EOGHAN O’CONNELL has grown up taking inspiration from the exalted sporting status achieved by his cousin Paul, the former British and Irish Lions captain.
Celtic 1 - 1 Ross County
SCORERS: Celtic; Commons (35), Ross County; De Leeuw (16)
On Saturday, the 18-year-old took his first significant steps in a career path he hopes can bring him even a fraction of the success in professional football that his famous relative continues to enjoy on the rugby field.
The central defender made his first team debut for Celtic on the day they celebrated winning a third consecutive Scottish title. If the result and performance against Ross County was generally underwhelming, for O’Connell it was an afternoon he will always cherish.
Highly regarded by Celtic manager Neil Lennon and his coaching staff, the teenager from Cork is expected to make a big impression at the club in the coming months and years. He intends to tap into the knowledge and experience of his 34-year-old cousin Paul, who this year skippered Ireland to the Six Nations title, along the way.
“I speak to Paul whenever I see him, although he’s obviously busy with the rugby,” said O’Connell. “So we don’t get much time together, but whenever I see him we have a good chat. He is one of the legends of rugby, so I would be silly not to look up to him. He is an amazing player and if I have half the success he has had, then great.
“I went to watch him last year when he came to play in Glasgow for Munster. I also watched some of his games when I was a kid, but I don’t get as much chance now that I’m playing at Celtic.
“I missed most of the Six Nations games this year, although I did manage to catch the last one when Ireland beat France to win the title, which was very good.
“I’m sure Paul will be in touch with me now that I’ve made my debut for Celtic. Hopefully, he’ll be able to come and watch me play at some time in the future too.”
Injuries to Adam Matthews and Charlie Mulgrew paved the way for O’Connell’s debut, the youngster partnering Virgil van Dijk in central defence and delivering a fairly solid display before he was replaced by Beram Kayal in the closing stages.
“I thought I did all right,” he added. “It was one of those games where you didn’t need to do anything spectacular. I have been on the fringe of the first team for a while, sitting on the bench. I just had to wait for my chance and take it when it came.
“With the injuries we had during the week, I thought I might be involved at some stage, but I didn’t expect to start the game. I found out on Friday night when the manager came to my room at the hotel and told me. It came as a surprise, but you have to be ready to play and I was really happy.
“My mum and dad were coming over to the game anyway, so it was great they could see me play. My dad Damien played football for Cork City and he was my biggest influence growing up. He is still the first person I ring after every game I play.”
If this was a match which will take prominence in the O’Connell family scrapbook, it will almost instantly be forgotten by most who witnessed it.
There was an almost inevitable flatness to Celtic’s play, although due credit should be afforded to Ross County, who certainly merited a valuable point in their quest to avoid finishing in the relegation play-off place at the bottom of the Premiership.
Derek Adams’ side were tactically disciplined in a 4-5-1 formation which largely negated the effectiveness of Celtic’s most attack-minded and creative players. But the Dingwall side also showed an enterprising side to their work whenever possible, Yoann Arquin and Graham Carey providing good support from wide positions to central striker Melvin De Leeuw.
It was De Leeuw who gave County a 15th-minute lead, accepting a pass from Carey, who had dispossessed Celtic captain Scott Brown, and driving a firm left-foot shot low beyond Fraser Forster from around 14 yards.
De Leeuw almost doubled the visitors’ lead with an acrobatic volley but Celtic drew level in the 34th minute. County goalkeeper Mark Brown could only parry a Leigh Griffiths shot into the path of Kris Commons, who netted his 28th goal of the season from close range.
Both teams struck the frame of the goal in the second half, Liam Henderson with a close-range header for Celtic and Carey with a stinging long-range effort for County, and a draw was the right result. It ensures Adams’ men will go into the final Highland derby of the season at home to Inverness on Friday night in buoyant mood.
“We are playing well and confidence is high,” said midfielder Michael Tidser, one of County’s best performers on the day he returned to the club where he was under-19 captain before being released without playing a first-team game.
“It was nice to be back and see a few old faces,” said the 24-year-old loanee from Rotherham United. “I was devastated when Celtic let me go, because I grew up five minutes away in Dennistoun and was a Celtic supporter. It was hard to leave the club you love but you need to pick yourself up and have the mental drive to do well elsewhere.
“I actually said to Liam Henderson at the end of the game today that he should make sure he takes the chance he’s got at Celtic, because it’s not every kid that gets the opportunity. He’s only 17 but he looks ready to play at this level.
“It’s maybe different for the kids at Celtic now. There was a reluctance to put us into the team when I was at the club, because they were battling with Rangers at the top of the table every year. When I was here, Thomas Gravesen couldn’t get a game and he played for Real Madrid!”