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Dublin: 11°C Tuesday 19 January 2021

O'Neill won't exceed his brief by urging 'impressive' O'Connor to leave United

Despite not playing a first-team game for Manchester United, Lee O’Connor is currently in the Ireland squad.

Paul Dollery reports from Aarhus, Denmark

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND manager Martin O’Neill has heaped praise on Lee O’Connor after giving the young defender his first senior international call-up.

However, O’Neill has insisted that he won’t exceed his brief by encouraging the 18-year-old to leave Manchester United in order to continue his development at club level.

Lee O'Connor Lee O'Connor training with Ireland at Ceres Park in Aarhus last night. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

O’Connor is with the Ireland squad in Aarhus for this evening’s Uefa Nations League fixture against Denmark (7.45pm Irish time). That’s in spite of the fact that he has yet to play a first-team game at club level.

Nevertheless, O’Neill has been impressed by what he has seen of the versatile defender, who captained the Ireland U19s to a 2-1 victory over the Netherlands in a European Championship qualifier last month.

“A very impressive young man,” said O’Neill. “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.

“It looks as if he’s got a decent future ahead of himself. You can’t get carried away with things. But he’s enjoyed it. He’s enjoyed the training immensely.

At first I think he said he thought it was intense. That’s good. It’s a great experience for him. I think that’s something that will stand him in really good stead when he gets back to Manchester United.

“I don’t think he’s one of these lads that will get carried away with it. It will stand him in good stead and I think he will get confidence from it, which is really important.”

Having turned 18 in July, O’Connor is the youngest member of the 24-man panel that O’Neill has taken to Denmark. Along with Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher, Hearts (on loan from Burnley) defender Jimmy Dunne and Southampton striker Michael Obafemi, O’Connor is one of four uncapped players in the travelling party.

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However, the Waterford native — who can operate in the centre and on the left side of defence — won’t be in contention to make his senior international debut this evening, having been omitted from the match-day squad which is restricted to 23 players.

O’Connor, who joined Manchester United in 2016, is highly-regarded at Old Trafford. He has featured regularly for the club’s U23 side but has yet to be given a chance to impress in Jose Mourinho’s first team.

Manchester United v Juventus - UEFA Youth League - Group H - Leigh Sports Village Lee O'Connor playing for Manchester United against Juventus recently in the Uefa Youth League. Source: EMPICS Sport

It’s still early days for O’Connor, but O’Neill acknowledges that it will be difficult for him to advance his development while he’s at Manchester United, where opportunities for young players to make a breakthrough are limited due to the financial muscle the club is capable of flexing in the transfer market.

However, when asked if he would urge O’Connor to leave United in search of first-team football elsewhere, O’Neill said: “I think it might be early for that. This is a conversation that we’ve had in the not-too-distant past.

I know that when I was a club manager, if international managers said that a player should be sent out on loan, it’s not something I really enjoyed hearing. I’m certainly far from doing that. I think it’s something that players will have to look at.

“They will see the situation for themselves. If they’re not going to get in at first-team level but feel that they’re certainly capable of playing at a lower level — I’m talking about from Premier League to Championship — I think it’s something that clubs would certainly look at favourably now.

“They probably should do in that situation. The clubs have got a bit of responsibility to think, ‘we don’t want to hold this boy back and have him playing underage football for another two years’. Go out and get some experience. That would be great.

“But if you’re asking me should I go and tell any Premier League club to do that, I think that’s outside my remit.”

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Paul Dollery

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