Neilson, as he ruefully reflected on Celtic’s £4 million debutant Scott Sinclair coming off the bench to net the winner in the teams’ Premiership opener on Sunday, said: “That’s the level we’re against, they play a £4m player and we play Sam Nicholson and Jamie Walker. And to be honest they probably did more in the game and are better prospects for Scottish football and that’s what Hearts are about. This club is about developing players, it’s not about going out and buying players.”
Yet, it was not lost on 20-year-old O’Connell – part of Celtic’s set-up since his early teens – that among the two starting line-ups at the weekend Celtic developed as many players as Hearts.
“People around Scotland tend to do that [talk about Celtic as a buying club and Hearts as a club that develops players]. They look at the negatives about people coming through here. We had four players on the pitch at Tynecastle [who had come through the ranks at Celtic]. Me, Callum McGregor, Kieran Tierney and James Forrest. So I don’t think you can really look at it and say that. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but it doesn’t really bother us.”
O’Connell has appeared unruffled by all that has come his way since being trusted by Brendan Rodgers to fill a gap created by injuries to centre-backs Erik Svaitchenko, Dedryck Boyata and Jozo Simunovic and the unconvincing form of Efe Ambrose.
“I didn’t really expect this,” said the Irishman, whose contract with the club expires next summer. “I have played a few games but it was always one-in, one-out kind of a thing. I have never really had a run. It is difficult to plant a seed in people’s heads, that you are ready to play, if you are only playing one game. I have got this little run now and I’m hoping to prove to people that I am ready and good enough to play here.”
Speaking ahead of tonight’s Betfred League Cup second round tie at home to Motherwell, Celtic first-team coach John Kennedy spoke of O’Connell showing the belief to “go out there and puff your chest out and say: ‘I can play’.”
“The ones who don’t do that often get found out or gobbled up by it,” Kennedy added.
The coach said Celtic will field as strong a side as possible tonight, though may rest Kolo Toure and Kieran Tierney. Leigh Griffiths and Stefan Johansen are suspended. He believes O’Connell is contributing to a team that under Rodgers is setting about restoring a Celtic tradition that was lost under Ronny Deila.
“In the last two games we’ve scored late goals [to go through in the Champions League against Astana and beat Hearts] and that’s a big thing,” Kennedy said. “He’s drilled it into players from day one that we go to win games and if that takes until the last ten minutes then so be it. The players have a mentality that they can finish the game strong and in the last ten minutes we will be going after teams to get the goal. That’s the way Celtic have always been and we have to get that back.”