Michael O'Connor in action for Shamrock Rovers against Dundalk FC in 2017. (Pic: Sportsfile)
Michael O’Connor hopes his recent debut appearance for the Ireland U21s can inspire children to play locally.
The 20-year-old, who has played a key role for Linfield as they edge towards the Irish Premiership title, made Stephen Kenny’s first Ireland squad in charge for March’s European qualifier against Luxembourg, becoming the second Dundalk man to play for the U21s in six months.
Incidentally, O’Connor was in the same year as the area’s other flag-bearer, Jimmy Dunne - who featured against Germany last autumn - at the De La Salle, which is a further feather in the cap of a school who have also catered for Ireland legend Steve Staunton in the past.
“It’s great for the town and I hope younger kids, my little brother is coming through now, they’re looking up to us and saying that it is possible (to make it) because when you work hard it is possible,” he told The Democrat.
“People wrote me off for a long time and I just keep bouncing back and proving them wrong.
“I haven’t come from a luxurious background, I come from Cox’s and I’m not afraid to admit that, but anything is possible.
“To make my U21 debut is something else and I actually feel very privileged to wear the jersey because there’s not many people who get to do it. Hopefully I get to do it again.”
Linfield, O’Connor’s third club since leaving Dundalk, after Shamrock Rovers and Finn Harps, sit on the verge of landing a second league title in three seasons, with the striker having featured regularly on their run to the top, most memorably scoring the winner against Glentoran in the early season meeting of Belfast’s big two.
As a player - although in a division which he admits is of an inferior standard to the League of Ireland - O’Connor feels he has improved considerably through gaining regular first-team football.
And he’s taken lessons from working alongside Blues boss David Healy and striker Andy Waterworth, often staying behind after training to work on finishing, mindful of continuing to learn his trade.
Looking ahead, the Dundalk academy graduate is hopeful of inclusion in Kenny’s U21 panel for this summer’s Toulon tournament, and he feels working hard and taking chances are key to that becoming a reality.
Playing in a “physical” league, the former Woodview man has had to adapt to avoid becoming the victim of some “dirty tackles”, although they don’t always come from strangers. O’Connor, after all, has faced his elder brother, Ciarán, of Warrenpoint Town, on a couple of occasions this season and the personal rivalry has manifested itself in the house as well as on the field, he quips.
“He’s barking, but I’m not biting,” O’Connor adds, “but it’s good for the family.”
Asked to reflect on a campaign of great strives, he said: “I felt there was a lot of pressure on me going to Linfield because I’ve played with Dundalk and moved around.
“But I set targets and I’m hitting them.”
It’s hard to argue otherwise.