Belfast Telegraph

O'Connor eager to answer Northern Ireland call

By Stuart McKinley

Michael O'Connor has revealed that he feared his Northern Ireland career had come to an end at the age of just 23.

Even when established members of the squad were declaring themselves unavailable for end-of-season games, O'Connor was left out in the cold by both former manager Nigel Worthington and current boss Michael O'Neill.

And that is why the Rotherham United midfielder was shocked to receive a telephone call last Friday evening telling him that O'Neill wanted to bring him into the squad for Wednesday night's World Cup qualifier against Russia at Windsor Park.

The call came from a member of Irish FA staff and the first time that O'Connor actually spoke to O'Neill was when the players assembled at their north-Down base yesterday.

Now that he is back, O'Connor – whose last cap came in a friendly at home to Morocco back in November 2010 – is intending to stay.

"I was surprised when I answered the phone and was told that Michael O'Neill wanted to bring me into the squad and would I be interested in coming," said O'Connor.

"I said: 'definitely,' because it's a call that I have been waiting for. I haven't had any contact from Michael O'Neill since he took the job and I never heard anything from Nigel Worthington in the last year that he was manager either.

"I never gave up on playing for Northern Ireland because it's something that means a lot to me, but I did start to think that I would never get back.

"I was reading stuff in the papers from other players saying that Michael O'Neill had been in touch with them and things like that and when I hadn't received a phone call I thought that was it.

"I am really excited about being back and now I want to show Michael that I am good enough to be in the squad on a permanent basis."

During his time in the wilderness, 25-year-old O'Connor became an armchair fan, never missing a Northern Ireland game on television and he is as hungry as any other member of the squad to put some things right.

"I was in the stand for the Italy game a few years ago and if I was home in Belfast I would try to go to the matches," he said.

"I haven't always been able to do that, but I have watched all the other ones – although it's hard when you want to be involved.

"The team has played quite well in some of those games and been unlucky a few times.

"Michael O'Neill is still looking for his first win and I want to be part of the squad that gets that win for him."

O'Neill, who has also added MK Dons right-back Lee Hodson to the squad, watched Billy McKay take his tally to two goals in two games this season as Inverness Caledonian Thistle beat Dundee United 1-0 on Saturday afternoon.

O'Neill's strikers will approach the clash with Russia in goal-scoring form, as Niall McGinn scored twice from the penalty spot yesterday in Aberdeen's 3-0 win away to Motherwell.

There was also a debut goal for Kyle Lafferty as he got his career in Italy off to a flying start.

The Fermanagh-man scored 16 minutes into his first game for Serie B side Palermo in a 2-1 win over Cremonese in an Italian Cup tie.

He will join the squad later today after three flights to take him from the Mediterranean island of Sicily to Belfast.

Jonny Evans was an unused substitute for Manchester United in their Community Shield victory over Wigan Athletic at Wembley.

There has been no late call-up for Rangers striker Dean Shiels though.

He came off the bench to make his first appearance of the season and scored the final goal in the Gers' 4-1 win over Brechin.

O'Neill has decided against bringing him into the squad as Shiels hasn't yet regained full fitness after suffering a knee ligament injury at the end of last season – an injury that ruled him out of the last internationals in March.

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