In an exclusive Between the Stripes interview with new Bray Wanderers man Paul O’Conor, Andrew Dempsey got talking with the former UCD and Drogheda United star man on his League of Ireland career to date, his experiences in European competitions and of course, his move to the Carlisle Grounds for 2018. Admitting his beliefs that off-field events cost his new club a place in Europe this season while also discussing the turmoil at his former side Limerick, this is a no-holds-barred discussion with the talented midfield player.
Having started off at UCD, where so many current League of Ireland stalwarts have started off in their careers, O’Conor said that his spell at Belfield was instrumental in his footballing education to date. He also said that if it wasn’t for his time in the League of Ireland with the Students, he probably wouldn’t be playing football anymore.
“It was pretty much everything, I wouldn’t be playing League of Ireland football if I hadn’t been at UCD. I’d come through the Leinster Senior League at UCD and I played a couple of years there and I was honestly thinking about giving up football as I was working at the time and was just going to go full-time into work and maybe have football on the side, not really anything serious but Martin Russell asked me if I could play half the season for him and I joined with him for half the year. Then at the end of the year he asked me to stay on for the next two years and it’s kind of moved on from there.”
“If it wasn’t for UCD, there wouldn’t be a hope of me even playing football at the moment. So yes it did have a huge part to play in my footballing education. The way we were playing at UCD at the time is the same way I try to play now so it certainly had a major impact on the way I play football.”
With talk of moves across the water to England being a centre of debate among League of Ireland folk at the minute especially with Fuad Sule’s move to Barnet and Patrick McEleney’s decision to join forces with Oldham, O’Conor had his say on the debate that is being had by many.
“It depends on age really. With the likes of Patrick McEleney going over, I mean realistically it’s better to be going over even though people kind of look down on someone when they go to League One or League Two but there is a certain standard that there is to be had over there.”
“He’s going over there now, and he’s got more security than he would have over here, and he’ll get better as seen with the likes of Daryl Horgan and Richie Towell and they have more options with just being over there with agents moving them around and getting them on loan just to get a run of games.”
“I do think if players get the chance to move over they should as it’s the best thing for them and you can’t really look down on them given the one-year contracts going around the League of Ireland at the moment.”
Having spent two years at the Belfield Bowl with the Students, O’Conor joined up with Mick Cooke at Drogheda United and spoke about enjoying his time at United Park despite it not being a great league campaign for the “Drogs”.
“ I enjoyed my time in Drogheda a lot even though we didn’t do that well in the league that year, but they did well the year before and got into Europe when I arrived which was brilliant to be a part of and the dressing room was great to be a part of at the time. We got ourselves to three cup finals and unfortunately didn’t win any of them, but they were amazing experiences and ones that you don’t forget. We got to the Aviva and played in the FAI Cup Final which I enjoyed a lot.”
O’Conor also gave his opinion on the differences between League of Ireland football and European football having played in European competition for two years on the bounce.
“It’s a completely different experience. You feel like you’ve almost become full-time as I experienced with Drogheda. The way its set up, you’re training in the stadium the day before the game, the hotel and things like that. I think its great for teams and it’s a great experience and it only improves you as a player. When you come home you feel as if you progressed from different experiences in different games.”
“Obviously when you leave the country you think the quality is going to be so much better but its not always. Obviously at Sligo we went to Rosenborg and beat them, and some people would never have thought that could happen. At the beginning you kind of get overawed by the whole situation but then once you’re there its just a game of football and its kind of similar as they play the same way and its very enjoyable to put yourself up against that kind of competition.”
Looking back on a rollercoaster few years at the Markets Field under Martin Russell which included the turmoil of last season, the former Limerick No. 8 had plenty to say on how his time went on Shannonside.
“I loved my time in Limerick I have to say, and I really enjoyed my time there. The dressing room was brilliant. The first year was a disaster for the first 20 games and then we kind of pulled it back for the last few games but we just couldn’t when it came down to the last game and we obviously got relegated to the First Division. We all decided that we’d stay together and try to get the club back up to the Premier Division. We did that, and it was a brilliant year we had with the club in the First Division and got ourselves back up. And then there was obviously last season.”
“I thought we were doing ok with Martin Russell, but you know the club wanted to go a different way and then we had another manager in Willie Boland as it took a while to appoint a new manager and it kind of changed again so it was just all over the place. Obviously, I left halfway through the year to join Pats. It was a rollercoaster to say the least, but I still enjoyed my time immensely when I was at Limerick.”
Given the ongoing situation at Limerick that is still yet to be rectified, O’Conor has sympathy with his former teammates at Limerick and hopes that it will only get better for his former employers.
“It’s not ideal, I feel for the players to be honest, especially for the players that have just come in. There’s nothing worse when you’re after being signed by a manager and then the manager leaves. You have to wonder why it happened on the first day of pre-season but these things happen and I mean they need to get a new manager in very quickly ahead of the new season which is starting earlier in Mid-February now so its one of those situations that I’m sure more stuff went on behind the scenes that none of us know about but other than that it’s the players that I feel for especially coming in on the first day of pre-season and being a bit all over the place.”
After a somewhat sudden departure from the “Super Blues”, O’Conor signed for Liam Buckley’s “Saints” and helped the Inchicore side out of a precarious predicament which saw Pats’ record of never being relegated put on the line. Speaking on this, the former Sligo Rovers man noted that there was a pressure within the squad to do this, but it felt as if it was otherwise.
“It was a line that was out there alright. You could see it in Richmond and certainly when I came in there was big signings such as Killian Brennan who was playing really well alongside Owen Garvan and Ian Turner, so they brought in a few players and I obviously came in to basically keep this club up in the Premier. So, we came in and we did.”
“They had the base of a really good squad when I came with the likes of Christy Fagan, Bermo (Ian Bermingham) and Conan Byrne so when I went in I was actually surprised seeing the team was so upbeat but towards the end we definitely deserved to stay up despite the pressure that we were under to do it. Especially during the last round of fixtures, we really stepped up and got some big wins in some tough places especially in Derry away on the last day of the season.”
Finally, O’Conor gave his thoughts on how his move to his new club Bray Wanderers came about and is looking forward to the new campaign in waiting on the horizon at the Carlisle Grounds
“Dave Mackey was speaking to me about wanting to join the club and I liked what he was saying about the club. Obviously, there was a lot of turmoil at the club last season and there was a lot of things that went on off the pitch but if you noticed what they were doing on the pitch, they were a seriously good side and they probably should have got into Europe and I think they probably would have if things that went on off the pitch didn’t happen.”
“It’s a seriously good team and they were a hard team to play against last year and they’ve kept the majority of the squad for next season which I thought they would and I obviously wanted to be a part of it and I’m back in Dublin. As I’ve said before it’s a really good squad and hopefully they can keep things in order on and off the pitch this year we might have a bit of luck.”
When asked on what he thinks are realistic aims for next season, the “Seagulls” new central-midfield option has said that it is too early to know where the squad can realistically end up next season but says a clearer indication will come towards the end of what can be a gruelling period for players.
“As far as the aims for next season, I honestly don’t know. We’re only a couple of sessions into pre-season so its more of a question towards the end of pre-season of where we think we’ll end up this season.”