Reds defender O'Connor boosted by Irish call-up
Manchester United defender Lee O'Connor feels he has been boosted by training with the Republic of Ireland senior squad.
The 18-year-old was promoted to the senior party during the last international break, as reward for his efforts with the younger age-group sides, and has been making progress with the Reds as well as he prepares to take on Young Boys in the UEFA Youth League on Tuesday at Leigh Sports Village (13:00 GMT kick-off, live on MUTV in the UK).
The opportunity to work with Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane proved to be a one-off as the coaches have now been replaced by Mick McCarthy, alongside Terry O'Connor and Robbie Keane, before Stephen Kenny takes charge in two years' time.
Nonetheless, the experience will stand O'Connor in good stead as he looks to earn a breakthrough and a full cap for his country.
"It was a great experience to be around the first team and see how things are done at the highest level," he told MUTV. "I just hope that I can push on in that squad in the future.
"We’ve had a good year for my age at international level so there are a few very good players and it’s nice to see we’re being recognised, I’m sure there will be few others joining me. All you want to do when you grow up is get involved in the [Ireland] senior set-up so we're seeing there is a pathway. Not for just me but for all the younger boys coming through, you can see it’s there.
"It was good, they’re all very good players and very good professionals so every training session was flat out 100 per cent. So it was a good learning experience for me. I've had a lot of texts from the staff I worked with in the younger age groups and I’m very thankful to them for the work they’ve done with me on the way up. And then obviously I'm grateful to the senior set-up who made me feel welcome when I came in."
O'Connor is hoping to follow in the footsteps of another famous former Waterford footballer in ex-Reds star John O'Shea.
O'Shea is a perfect example of what can be achieved at United when hard work can be allied to talent. Now with Reading, the versatile performer clocked up 393 appearances for the Reds and won a string of honours, while also representing his country 118 times.
"There have been a lot of very good Irish players," he added. "John O’Shea was probably the last biggest one, so I hopefully want to continue that one on. There’s a big scouting network in Ireland, there’s a lot of good talent and United have seen that throughout the years.
"The training with the senior squad has given me a bit of confidence, that I am improving and it is being seen, so it's definitely a good thing for me."
O'Connor and his team-mates have been in outstanding form under Nicky Butt's tutelage in the UEFA Youth League, topping Group H and looking to seal qualification for the knockout stages.
After convincing home wins against both Valencia and Juventus, there will be a buzz of excitement around Leigh Sports Village when Tuesday's match takes place.
"It's certainly a big game against Young Boys," acknowledged the Irish defender, who'll be happy to start in any role at the back.
"We’re a very good attacking team but we’ve also not conceded a lot of goals. We have balance throughout the team.
"I do like attacking but, first and foremost, it’s about defending. I’m a defender so we need to stop the goals going in and let the attackers do what they do.
"As long as I’m playing, I’m happy. Wherever Nicky or Ricky [Sbragia, Under-23s coach] need me to play, anywhere, I don’t mind."
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