O’Connor stepped into the breach amid a crisis in the centre of Leeds’ defence and turned in a creditable performance as the club fought back from a goal down to earn a point against the Championship’s second-bottom side.
The 20-year-old has played regularly for United’s Under-23s this season but began training regularly with the club’s senior squad last month with injuries beginning to bite.
Head coach Paul Heckingbottom has lost all of his first-team centre-backs bar Pontus Jansson to injury and the Leeds boss turned to O’Connor to partner Jansson for Sunderland’s visit to Elland Road.
Limerick-born O’Connor joined United’s academy last season from his hometown club where he won the League of Ireland’s first division title in 2016 and played in the country’s top flight.
“I’ve come from back home in Ireland where it’s a fairly physical league anyway,” O’Connor said. “I’ve played nearly 50 games up against men who like to throw themselves about so in a way I knew that if it was going to go like that I’d be able to deal with it. I think I’ve done okay in that regard.
“I wouldn’t say I was nerveless, there’s always a bit of nerves there, but it’s about using them to your advantage. I’m quite an aggressive player in my own right. I like to go and win the ball because it’s my job. I take pride in doing that.”
Matthew Pennington, Conor Shaughnessy and club captain Liam Cooper were all ruled out of yesterday’s match, leaving Jansson as the only available central defender. Leeds had previously used Gaetano Berardi as a makeshift centre-back but Berardi – sent off in the 90th minute for a bad foul on Sunderland’s Callum McManaman – started on the left to accommodate O’Connor.
The Irishman is part of an Under-23 squad who have improved dramatically under coach Carlos Corberan during the second half of their Professional Development League campaign.
“With the injuries to Pennington and Cooper there’s been a slot in training so for the last two or three weeks I’ve been up training with them (the first team),” O’Connor said.
“Berardi can always play there as well and he has done in the past so I wasn’t really sure. I just kept my head down in training on Wednesday, trained on Thursday and then got the nod on Friday.
“It definitely is a big step up, don’t get me wrong, but with the 23s recently I think we’re playing a good brand of football under Carlos and it’s definitely coming out now. The step up is there but I think a good few of them are capable.”
Heckingbottom, who also named 18-year-old midfielder Callum Nicell on the bench on Saturday, was able to recall Kemar Roofe after seven games out with a calf strain but a length injury list is unlikely to change significantly before tomorrow night’s trip to Preston North End.
Asked if he was confident of retaining his place, O’Connor said: “We’ll have to wait and see but I’m confident in my own ability and I think I’ve done all right.”