Waterford and Manchester United starlet Lee O'Connor has the talent and temperament to go all the way
This lad is a serious talent.
There has been a lot of talk, understandably, about the future of Declan Rice. The West Ham centre-back has reportedly indicated that he intends to reject Gareth Southgate's advances to play for England in favour of sticking with Ireland.
With Martin O'Neill saying recently that Ireland's young guns will play an increasingly prominent role under his management, it's exciting to hear that he will be able to call upon Rice.
And if Rice is to become the next stalwart in Ireland's defence, Manchester United starlet Lee O'Connor may well be the man to partner him. The Waterford native has been making a real impression at Old Trafford for a while now and was one of the best performers for Ricky Sbragia's U23 side on Monday night in the 3-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur.
With Jose Mourinho in attendance on Monday night, O'Connor picked a good game in which to excel - it was also his debut for the U23 team.
Lee O'Connor cuts out a counter attack with a slide tackle then gets up and outsprints the attacker & sells him a dummy to come away with the ball. Such a composed player
— jb8521 (@jb_8521) January 29, 2018
ACADEMY NEWS: 30 mins gone and still 0-0...Spurs very physical...Chong excellent and instantly comfortable at this level...Lee O’Connor so composed at back...a natural defender who is a joy to watch!
— The MUFC Academy 🐝 (@mrmujac) January 29, 2018
Although the game ended in defeat, O'Connor was able to hold his head high after a solid display at the heart of defence. Despite playing at a higher level, he was by no means out of his depth and his efforts will not have gone unnoticed by Mourinho.
O'Connor is your typical modern defender. The 17-year-old has established himself as a wonderfully composed ball-playing centre-back with an astute reading of the game and supreme technical skills. His versatility is a real asset, too, as his pace and dribbling abilities means he is comfortable operating at either full-back position as well as in the centre.
His ability to carry the ball forward was thrillingly demonstrated last summer when he scored an outstanding individual goal for the United U19 team against Brazilian outfit Cruzeiro during the Otten Cup in Holland, which you can see below.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 5, 2017
After convincingly cutting out a pass, O'Connor drives straight through the heart of the Cruzeiro side, skinning five of them before pulling the trigger. His initial effort was saved but he still had the composure to knock the ball in at the second time of asking on the volley.
O'Connor, who joined United from Waterford-based club Villa FC in 2016, was nominated for the U18 Player of the Year award last season, alongside Angel Gomes and Callum Whelan. Considering that Gomes is now on the cusp of breaking into the senior side, it's a very encouraging reflection of the Irishman's progress to date.
Like Rice, who is renowned for his leadership qualities at the back, O'Connor could be a future Ireland captain. He has captained the Republic of Ireland U16s and the United U19s and has been praised by United's U18 head coach Kieran McKenna, the Norther Irishman who helped O'Connor overcome homesickness after making the move to Manchester. Speaking to United's official website, McKenna praised O'Connor's mental and physical attributes in a ringing endorsement of his credentials at the highest level.
"I think he has done fantastic and been a real bonus. You never know how a lad is going to settle in after coming from Ireland and it's a huge step up from the level he was playing at. He has been a really important part of the team at centre-half and in both full-back positions. I think he's a really talented boy but also a very solid and dependable character, which is an important quality to have in a defender."
He has attracted comparisons to fellow Waterford native John O'Shea, who made 393 senior United appearances during a 12-year stint at Old Trafford. O'Connor's got some way to go to match the 116-time Ireland international but, on the basis of his recent displays in the United underage set-up, he's worth getting excited about.