Paudie O’Connor doesn’t want to be remembered for his one night in London against Arsenal. He’s far too ambitious to be pigeonholed into a cameo.
The Limerick native went from hero to zero playing for his on-loan club Blackpool in late October, planting his header beyond Peter Cech before getting sent-off for a mistimed tackle on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
He’s performed well enough before and after that League Cup tie to be considered an Ireland centre-back of the future and this evening there’s even another opportunity of testing himself against Premier League opposition.
Arsenal, again, yet this time on their home patch of Bloomfield Road. “Their team has areas we can exploit,” notes the 21-year-old on a season-long loan from Leeds. “They have world-class players but they only beat us 2-1 in the meeting a few months ago and we had them on the rack for a while that night. I scored and had another chance come back off the post.”
Shackling the likes of Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan didn’t faze the defender from Ballybrown in the slightest. Last April, he was thrown straight into Championship action to play three games over six days.
Elland Road hasn’t been a haven of stability in recent years, but O’Connor is a beneficiary of the modern-day structure in football clubs.
Director of football Victor Orta took the punt on the fresh-faced rookie and he remains in situ despite the Irishman being on his third manager. Upon granting O’Connor a contract extension last summer, the Spaniard tipped him publicly to be a mainstay of the first-team.
However, in conjunction with new boss Marcelo Bielsa, a decision to utilise the season with a loan stint was arrived at. The fractious relations between Blackpool’s owners and fans was compensated by what O’Connor heard about their manager. He didn’t think twice at returning to the seaside town where he’d visited with his schoolboy team.
“Having Gary Bowyer as my manager made the choice quite easy and everything went well in the first game when we drew at Wycombe Wanderers,” he explained.
“The next I heard Gary had left the club and I wasn’t sure what was happening.
“Terry McPhillips came in and I’ve managed to still play a lot of games, up to 16 so far. If I look back at the end of the season having played around 35 matches in League One, I think that will have shown the move was the right one for my development. It was better than staying at Leeds in the Under-23s. I’ve no divine right to play in the Championship and am aware it was always going to be about dropping down the leagues to get more experience. I’ve got to earn my stripes.”
O’Connor operated away from the mainstream of players in his age-group who moved to cross-channel clubs in their formative years.
He concentrated on his studies while breaking into Limerick’s first-team during his Leaving Certificate year. Quitting his engineering course at University of Limerick was going to take something firm and so when Leeds United made their move, he went with his instincts.
Internationally, he’s never won a cap and has just gone overage to be considered for the upcoming European U21 qualification campaign under new manager Stephen Kenny. He won’t mind replicating Kevin Long’s feats of wearing an Irish shirt for the first time at senior level.
“It suited me to be below the radar,” he admits. “There was never that level of expectation on me to go away at 16 as I preferred to stay in my own environment at home and try get a move later.
“That grounding certainly helped me adjust to moving away from home at 18. I would recommend the route of doing your Leaving Certificate to all players thinking of a career in the UK. My brother Tomás broke into the Limerick team last season and could have gone to England as a scholar.
“I feel it’s a more natural progression coming from League of Ireland into a professional set-up in England.”
O’Connor might have been part of history with Limerick’s hurlers last year. Cian Lynch is a neighbour while he’s close with Diarmuid Burns and Seamus Flanagan.
Attending their All-Ireland final in August, the Croke Park atmosphere didn’t create seconds thoughts.
“My parish of Ballybrown is all about hurling but I’m glad to be playing football. People do tell me that I’m flying the flag for Limerick footballers in the UK but I try not to take on pressure like that. My career has gone from zero to 100mph very quickly yet I’m enjoying every minute.”