Dundalk academy duo Michael O'Connor and Georgie Poynton on the cusp of Premier Division redemption with ShelsThu, Jul 22 2021
23rd August 2016, Army Stadium Warsaw. 9.32pm. Drawing 1-1 on the night with Polish giants Legia Warsaw, with 87 minutes gone League of Ireland side Dundalk make a substitution.
Out goes playmaker Patrick McEleney – a native of Derry – and he was replaced by local Dundalk striker Michael O’Connor, who made his European debut.
On the bench remains his academy team-mate Georgie Poynton.
It’s July 2021, and McEleney is departing the Lilywhite side once again. Except this time it’s on a permanent basis, returning to his hometown to sign for Derry City.
The announcement comes on a Thursday evening, directly after Dundalk have recorded a 4-0 European victory at home to Welsh outfit Newtown, with McEleney playing a starring role.
On the Friday night, his Warsaw replacement, O’Connor scored a stunning goal in a 1-1 draw against Treaty United - his sixth of the season – as his Shelbourne side cemented their place at the top of the league table.
Poynton and O’Connor are mainstays in the Shels starting XI as they remain unbeaten in the 2021 season and look primed for a top-flight return.
Five years after sharing a place on the substitute bench for Dundalk’s European campaign in 2016, the former Dundalk under-17 and 19 team-mates are set for a return to the Premier Division.
Yet, it’s been a circuitous route back to the top, and there have been plenty of ups and downs over the past half decade.
As Dundalk racked up games and airmiles during their 2016 Europa League campaign, Stephen Kenny made full use of his squad throughout the autumn.
A week after the Warsaw encounter, a Lilywhite side containing six academy products – O’Connor and his older brother Ciarán, Poynton, Shane Grimes and current Galway United winger Carlton Ubaezuono – took the field.
Winger Keith Dalton (most recently at Cabinteely, and at Dundalk courtesy of their Malahide United partnership) appeared as a sub as the Lilywhites swatted aside Crumlin Utd in the FAI Cup.
Michael O’Connor netted in the game, one of three different competitions he scored for Kenny’s side in 2016 (a brace in the Leinster Senior Cup in April was added to with a maiden league goal in October’s 5-2 defeat to St Patrick’s Athletic).
At under-19 level, in September he scored for a Republic of Ireland international side – whose starting XI included Declan Rice and Caoimhin Kelleher – against Austria.
He netted a brace later that month against Shamrock Rovers in the league semi-finals before joining the Tallaght outfit for the 2017 season.
Poynton, for his part, also featured for both Dundalk seniors and under-19s in the latter part of the season, filling both midfield and defensive slots.
His last game of the season saw him play the final half hour alongside Paddy Barrett as Dundalk saw off the challenge of Galway by four goals to 1.
In search of a new challenge himself, the Laytown native moved to Bohemians on loan for the 2017 season and scored during his competitive debut for the club in a 2-1 Leinster Senior Cup victory over Malahide United.
That Malahide side had his former Dundalk underage teammates Ben Kelly and Darren Craven within their ranks.
He went on to score four league goals for the club during the season before returning to Dundalk for the 2018 season, which saw him continue his studies at DKIT and add to his international honours – caps for the Irish Colleges and Universities side joined those earned at under-17 and under-19 level.
As a point of interest, Carlton Ubaezuono and Poynton were recipients of the Dundalk FC/DKIT Scholarship Programme and both featured in the Irish Colleges and Universities side in 2018.
Ubaezuono’s Galway United are currently Shelbourne’s closest rivals for the First Division crown.
2017 saw Michael O’Connor net three league goals in the colours of Shamrock Rovers, as well as featuring twice against Stjarnan in Europe and scored against Dundalk in the FAI Cup, his final goal of the season.
After a winter where his future was the subject of transfer speculation, he began the 2018 season on loan at First Division Finn Harps, netting four times in his opening six games – including a debut goal against Shelbourne.
However, the goalscoring form didn’t last and he left Harps in June, ending 2018 with Linfield in the NIFL and recording nine league goals in the 2018/19 season following a permanent transfer from the Hoops.
The end of the 2018 season also saw Poynton moving club, however his stint at St Patrick’s Athletic consisted of one competitive appearance – a Leinster Senior Cup game where he featured at right back against Wexford – before he landed at Waterford for the start of the 2019 league season.
After making a February Under 21 international debut under his former Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny, Michael O’Connor joined up with Poynton at the RSC halfway through the 2019 season.
The striker netted four league goals for the club, including their last goal of the season, before scoring nine times and assisting another five for the Blues in the 2020 season, in which he started as club captain before returning to Linfield in June.
He joined Scottish outfit Ross County in September for his second spell overseas after a period with Bristol City early in his teens.
Unlike O’Connor, Poynton left Waterford to sign for another Premier Division outfit in the shape of Ian Morris’s promoted Shelbourne.
Despite the Reds’ relegation, it was this season that Poynton’s dead ball expertise came to fruition as he recorded a hand in 6 of Shelbourne’s 13 league goals- scoring twice (one penalty kick) and recording four assists (3 free kicks, 1 corner kick).
Having taken many twists and turns over the past five years, 2021 saw the two reunite once more, this time at Tolka Park as Morris and assistant manager Alan Reynolds – who managed both Poynton and O’Connor at Waterford – assembled a squad where automatic promotion back to the Premier Division was the priority.
O’Connor and Poynton have linked up well throughout the season, most recently with Poynton’s free kick against Cork being converted by his former Dundalk and Waterford teammate, as Shelbourne remain unbeaten at the summit of the First Division.
Much like O’Connor on the side of a Polish pitch half a decade ago, the Reds stand on the verge of something special.
It’s been quite a journey for the two Dundalk academy products and it’s not over yet.
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