Kilkenny hurling plan B for Saints’ young gun O’Connor

If the football career of Ireland U21 newcomer Thomas O’Connor’s doesn’t work out, there’s a fair chance he’ll end up hurling at Nowlan Park.

Kilkenny hurling plan B for Saints’ young gun O’Connor

If the football career of Ireland U21 newcomer Thomas O’Connor’s doesn’t work out, there’s a fair chance he’ll end up hurling at Nowlan Park.

There are no fears his first choice is in danger, as he shines on loan at Gillingham from Southampton, but the fallback option is a labour of love.

O’Connor, now 20, was schooled in Wexford and wore the purple and gold at the prestigious Kennedy Cup. Each time, however, he finished the day by returning to his parish of Tullogher- Rosbercon.

Crossing that bridge in New Ross meant he was crossing the county boundary and he remains clear about his allegiance.

“I loved hurling underage for Kilkenny and would only go back to the game in the black and amber,” he says, in the week he made his U21 debut in the 1-0 win in Armenia.

“All my family are Wexford but they raised me in a Kilkenny parish. They’ve nobody to blame but themselves if that happens!”

O’Connor’s niftiness with his feet, rather than his hands, has him on the path to sporting prominence.

Southampton possess a flock of Irish tyros, including senior international Michael Obafemi, but O’Connor was the first to arrive at their famed Academy five years ago.

“Shane Long was the only Irish player when I first came but now there’s six of us,” he explains.”

He started out as an attacker but operated at left-back in Yerevan on Tuesday. A pre-season snub meant he took the decision himself to join League One outfit Gillingham.

He has thrived, even if Kenny’s two visits to scout him coincided with the worst defeats of the season.

“We lost 3-0 in both matches Stephen came to watch me,” he said.

“None of us played well on the day Oxford battered us but I felt okay after the Rotherham United defeat.

“On the basis of those matches, I could understand why Stephen didn’t pick me for the last few months.

“Going to League One has really toughened me up. When I wasn’t involved in Southampton’s pre-season games, I knew it was time for a loan.”

The sharpness that comes from playing 13 first-team games was on show in Armenia. O’Connor’s surges from left-back and his delivery of set-pieces were crucial in securing a victory which keeps Ireland top of their Euro qualifying group ahead of Tuesday’s visit of Sweden to Tallaght.

Now that he’s got hold of the left-back berth, the incumbent is poised to keep it for the Swedish showdown.

“I feel it’s sweeter because I’ve come into the squad late in the campaign,” he admitted.

“I thought I linked up well with Zack Elbouzedi on the left wing. He caused Armenia plenty of problems and grabbed the winner.

“It wasn’t easy not getting picked a few months ago as I always had the squad in the back of my mind. It’s great to be part of the set-up now.”

Kenny’s squad completed the long trip home, via Moscow, yesterday. Conor Masterson, who missed his first game of the campaign with a calf injury, could return for Sweden, but his deputy Nathan Collins sustained a knock in Armenia.

Uncertainty surrounds the availability of Troy Parrott and Lee O’Connor, due to their likely involvement with the senior squad in Monday’s decisive Euro qualifier against Denmark.

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