2016/2017 stats (for Celtic & Walsall in all competitions): 2,001 minutes, 22 starts, 1 sub appearance; 1 goal, 0 assists.
An entire week nearly went by without a new player joining the swelling first team squad at Carrington. Winger Jack Mackreth departed to Wrexham during the lull with barely a whimper (through no fault of his own), temporarily stalling the growing contingent.
Manager Lee Clark moved quickly for 21 year-old ball-playing centre back Eoghan O’Connell from Celtic, a player his remaining contacts in Scotland were familiar with primarily from the Bhoys’ development squad. Joining the Glasgow outfit’s youth academy at 16, he broke into the senior reckoning two seasons later and made sporadic appearances during the next two campaigns, also taking in a loan spell at Bury’s near neighbours Oldham Athletic to further aid his acclimatisation to senior competitive football.
During the close season last year, Brendan Rodgers stepped into one of the most famous dugouts in the sport and, armed with a well-earned reputation for a progressive philosophy and an emphasis on bringing through young talent, handed the Cork-born and bred defender a full game against Kazakh team FC Astana in the third qualifying round stage of the Champions League, where he acquitted himself well in a difficult environment.
An ongoing injury crisis in the heart of their defence afforded O’Connell further starts, this time in the Premiership in away ties at Hearts and St. Johnstone. The biggest game of his career followed shortly afterwards; he had the extremely unenviable task of keeping an eye on the most potent front three in world football, coming on as a substitute with the Hoops already 5-0 down at the Camp Nou.
With the first choice backline fully restored, the fierce competition to be in the reckoning for a spot understandably proved very difficult and with the re-opening of the transfer window in January, he found himself once again crossing the Irish Sea but this time well-run Walsall was his destination. There, he established himself quickly in the XI and proved to be an assured presence with the Saddlers conceding a fraction higher than a goal per game with him on the pitch.
Upon his return north of the border, he was made surplus to requirements with no shortage of suitors. The assurance an offer of a three-year deal brings to almost any footballer below the elite level in the modern game is likely to have swung things in Bury’s favour. At the Shakers, he will probably square off against Nathan Cameron for the left-sided centre back berth or could operate in the middle of a three if Clark opts for a return to that shape, however temporary that proves to be. Strong in the tackle, an aerial presence in both boxes, reasonably quick on his feet and comfortable on the ball, O’Connell’s capture is yet another indicator of the direction of travel in terms of both on and off-field ambitions the club harbours and the tactics that will be employed.
His one major weakness other than a relative lack of first team opportunities at his parent club is being a little slow on the turn from a counter by the opposition. This can be partly remedied in a number of ways but it will be something to look for if, as expected, he starts the season alongside fellow new signing Adam Thompson.