Eoghan O’Connell won’t forget his 21st birthday

Not sure how you passed your 21st birthday, or indeed if you can remember it at all?

It’s safe to say Eoghan O’Connell, who reaches that milestone today, won’t have any trouble recalling what he did on the big occasion: Playing for Celtic against Inter Milan in the International Champions Cup at Thomond Park (tonight, kick-off 7pm).

“Yeah, it’s not a bad way to celebrate my 21st, to be fair,” says the Cork native, “and the family will be up to watch the game as well.”

The downside of being a professional footballer, of course, is that with the season already up and running in Scotland and a huge Champions League play-off game looming for Celtic next week, the football won’t be followed by any wild partying tonight.

“No, it’ll be low-key,” he says. “We’ll be training tomorrow morning so I’ll have to keep the head down.”

Although Eoghan has been to Thomond a number of times to watch his cousin — rugby giant Paul O’Connell — turn out for Munster, a career in the oval ball game was never a runner for him.

“I never played it. It was football, GAA and hurling — I played all three from when I was about five or six right the way up until I left Cork.”

Hailing from Ballinlough on the southside of the city, O’Connell played hurling for Blackrock and Gaelic for St Michael’s while serving his football apprenticeship with College Corinthians and Avondale, before departing for Glasgow in 2011 at the tender age of 16.

“I was a Liverpool fan but, of course, being Irish I always looked to Celtic in Scotland so it was a big thing for me and my family when I signed for them,” he says.

An eye-catching centre-half, he graduated with honours from the Celtic youth academy and made his senior debut in 2014. The following season began brightly with a handful of appearances but then, as he puts it, “it kind of went downhill from there”.

He said: “My injury problems started around March of that year and then last season it was clear I wasn’t really part of the plans. I went out on loan to Oldham but had to come back because of injury. And then I went to Cork City.”

This was a loan move very much to his liking, as he was following in the footsteps of father Damien and brother Andy in turning out for the hometown club he’d supported as a boy.

“I used to go to all the games in 2005 and I was in Turner’s Cross the night they won the league against Derry,” he recalls. “I was only 10 at the time and it was unreal to be there. The big draw of going on loan to City for me was being able to play and be back at home for a few months. I loved it.”

After a groin injury curtailed his time at City, O’Connell was recalled by Celtic and, under the guidance of new boss Brendan Rodgers, has hardly looked back since.

“Yeah, I’ve had a good start,” he agrees. “I worked hard in pre-season, got my chance in that game against Leicester and stayed in the team since then. But I know in football it can change very quickly so what I want to do now is keep working hard, play as many games as I can and see where it takes me.”

Another manager who seems taken with O’Connell is Martin O’Neill whose approving mention of the defender at a recent press event has led to speculation that a senior Ireland call-up could be imminent. The birthday boy, however, is determined to keep his feet firmly on the ground.

“It’s not really something I’ve thought about because I’ve only played, really, three or four competitive games this season. I’m just trying to concentrate on doing well here at Celtic and if it comes at a later stage I’ll be delighted.”

Tickets are still available for this evening’s Inter Milan v Celtic game at Thomond Park (kick off 7pm). The box office at the stadium is open from 9am this morning.

Here's a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: Who will be Premier League Champions 2016/17?


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