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Arsenal youngster Stefan O’Connor: Loan spell has helped me grow into a man

18:04 BST 08/04/2017
Goal's Arsenal correspondent Chris Wheatley caught up with the defender, who is embracing his loan spell in the Netherlands


He’s made one Champions League appearance for Arsenal and was a regular for the Under-21s last season but there’s a good chance you haven’t heard Stefan O’Connor’s name before.

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The highly-rated 20-year-old defender is spending this season on loan at MVV Maastricht along with new Gunners team-mate Kelechi Nwakali. Although game time has been hard to come by for O’Connor due to an early-season injury which saw him lose his place at right-back, he’s more than happy to gain valuable life experience at the start of what has the potential to be a promising professional career.

“It’s completely different in every sense. From day to day life I used to be in London with friends and family, then I come here and I’m alone,” O’Connor told Goal .

“I’ve got to learn how to grow into adulthood and develop myself to become a man. I’ve learnt a lot in the eight months I’ve come in.

“I can’t go out into the city because a lot of fans will come up to me. I like to keep myself to myself whereas in London every now and then that happens but most of the time I can walk around freely without being recognised.

"I’m trying to get used to it but I’m not a guy who likes to be in the limelight.

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“I just feel it’s a right step because I’ve been playing reserve football since I was 16 - I’ve just turned 20 and think it’s time to step into the men's game as I’m a big lad as well. I want to compete with the strongest and most developed in the game.

“It came as a shock when I found out they were interested. [Former academy chief] Andries Jonker thought it would be a good move for me. I came out here for two weeks for a trial to see how it was. I liked the way we trained and the squad mentality. It’s different to Arsenal but I like the set up of the club.”

O’Connor is a relaxed character off the pitch but he holds lofty ambitions of working his way into the Arsenal first team. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is the most recent academy graduate at the club and is a player he keeps in regular contact with.

He believes that being an attacking player increases your chances of playing in the first team because the risk factor is limited.

“I’m very calm," he said. "People think I’m a bit too laid back at times but I like to stay calm and play under pressure - I don’t panic.

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“I keep in touch with most of the players at Arsenal and when I go back to England I catch up with them. 

“We [Maitland-Niles and O’Connor] played for the first team at the same time so obviously our careers have gone differently but I plan on getting experience here, pushing on and getting into the first team.

“For attacking players it’s easier because if you’re scoring or assisting that’s your job, as a defender the manager needs to be able to trust you. For a lot of young defenders it’s hard because you’re learning making mistakes and at the top level you cannot make mistakes."

Signed from Crystal Palace on schoolboy terms at the age of 13, O’Connor was spotted after impressing against the Gunners in an academy game where he marked highly-rated forward Jordan Brown out of the match.

He continued: “I was at Crystal Palace, a new manager came in and didn’t really like my style of play. We both agreed that I could go. At the time Arsenal was interested. 

“We played against Arsenal and beat them when I was 13. Back in the day Arsenal used to beat everyone. I played against a striker called Jordan Brown and had the game of my life.

“Arsenal handed my dad a card, invited me on trial and I haven’t looked back since.”

The vast differences between reserve-team football and the first team are usually a shock for many academy players, but O’Connor explains that he took the experience in his stride, revealing that Gunners boss Arsene Wenger has no qualms in pulling up players if they’re ‘not doing the right things at the right time’.

“The main difference is the tempo of the game, it’s a lot quicker and usually one or two touch and you have to think a lot quicker. After a while you start to adjust to the level of the game. At first it’s a shock coming from the Under-21s to the first team with the likes of [Alex Oxlade] Chamberlain, [Alexis] Sanchez, [Mesut] Ozil and [Santi] Cazorla. It’s a good experience.

“The thing with Arsene Wenger is that he doesn’t say a lot but when he does talk he gives you a lot of knowledge which you have to take in. 

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“He likes to analyse in silence so you have to make sure you’re doing the right things at the right time and if you’re not he’ll pull you up and tell you. 

“In general, he likes to let you play and develop your own brain really. “

O’Connor will hope to get more game time before the season ends but, regardless of how much he plays, the experience is one which he hopes to carry through his career and learn from his time on loan in a foreign country. 

“I’m learning Dutch and learning how to compete with men and play in front of a crowd every week," he said. 

“It’s a big change from reserve football. Thousands of people come to watch us a play. Every tackle, every goal and every pass means a lot more when so many fans are on your side.

“We’ve done very well this season but the competition is fierce. There are a lot of teams that are close to each other. You have to really take your chances because if you don’t then the other team will punish you. 

“It was definitely the right move. Injuries have occurred and I’ve struggled with game time but I need to keep my head down and work hard. I feel at home.”