Lee O'Connor keeps interesting company - five players to make their senior international debut before their club bow

Sun, Nov 17 2019

O'Connor in action during his senior international debut against New Zealand. Credit: Michael P Ryan (ETPhotos)

The sight of not one but two teenage debutants lining up for the Republic of Ireland in Thursday’s friendly against New Zealand was heartening for the future of Irish football.

That both Lee O’Connor of Celtic and Totteham Hotspur’s Troy Parrott marked their bows with an assist apiece was a welcome, though not necessarily expected, bonus.

Buckingham Street striker Parrott will be familiar to many Irish fans as he’s been widely tipped to make a big impact at Premier League and international level in the coming years.

The 17-year-old’s highlight reel is already extensive thanks to his prodigious goalscoring record in the UEFA Youth League and his senior debut in the shock defeat to Colchester United in September.

Where O’Connor differs is that, for the vast majority of Irish fans, the New Zealand game was the first time they had seen him play – if they’d even heard of him at all.

Despite impressive pedigree with Manchester United at underage level, and a surprise summer move to Celtic, the Waterford man has yet to make his senior club debut.

That puts the 19-year-old in a fairly exclusive club of players to make their senior international bows before debuting with their clubs.

Being pedantic, O’Connor did feature in a kind of senior game for United, in August, against Rotherham United, but it was an under-21 side against a reserve Rotherham outfit.

For all intents and purposes, then, O’Connor’s international debut – brought about due to his suspension from the under-21s – was his first taste of men’s football.

He capped it off with a fine cross from the right wing to tee up Callum Robinson’s first international goal, and he more than held his own against a more experienced All Whites side.

O’Connor’s surprise elevation turns on its head the usual trajectory of highly-rated young players in Ireland.

Aaron Connolly typifies what normally happens – a player makes his first-team breakthrough and the clamour quickly begins for him to be promoted to the senior side.

The form of another summer recruit from Manchester – ex-City youth Jeremie Frimpong – means there’s unlikely to be a clamour in Glasgow for O’Connor’s immediate promotion.

He’s done himself no harm in putting himself on Neil Lennon’s radar however and, with big clubs increasingly hoarding the biggest talent across Europe, we’re likely to see more of this phenomenon.

With that in mind, it’s worth a casual look at previous players to have bridged the gap to senior international football before making a dent at club level.

As far as extratime.ie can tell, O’Connor is only the third Irish football to achieve the feat, though others have come close in the past.

Ex-Liverpool flier Steve Heighway made his international bow just three weeks after debuting for Liverpool as a substitute against West Bromwich Albion.

He made his first start for the club on September 22nd, 1970 and, remarkably, started for Ireland the next day in a friendly with Poland at Dalymount (this was common practice in previous decades).

That, of course, disregards his years with non-league side Skelmersdale United (come on you Skem) while he studied for a degree in politics and economics, but we’ll set that aside for now.

Liam Brady had to wait a year to make his international debut after first appearing for Arsenal, while Steve Staunton had already played for Dundalk and Liverpool when he debuted in October 1988.

So what of those with a legitimate claim to have been recognised at international level before making their senior club debut.

Don Givens

For Irish football fans of a certain vintage (ie me), the name Don Givens evoked an air of mystery that our dads’ tales of his hat-trick against the Soviet Union did little to pierce.

Too young to remember his goalscoring exploits and his disastrous reign in charge of the under-21s still in the headlights, we knew him only as Ireland’s best-ever goalscorer.

For nine years, between 1981 and 1990, Givens held the mantle as top goalscorer with 19 before Frank Stapleton finally broke the record in the lead-up to Italia ’90.

Niall Quinn subsequently pipped him, before Robbie Keane cartwheeled past both, did the gun thing and added another 47 for good measure.

There must have been a similar air of mystery when Givens, then a trainee at Manchester United, debuted in a 2-0 1970 World Cup qualifying defeat to Denmark.

He broke his duck in the next game against Hungary and would a fine career of 56 caps in a side that was desperately unlucky not to reach a major finals.

The Limerick native made this eight appearances for Manchester United, scoring once, before joining Luton Town and would go on to become a cult hero at Queens Park Rangers.

Joe Lapira

From the sublime to the ridiculous – no Irish debut, or Irish international, will ever share the notoriety of American-born Joe Lapira’s sole cap against Ecuador in 2007.

Steve Staunton’s disastrous 20-month stint as national team manager (coincidentally, he had never managed before being handed the job) was looking up that summer.

After the infamous 5-2 defeat in Cyprus, Ireland put together back-to-back wins over Wales and Slovakia in Croke Park and were in realistic contention to qualify for Euro 2008.

The perfect time, clearly, to call up the first amateur to play for Ireland in over 40 years, Lapira at the time a student at the University of Notre Dame.

Lapira, a genuine Irishman who qualified through his Irish-born mother, came onto Staunton’s radar as Ireland were touring the US and Lapira’s uncle was an FAI employee.

After replacing Daryl Murphy for the final seven minutes of a 1-1 draw with Ecuador – which he later admitted was as much of a shock to him as everybody else – he never featured again.

He further endeared himself to Irish fans by going on trial with Rangers the following month and, following spells in Norway, India and Canada, he retired to focus on his career outside football.

Javier Mascherano

From the ridiculous to the sub… yeah, you get the point. The idea of the mighty Argentina fielding a player who had yet to make his club debut seems far-fetched. He’s now their most-capped player.

Mascherano would go on to become one of the most celebrated footballers of the modern era, adding five La Ligas and two Champions League titles to his 147 international caps.

Then, he was a 19-year-old at a stacked River Plate side who had yet to make his bow in senior football who got his first cap in a friendly with Uruguay in July 2003.

He was infamously half of one of the most baffling transfers in football history when he and Carlos Tevez pitched up at West Ham United under Alan Curbishley.

The deal’s irregularities would see West Ham fined £5.5 million and caused the English FA to outlaw third-party ownership.

Mascherano went on to better things, first with Liverpool and then with Barcelona, before winding up his career in China.

Johnny Gorman

Sheffield-born Gorman played up to under-16 level for the Republic of Ireland before switching his allegiance to the North in 2007 and playing up through the age grades.

Like Lapira, it was an ill-fated tour to the United States that gave Gorman his chance as he got his head in a 2-0 defeat to Turkey in Connecticut, a game that saw ex-Derry strike Rory Patterson start.

Behind Norman Whiteside (who had played just two competitive senior games when he debuted) and Sammy McIlroy, Gorman remains the third-youngest player to represent Northern Ireland.

He would make nine appearances in total for his country, the final one coming in Worthington’s last game in charge, a 3-0 defeat to Italy in Pescara.

The hapless Worthington struggled on for another year before falling on his sword after a disastrous Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, to be replaced by ex-Shamrock Rovers boss Michael O’Neill.

Gorman’s career trajectory went in the opposite direction as Worthington’s as he was awarded a two-year deal with Premier League Wolverhampton Wanderers.

he made his bow for Wolves in a Premier League game against Norwich City in March 2012 – almost two years after his international debut.

It would be his only appearance for the midlands side and he had a couple of lower-league loan spells before settling in for a career in non-league football.

Harry Wilson

If Lee O’Connor is to look to any international prospect for inspiration, it would surely be Harry Wilson, who became Wales’ youngest player when he debuted at 16 in October 2013.

Chris Coleman called him up from the under-17s to debut the Euro qualifier with Belgium and, in doing so, Wilson beat the record set by Gareth Bale by three months.

At the time, Wilson was still involved with Liverpool’s under-16 side and he has yet to make a senior appearance for his parent club, instead embarking on a series of loans.

Following spells outside the top division with Crewe Alexandra, Hull City and Derby County, Wilson was loaned out once more to Bournemouth for the 2019-20 season.

He signed a five-year deal with Liverpool prior to the Derby move, made his Premier League debut with Bournemouth in August and scored his first goal in a win over Aston Villa.

Wilson’s name brings back memories for Ireland fans too – it was his free-kick that condemned Ireland to relegation from UEFA Nations League Group B and sealed Martin O’Neill’s fate.