There’s a certain level of expectation that comes with being dubbed “The Irish Messi.”
Cork City midfielder Daire O’Connor is all too aware of his new moniker; he’s heard it from every second person ever since Pat Dolan likened him to the mercurial Argentine before the President’s Cup game against Dundalk.
“Every second person I’ve met has brought that up!,” laughs O’Connor.
“Listen it never gets old. If you were to create the best possible compliment you could be given it’d probably be that so to read that in the paper was amazing.”
As incredible a compliment as it is, being compared to perhaps the greatest footballer who ever lived, brings about a pressure, not just on O’Connor but on Dolan also.
“I read it on the morning of the match so instantly I thought ‘alright there’s going to be a couple of thousand people at our match later on and they’re going to be expecting a good performance’ because as most people know I wasn’t really well known in the Premier Division circles
“So if I do well people will say he’s speaking some sense but if I go out and have a bad game I think there’s more pressure on Pat Dolan than me because people will be turning to him!
Messi or not, O’Connor has taken to life in the Premier Division very well, impressing on a number of occasions as he looks to make the step up after a stand-out season with UCD in last year’s First Division.
O’Connor was included in the First Division team of the season, as the students stormed to the title in incredibly stylish fashion.
“Yeah, it’s a step up,” O’Connor told Pundit Arena.
“That UCD team I was involved with are very good. I think they were probably above the First Division level last year I don’t think people gave them enough credit for how good they were, but you’re going to one of the top teams in the country in Cork City so it was a step up in every way both on and off the pitch.
“A lot more people take notice of you and the general standard of play is at a higher tempo, everyone is that bit faster, that bit stronger because you’re playing men every week.”
Unfortunately for the 21-year old, his campaign hit a stumbling block just before half-time of their 2-0 victory over Bohemians eleven days ago.
After an outstanding first 40 minutes against Keith Long’s side, O’Connor was forced off the field at Turners Cross with a dislocated shoulder, which he outlined will keep him out for another 3-4 weeks.
“Yeah, I dislocated it just before half-time of the Bohs game, unfortunately. The physio popped it back within two minutes so thankfully that reduced the damage. I’m looking at maybe another 3-4 weeks out provided all goes well with rehab.”
The injury has certainly been a blow for O’Connor given the creative spark he has provided in a Cork City side that had been struggling for goals earlier in the season.
The 21-year old’s performances for the Leesiders this campaign haven’t just caught the eye of Pat Dolan.
Irish manager Mick McCarthy named O’Connor as the standout player when he went to see Cork City’s game with St Patrick’s Athletic last month outlining that the former UCD midfielder “stood out” in his eyes.
O’Connor explained that he stumbled across McCarthy’s quotes on Twitter but feels that praise from your international manager is “one of the greatest things you can hear.”
“I was literally just scrolling through Twitter and something came up about Patrick Bamford and I clicked into it, and this was before the main headline broke, I was just scrolling through this scouting report or something, half watching TV, half scrolling through and then I saw my name.
“That made me pay a bit more attention to the piece! Never in a million years would you think you’d be namechecked like that.
“I found out after the Pats game that he was there and I was happy enough with my performance, but to read what he said, I screenshot it and sent it to my parents.
“On a personal note it’s one of the greatest things you can hear that your international manager even knows who you are and secondly that he thinks you’re doing well.
“That’s two big green ticks for me. It’s good motivation for me to keep going, just the fact that he knows I exist is good enough for me.”
Although O’Connor was not included in McCarthy’s 23 man squad for the Euro qualifiers against Gibraltar and Georgia, the 21-year old is no stranger to the international setup.
O’Connor made three appearances for the Irish U19s and has won 12 caps for the Irish College & Universities team, calling representing his country the “best thing” he’s “ever done.”
“It was hands down the best thing I’ve ever done. If you ask any kid growing up what they want to do they’ll say either playing in the Premier League or playing for Ireland but for me it’s always been the latter whether that’s at U19s level, college level or any level where you’re representing your country.
“It’s the biggest honour I’ve had in my career so far for me and my family”
The Cork City man had a difficult path to representing his country, however, and outlined that he was often overlooked when he was younger due to his physical makeup.
“I was kind of overlooked I suppose from u15s to u18s, I wasn’t the biggest or the fastest and I hadn’t fully developed and I was asking my Dad or certain people, ‘why am I getting overlooked?’ and they just said ‘keep at it, technically we think you have it you just need more time to develop.’
“A lot of people have probably been coming out and saying recently that they’ve been overlooked due to physicality but I was a prime example of that.
“All of my friends were going over to England in their teenage years and I was wanting to get on that boat but my parents and the people close to me advised me to do my Leaving Cert and if possible get a degree and some form of education and then once you hit your early 20s you have the world at your feet to do whatever you want and that is the path I’ve taken.”
Still just 21 years of age, O’Connor is young in the game but finds himself in the difficult position of being too old for the Irish U21s.
O’Connor had never been capped at that level and admitted that being overage for Stephen Kenny’s exciting young side is disappointing given the number of domestic players who are being given a chance by the new boss.
“I am disappointed,” admitted O’Connor.
“It would have been great to have been called up.
“I don’t know if Noel King ever watched me or if he had other people sent to watch me but there probably is a big jump in standard from First Division to U21s in football, but in saying that not many League of Ireland players were picked before anyway.
“In one of the squads, there was actually only six or seven genuine Irish players born in Ireland. Obviously, he was going for the best players available which is absolutely fair.”
The young attacking midfielder will soon be back fit and firing for John Caulfield’s side as they look to shake off their early-season transitional tag and challenge for Dundalk’s league title.
“The Irish Messi” could be key to their success, but O’Connor jokes that it is, in fact, another South American and not the Barcelona star whom he models his game off.
“Alexis Sanchez in his prime, not so much at Manchester United. There was a time when he was with Arsenal when he’d get the ball and you’d stand up out of your seat and the game would open up a bit more and try to beat his man and create something out of nothing.”