in all competitions as they agonisingly lost out to Morecambe in a play-off semi-final.

After that encouraging campaign, it was no surprise to see O’Connor make another temporary move to the League Two side in the most recent transfer window. 

“I’m happy to be back,” he says. “It’s something that I wanted to do. It took a bit longer than I hoped for, it’s something I’m really happy with.

“[Last season] was the next step I needed to make, play a full season of men’s football and I do think it’s benefited me. I’ve learnt a lot and hopefully, I can take it into this season and we can do good things.”

But with only two substitute appearances to his name in the league thus far, O’Connor admits it has been a less than ideal start to the new campaign.

“I would have preferred to have played more games up to now. But things happen, it is what it is, I feel good, I feel ready and I’ll be ready for Friday if selected.”

The competition is similarly strong with Ireland. O’Connor completed 90 minutes in the recent 1-1 draw with Luxembourg but had to be content with a substitute appearance in the 2-0 victory over Bosnia, with Andy Lyons and Will Ferry occupying the full-back starting spots that day.

“I don’t think just the full-back slots, there is competition everywhere,” he adds. “We have great strength in depth. Everyone has to do well at their clubs and whatnot to have a shot at getting in the squad.”

As well as O’Connor has done to earn so many caps, there is a sense that his momentum has stalled somewhat, two years on from capping his memorable Ireland senior debut amid a 3-1 win, with Stephen Kenny’s side having only tasted victory on one occasion since then.

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What does he need to do to get back to that level?

“I just have to keep doing what I’m doing, playing my football. Hopefully, get into the senior set-up at some point. But we’ve two of the best right-backs in the Premier League in the senior team so it’s not going to be easy for me.”

The much-discussed subject of vaccines was also brought up and O’Connor confirmed he had been vaccinated while emphasising that he would respect the “personal decision” of others.

“I’m vaccinated. I don’t have a problem with it, but I’m not a doctor. I’m not going to tell people what they should be doing. I’m just a footballer. I have no right to tell people what to do. They can speak to doctors and whatnot and get a better understanding.”

And for a player who clearly loves playing for Ireland, the prospect of missing out on Tuesday’s encounter in Montenegro owing to British government guidelines around Covid must be especially frustrating?

“I’m trying not to think about it. None of us are thinking about it. We’re just thinking about Luxembourg. It is a big thing for me to play for my country but it’s out of our control. We just have to play it by ear.”

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Paul Fennessy

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