Why promising youngster O'Connor leaving shouldn't concern United fans

Since Manchester United paid £89million to bring academy graduate Paul Pogba back to the club, there will have been reluctance to allow homegrown talent to leave permanently on the cheap.

In 2012, a 19-year-old Paul Pogba joined Juventus from United for a nominal fee, after becoming frustrated at a lack of first-team opportunities.

In a less high-profile, yet comparable situation in 2019, 19-year-old Lee O’Connor has departed Old Trafford for Celtic, in the hope of playing senior football.

O’Connor is perhaps not a household name of the youth football world, but he was highly rated by those involved with the youth system at United.

Able to play anywhere across the back-four, O’Connor was a regular at full-back for United’s under 23’s last season, appearing 21 times in the ‘Premier League 2’.

The year prior, he often captained the under 18’s from centre-back, earning himself a nomination for the player of the year award.

Former United utility man and fellow Irishman John O’Shea was full of praise for O’Connor in an interview six months ago.

“I’ve been trying to keep an eye on his career, and he was quality, top quality on the pitch,” O’Shea said. “He was very comfortable, he went right-back to left-back in a breeze, it was no problem to him.”

“I think he’s a really talented boy but also a very solid and dependable character, which is an important quality to have in a defender,” O’Shea continued. “There’s plenty of time for him yet, he has a fantastic future ahead of him.”

Since that interview though, it became apparent that O’Connor’s future would lie away from Old Trafford.

The defensive signings of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire this summer made O’Connor’s route to the first team even more difficult, and United’s decision to allow him to leave permanently indicated that he wouldn’t be the first pick of the academy graduates.

Axel Tuanzebe is now Solskjaer’s third-choice centre-back, while under 23 full-backs Ethan Laird and Brandon Williams appear to be the most likely youngsters to be promoted into the first team backline in the event of an injury crisis.

With that being said, O’Connor would be fourth choice at best in any position across the backline.

So, despite his undoubted potential to be a top-class defender, perhaps a departure was the best solution for both parties.

Perhaps not now, but in the coming years as players hit their prime, United will arguably be stronger in the full-back positions than any other area on the pitch.

Wan-Bissaka is just 21-years-old and will be covered by promising Portuguese international Diogo Dalot, 20.

Laird, 18, is a third option United will have on the right-hand side in the future.

Luke Shaw hasn’t quite fulfilled his potential as expected at Old Trafford, but he is still just 24-years-old, and an injury-free year could put his progress back on track.

If Shaw fails to make the grade as United’s long-term left-back, 19-year-old under 23 captain Williams could step up to replace him.

On the surface, allowing O’Connor to leave the club seems like an all too familiar mistake to United fans, but the difference between now and 2012 is the amount of young talent United have at their disposal.

Effectively, United possess five young full-backs that have the potential to be top-class players and could occupy the two positions for the next ten years or more.

When Pogba left United, the central midfield area was awash with ageing players coming to the end of their careers – and a group of youth players deprived of the necessary talent to make the grade at United.

Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher were all the wrong side of 30, while Anderson and Tom Cleverley would be sold in the coming years.

Contrast that to United’s situation with O’Connor now, and the Red Devils are in a far better position to allow a talented young full-back to leave than they were to let a central midfielder depart seven years ago.

Even if, in five years’ time, O’Connor does go on to become world-class at Celtic, United will be uninterested in resigning the Irishman.

By then, there could already be five top-class full-backs at Old Trafford – they won’t need a sixth.