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Saturday 7 December 2019

Rookie O'Connor gets a rare senior start

Lee O’Connor has yet to start for Celtic
Lee O’Connor has yet to start for Celtic

Tonight, Mick McCarthy will do something which only one Ireland manager has tried in almost 50 years when he gives a senior cap to a player who has not played even a minute of senior club football.

And ahead of Lee O'Connor's first game in what's called "men's football", McCarthy admits he will only know if the Waterford-born player is up to the task when the game starts.

With Seamus Coleman suspended and Matt Doherty rested, O'Connor, who moved to Celtic from Manchester United in the summer but has yet to even make the bench for Neil Lennon's side, will start at right back, the first player to win a senior cap without any proper club experience since Joey Lapira in 2007.

"They come in and they are always a bit quiet. They don't come in and tell me they are nervous, you can tell when you are talking to them and how they are around the lads," McCarthy said of O'Connor (19).

"He's been fine, he trained on a bigger pitch, not just a small sided game, and Lee was good. He looks to be settling in. You ask them how they're doing and they say 'yeah I'm great' but you've no idea how they are doing until they have their feet in the water."

O'Connor should be in Armenia with the U21 side but is suspended for that game, so he'll line out for the senior side tonight. He will then return to the U21s for next week's qualifier at home to Sweden.

And the timing has worked out incredibly well for O'Connor, his ascent to the senior ranks coming at a speed which other full backs can only envy.

Denis Irwin had made 239 league appearances before his Ireland debut (1990); Stephen Carr had almost 100 Premier League games played before McCarthy capped him for the first time (1999), Stephen Kelly a similar story, 39 Premier League games before his debut.

Players untested at club level getting capped has been rare of late, but was once common.

Don Givens had only played for the Manchester United youth team when he was called up to the senior Ireland squad in May 1969, a losing debut away to Denmark for a teenage Givens. He would make his first appearance for United on the opening day of the 1969/'70 season, by which time he'd already scored his first senior goal for Ireland.

Jimmy Holmes was just 17 when Mick Meagan handed him a senior international debut in May 1971, a 4-1 loss at home to Austria in the Euro qualifiers. Holmes would not make his first appearance for Coventry City until seven months later, in a 1-1 draw with Leicester City in the (old) First Division.

One-cap-wonder Joey Lapira is the only modern version of a player who was capped by Ireland before he'd played club football. He was playing at college level in his native USA when Steve Staunton decided to cap him against Ecuador in a friendly in New York in 2007. Lapira would go on to play in the lower leagues of Norway and India. He retired in 2013.

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