Michael O'Connor in Ireland U21 training last month. Bryan Keane/INPHO

'It was just blown up to say that I wanted to declare for Northern Ireland'

Dundalk native Michael O’Connor made his Republic of Ireland U21 debut against Luxembourg last month.

LINFIELD STRIKER MICHAEL O’Connor has said that he only ever intended to play internationally for the Republic of Ireland.

The Dundalk native made his Ireland U21 debut against Luxembourg last month after it was reported by the Belfast Telegraph in December that he had made a decision to declare for the North, who he qualifies for through his Antrim-born grandmother.

However, the 20-year-old, whose side are on the verge of clinching Irish Premiership title, insists he explored no options beyond the Boys in Green.

“I was never going to change, I played underage all the way up and I was never going to change my mind,” he told The42.

“I’m from the Republic and that’s who I want to represent. It was just blown up to say that I wanted to declare for Northern Ireland.”

Stephen Kenny Ireland U21 manager Stephen Kenny. Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

O’Connor says that he’s pleased to be working under Stephen Kenny again, the Ireland U21 manager who handed him his debut during their spell together at Dundalk in 2016.

The forward subsequently moved to Shamrock Rovers and had a spell on-loan at Finn Harps before signing for Linfield at the start of the campaign, a transfer which O’Connor feels has given him the chance to prove himself.

Nonetheless, he feels he performs best while working under Kenny.

“It was good to be under Stephen again because he brings the best out of me,” O’Connor adds.

“I think Stephen, he knows me better than anyone. He signed me at the age of 17, he gave me my debut in the Champions League, my League of Ireland debut and my Ireland U21 debut.

Michael O'Connor with Sean Hoare Michael O'Connor playing for Dundalk under Stephen Kenny in 2016. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

“He knows me and I think that’s a bonus, but I’m not just going to take it for granted that he’s going to pick me. I want to keep working hard and improving, but Stephen does bring the best out of me, I do know that.

A former Ireland U19 star, O’Connor refers to his wearing of the Ireland jersey as a “privilege” and insists there is more to come from the U21s ahead of this summer’s Toulon tournament.

“Stephen’s an exciting manager. He plays attacking football that’s really good to watch and that’s what people want, free-flowing football.

“The lads adapted to it really quickly as you could see against Luxembourg, I thought we were excellent and we had only been together six or seven days. It just shows how good we could be down the line.

“We’re looking really strong and we’ve the Toulon tournament now in June. I’m looking forward to that, hopefully I’m selected for it.”

Michael O'Connor and David Healy celebrate after the match O'Connor with Linfield boss David Healy. Jonathan Porter / INPHO Jonathan Porter / INPHO / INPHO

First called in by Kenny for February’s training camp, which included all home-based players, the striker has praised the squad’s neat blend of players plying their trade both nationally and abroad.

It’s a great experience for lads in the League of Ireland to play with the lads across in England because you can see if you’re far off what’s in England.

“It’s a big factor that lads are in and around first teams. You need to be involved with first teams and you can see in training sessions, the likes of myself, Danny Mandriou at Bohs and Trevor Clarke [who are playing first-team level within Ireland], it does really stand to you and it’s something you need to be doing, because you start to get leaders and there is more of a tempo to training.

“I’d love to be playing for Liverpool [like Conor Masterson], but if I could choose Liverpool U23s or playing League of Ireland with Dundalk or where I am at Linfield, I’d choose that [the latter] because you really do need to be playing first-team football.”

Gavan Casey and Ryan Bailey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look back on a thrilling weekend of European rugby on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud

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