EOGHAN HAS THE SPIRIT OF LIONS HERO
FOOTBALLERS rarely get compared to rugby greats, so when Walsall boss Jon Whitney likened one of his defenders to former Ireland and British Lions captain Paul O’Connell it may have raised a few eyebrows.
But not if that defender is Eoghan O’Connell, Paul’s cousin. The comparison starts to make more sense.
It was the footballing O’Connell’s brilliant display in a 3-1 victory over Bristol Rovers last weekend that sparked Whitney’s comments. The 21-year-old loanee from Celtic was not only a rock at the back but also bagged his first professional goal with a crisp volley on the stroke of half-time.
“He brings a presence and he’s a winner,” enthused Whitney. “He’s got a good sporting tradition in his family. His cousin was the Lions rugby captain and he has a winning mentality.”
The man himself may be too modest to revel in such comparisons. but he admits that taking a leaf out of his cousin’s book would not be a bad thing.
“Paul is obviously a very big figure in rugby, so to be compared to him is a big honour,” said O’Connell.
“He was captain of Ireland and the Lions and had a great career.
“If I can do half of what he did, then I will have done well.
“I have just finished reading his book, actually, and he seems to be coping with retirement pretty well, to be fair to him.
“I wouldn’t know what he is like watching rugby, rather than playing it, to be honest. But I think he would be all right with it.”
With his 2016 ending in a 7-0 humiliation at the hands of Barcelona, it is fair to say that this year has already been much kinder to O’Connell.
The centre-back started last year on loan at home town side Cork City, before returning to parent club Celtic and featuring in both the Scottish Premiership and the Champions League.
But, after coming off the bench for the final 20 minutes as Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez and Co helped Barca thump the Bhoys by seven goals in September, O’Connell failed to kick another ball in anger last year.
That all ended on January 14 when the Republic of Ireland Under-21 international, who had joined Walsall on loan two days prior, started as they beat Sheffield United 4-1, before helping defeat Bristol Rovers a week later.
So, two games and two wins, not to mention a goal, means things are looking up for O’Connell. Yet, he is simply happy living in the moment.
“I have really enjoyed my time at Walsall so far,” said O’Connell. “I arrived only a couple of days before my first game, but the lads have all been really welcoming and I have setfor tled in really quickly. Obviously I have had a great start, too, with two wins in my first two games and the goal as well, which was great.
“It was a nice moment to score and it was a nice little finish, too. I haven’t really scored that many, even in youth teams for Celtic, so it is something I want to crack on with.
“But, while it has been a good start at Walsall, that is all it is. There is no point playing well
O’Connell’s desire not to look too far ahead could be down to the fact that his contract with Celtic expires at the end of the season, but he is adamant nothing will distract him from trying to propel Walsall into the League One play-offs. “I am not really bothered about my contract situation with Celtic,” added O’Connell. “There is nothing I can really do about it. All I can do is keeping working hard for Walsall. “We are on a good run and we know anything can happen in this league, so that is my main focus right now, doing well for Walsall.” just two games. You need to be consistent.
“I know from experience how quickly things can change after having good starts on loan and then seeing them end because of injury.
“Hopefully, this time I can build on it.”
DRIVEN: Walsall’s Eoghan O’Connell, left, in action against Sheffield United’s Kieron Freeman. Insets: Cousin Paul with the Lions and, bottom, Walsall boss Jon Whitney