Millions of young footballers around the country dream of pulling on the green and gold and representing Australia at the highest level.
Only a select list have become Socceroos in the men’s game; a list Brisbane-born Aiden O’Neill is hoping to add himself to before long.
Also eligible to represent the Republic of Ireland at international level, the Melbourne City midfielder is in no doubt of where his allegiances lie.
“It’s definitely the dream of mine to play for the country I was born in,” O’Neill said when speaking to Kick360.
“First and foremost, for me, if you’re doing well at club [level] and you are winning games, playing well and playing in most of the games, I think that will take care of itself.
“I have just got to be enjoying my football, playing well and seeing what happens.”
After turning out for both Kenmore (now UQFC) and Brisbane Athletic as a youngster, he signed his first professional contract with Lancashire outfit Burnley in January 2016, then managed by new Everton boss Sean Dyche.
The Turf Moor club was in the midst of a promotion battle from the Championship at the time, sitting fourth and five points off the automatic promotion places.
Despite O’Neill not featuring for the first team in that campaign, the Clarets overcame that deficit with flying colours, finishing atop the Championship table four points clear of second-placed Middlesbrough.
“It was an unbelievable experience as a footballer, as a young boy which is what I was.
“I was first involved with the first-team when I was 17, I started training with them quite regularly.
“I think it might have been [against] Sheffield Wednesday I was first in the matchday squad, I travelled with the players and everything.
“From that moment on, I was just trying to work my absolute hardest I could.”
Following promotion to the Premier League and an opening day defeat to Swansea, Burnley hosted Premier League giants Liverpool, a game the hosts went into hugely unfancied.
Goals from Sam Vokes and Andre Gray had silenced the critics, and with the game won deep in second-half stoppage time, O’Neill was called back to make his first appearance in the English top-flight.
After years honing his craft in the youth sides, he had officially made the grade.
“When I saw my name on the bench, I couldn’t stop smiling to be honest.
“We were winning 2-0 and [Sean Dyche] called me over from where I was warming up and said ‘go and enjoy yourself and have fun.’
“It was just incredible, that feeling all of a sudden making your Premier League debut at 18 against a team like Liverpool.
“No one expected us to get anything out of it, and we came away with a win, the place was absolutely rocking as you can imagine.”
Following this game, the Australian only played four times for the club, and in search of more opportunities, joined Melbourne City for the 2020-21 season.
The league was not an unknown quantity for O’Neill, having spent time on loan at both Brisbane and Central Coast while contracted with Burnley.
After becoming Patrick Kisborno’s first signing as City boss, the midfielder has not looked back, bringing up his 50th appearance for the club in the recent 6-1 win against Macarthur over the weekend.
“I have had quite a few successful years here now, and we have been quite successful.
“We play quite an attractive brand of football, and we try and be entertaining and win games.
“Me personally, I am really enjoying my football at the moment, I had an injury last season that kept me out of the finals and the last few rounds, so that was tough for me.
“I feel like I have really learned from that, and just tried to really progress my football and have fun as well.”
Sitting pretty atop the table with a seven point buffer to Western Sydney in second, Melbourne City look the team to beat.
Undefeated in their last seven completed league games after the 2-1 defeat to Sydney FC in December, O’Neill is hoping the club can remain at the league’s summit for the rest of the campaign.
“To do the double like we did in my first year is an incredible achievement, and the feeling as a player to do that is massive, so I think that is a team is what we are aiming for.
“If we just take it week-by-week and just concentrate on our next game and are not really worried about any other teams and we are just focused on ourselves and our game, it will take care of itself.”
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