PL boss’ ‘f*** that’ advice led to Aussie debut v Liverpool: 7 years later, he’s starring for City & the Roos

He made his debut against one of England’s most prestigious clubs before going head-to-head with some of the world’s best at Stamford Bridge. Now, Aiden O’Neill is taking the Isuzu UTE A-League by storm while also impressing on his Socceroos debut. Sacha Pisani charted his his journey for KEEPUP.

In a squad overflowing with talent – think Socceroos trio Mathew Leckie, Jamie Maclaren and Marco Tilio plus former Lazio midfielder Valon Berisha and Dutch import Richard van der Venne – Aiden O’Neill has been something of an unsung hero at Melbourne City.

Until now.

After Connor Metcalfe’s move to St Pauli in Germany’s second tier, O’Neill has emerged from the shadows in Melbourne, where he is shining for the reigning Isuzu UTE A-League premiers and current ladder leaders.

Just look back to last month’s two-goal performance against Brisbane Roar – a Goal-of-the-Season contender and thunderous header – to secure three points at AAMI Park. Or his brace in City’s 2-1 win over Melbourne Victory in the postponed Melbourne Derby which resumed on Wednesday night.

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Before this season, he had never scored a brace. In 2022-23, he has scored four goals in 21 league appearances. Only in 2018-19 with Central Coast Mariners (four) did he manage that figure.

The 24-year-old, who also had a stint at Brisbane Roar, was rewarded with a maiden Socceroos call-up last month and he did not look out of place on the international stage, going toe-to-toe with in-demand Ecuador star Moises Caicedo.

But all of this should be of no surprise, given his pedigree and what he has already experienced abroad in the Premier League.

‘F*** that. You can’t be like that’

Born in Brisbane, O’Neill was a month shy of his 15th birthday when he and his family moved to the United Kingdom in June 2014.

He was offered a Burnley scholarship by 15 and made his way through the ranks, all the way up to Sean Dyche’s first-team squad, who went from the EFL Championship to the Premier League in 2016-17.

Dyche enjoyed profound success with limited resources at Burnley, who earned plaudits for their ongoing top-flight status, which included a remarkable seventh-placed finish in 2017-18 before the Clarets were eventually relegated last season.

But there was a particular moment that stood out for a then 17-year-old midfielder still making his way in the UK and trying to impress his hard-nosed manager.

“He just said it looked like I was pulling out of challenges every now and again,” O’Neill recalled in an interview with The Athletic in 2020, having been called into Dyches’ office.

In response to O’Neill stating his concern about accidentally injuring one of Burnley’s first-team players, the Australian detailed the no-nonsense reply of his boss.

“He turned around and said, ‘F*** that. You can’t be like that,” he said. “You’re there to take someone else’s position and you have to go and show that.’”

‘I thought, ‘s***, I’m on the bench against Liverpool’

O’Neill heeded that advice.

Clearly impressing Dyche on the training ground alongside seasoned veterans and internationals such as Joey Barton, Steven Defour, James Tarkowski, Ben Mee, Robbie Brady, Sam Vokes, Ashley Barnes and former Manchester United prospect Michael Keane, he was thrust into the big time in August 2016.

After a season-opening loss at home to Swansea City, Jurgen Klopp’s star-studded Liverpool visited Turf Moor.

Liverpool’s starting XI read: Simon Mignolet, Ragnar Klavan, Dejan Lovren, Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Roberto Firmino.

And among the Burnley substitutes on that day almost seven years ago? O’Neill.

“Sat in the changing room, when I saw my name on the teamsheet I was looking around the room like, ‘S***, I’m actually on the bench’,” he recalled.

He entered the fray late as Burnley recorded a famous 2-0 victory.

“What better time to make your debut than when you are beating Liverpool 2-0 at home? It was just incredible,” O’Neill said.

Going head-to-head with Chelsea’s midfield

The following week, O’Neill was involved against eventual Premier League champions Chelsea… a couple of days after starting a League Cup tie against Accrington Stanley.

There was more game time for the Aussie against Antonio Conte’s side – he earned 33 minutes of action at Stamford Bridge.

A 57th-minute substitute, O’Neill went toe-to-toe N’Golo Kante, Oscar, Nemanja Matic, Willian and Eden Hazard. Burnley were beaten 3-0, but the 18-year-old made an impact.

“Aiden was fantastic, to come on in a really tough game, hold his nerve, want the ball, keep the ball – if he carries on the way he’s going, he’s got a bright future,” Dyche said the defeat.

Dyche added to the Burnley Express: “I was pleased to see Aiden O’Neill, an 18-year-old on a football pitch in the Premier League, fantastic, and he held his own.”

His growth in Melbourne that earned a Roos call

While O’Neill showed glimpses, he slowly found himself down the pecking order at Burnley and with that came loan spells at Oldham Athletic and Fleetwood Town, and even the Central Coast Mariners (2018-19) and Robbie Fowler’s Brisbane Roar (2019-20).

O’Neill during his time at the Mariners in Gosford.
O’Neill playing for the Roar.

But a move to Melbourne City in 2020 has rejuvenated the former Australia youth international and Olyroo.

O’Neill has flourished in the City Football Group (CFG) set-up, firstly under Isuzu UTE A-League Championship-winning boss Patrick Kisnorbo and now Rado Vidosic amid links with a Kisnorbo reunion at relegation-threatened Troyes in France’s Ligue 1.

After back-to-back Premierships and the 2020-21 Championship, he was called up by Graham Arnold and impressed in the two friendlies against South American visitors Ecuador in March.

Australia line up during the friendly match of national teams U21 of Australia and Finland, with the Aussie line-up including Melbourne City’s Thomas Glover, Melbourne Victory’s Jake Brimmer and Socceroo pair Awer Mabil and Thomas Deng, along with Stefan Mauk.
Aiden O’Neill of the Olyroos leaves the pitch after the match between Australia Under-23’s and Sydney FC in 2020.

“It’s hard to put into words,” the 24-year-old said as he reflected on his maiden Socceroos cap in Sydney.

“My family is here from Brisbane. Tonight was just unbelievable and to get a result like that. I thought we were really disciplined and played really well.”

“I wanted to give my dad and mum a bit of a surprise, so I actually didn’t tell them I was starting,” he added.

“I told my sister and she kept that as a little secret but I’m sure once I got here and realised I was starting, they would’ve been over the moon.”

His performance earned plaudits from not only his teammate but a Network 10 commentator.

Towering Socceroos defender and Leicester City centre-back Harry Souttar was glowing of O’Neill.

“Aiden O’Neill making his debut, you’re not going to get many better debuts than that,” he told Network 10.

During the match, co-commentator Andy Harper said: “I couldn’t be more impressed.

“He has not missed a beat. Looks completely at home I’d say.”