LEEDS UNITED’S Eunan O’Kane could not have come much closer to making his major international tournament debut in 2016.
After featuring four times for Martin O’Neill’s side at the beginning of the year, the midfielder narrowly missed out on making the squad for Euro 2016 despite featuring in four friendlies that March and May.
Nearly 18 months on, O’Kane faced a similarly nervy wait last weekend to see if he had made O’Neill’s finalised squad for the World Cup Qualifying play-offs against Denmark.
He made it, and now O’Kane is determined to make the most of a “phenomenal” opportunity to potentially play at a World Cup Finals for which consistent and impressive first-team football at Leeds United is essential to the cause.
O’Kane is one of three Whites players hoping to book their nation a place at next year’s World Cup in Russia by emerging triumphant from crucial play-offs games over the next four days.
The Irish international’s midfield team-mate Stuart Dallas started for Northern Ireland at home to Switzerland on Thursday evening as Dallas and his unlucky fellow countrymen were undone 1-0 by a hotly-disputed Ricardo Rodriguez penalty for the Swiss visitors two minutes before the hour.
I always say the reward is going to play for your country but you have to put the shift in here, you have to be playing here and doing wellLeeds United’s Eunan O’Kane
Dallas, who had received a crunching first-half tackle from Fabian Schar, had been substituted six minutes earlier but Dallas’ side will now look to turn the tie on its head and book a ticket to Russia in tomorrow’s second leg in Basel.
Whites centre-back Pontus Jansson will be hoping he too can clock up the air miles with a trip to Russia next summer if Sweden can oust Italy over the two legs of their crucial play-off.
Jansson and Sweden held home advantage for the first leg in last night’s tie in Stockholm with either the Scandinavian side or the four-time World Cup winners heading through following Monday night’s second leg in Milan.
And O’Kane will be the third and final Whites star shooting for World Cup glory this evening when the Republic of Ireland tackle Denmark in Copenhagen ahead of Tuesday night’s second leg in Dublin.
A Danish side ranked 19th in the world will take some beating but O’Kane is hugely excited at the potential prospect of a major international tournament debut, two years on from being so close to pulling on the green jersey at Euro 2016.
“I think every kid grows up wanting to represent their country and to go and play at the World Cup,” 27-year-old O’Kane told the YEP.
“It’s the biggest competition in the world.
“To be so close and to have the opportunity to hopefully go and do that is phenomenal.”
O’Kane seems unlikely to start in Copenhagen with the midfielder having not featured for O’Neill’s side since coming on as a second-half substitute in the 3-1 friendly defeat against Mexico in June.
The midfielder’s sole start for Ireland came in the 2-2 draw in an international friendly at home to Slovakia last March.
But after narrowly failing to make the cut for Euro 2016, the former Everton trainee has remained in O’Neill’s squad and plans ever since.
Moving forwards, the 27-year-old admits that keeping his place in the side at Leeds United will be crucial both to staying in the Ireland squad over the next year and ultimately to potentially booking his own personal place on the plane to Russia should the Irish down the Danes. The move to Leeds from Premier League side Bournemouth has eventually provided the midfield man with the perfect platform form which to boost his international ambitions with O’Kane having started every game this season when fit under head coach Thomas Christiansen after being rather in and out of the side in his first year at the Whites under Garry Monk.
The former Torquay United player has now made 41 appearances for Leeds and 37 starts since joining in August 2016.
O’Kane reasoned: “The manager at Ireland, Martin O’Neill has alluded to it before where if you are in the team and playing at your club and playing then it’s better than being in the Premier League and sitting on the bench every week.
“I always say the reward is going to play for your country but you have to put the shift in here, you have to be playing here and doing well and hopefully the way things have been going for me personally in terms of minutes and me playing every game will continue.”
O’Kane was denied that opportunity in last weekend’s defeat at Brentford as the midfielder was taken off during the half-time break for Pablo Hernandez as head coach Thomas Christiansen desperately looked for a solution to prevent a fourth league loss in a row.
But overall the Irish international admits he has been thriving on life since his 2016 switch to United with the player now contracted at Elland Road until 2021 having signed a new four-year deal back in August.
The midfielder will be knocking on 31 by the time his new Whites deal expires but hopes there will be plenty of top level football left in him thereafter and quite possibly even more at Leeds.
Asked if he could see himself finishing his career at Leeds, O’Kane smiled: “I don’t want to talk about finishing my career yet! I still feel quite young!
“But of course I was more than happy to commit my future here and I hope that after the current contract that I have signed I still have a few more years left in me.
“It’s not even anywhere near the time to be talking about it but I love the place, I love the city, my wife is happy here, she enjoys it and we are in the process of buying a house.
“I’m more than prepared to put some roots down here and settle for a while.”