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'After being a Manchester United fan as a kid I couldn't say I regretted joining them'

Tangling with World Cup winners, interrupting Roy Keane’s post-match pizza, and captaining Cork City.

inpho_01328568 Cork City midfielder Conor McCormack. Source: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

“MY TASK THAT day was to mark him, but it was nearly an impossible job,” Conor McCormack recalls. “You could tell he was on a different level. That game was definitely an eye-opener.

“Even if he was only 17, I would have been fairly certain that he’d go on to become a top player. Now he’s a World Cup winner, he’s got a few Champions League medals and he might have another one this weekend.”

If Liverpool are to be crowned champions of Europe at Real Madrid’s expense in Kiev on Saturday night, curbing the influence of Toni Kroos is likely to be a key component of their gameplan. Eleven years since he attempted to do just that, the daunting prospect of shackling the German playmaker remains fresh in McCormack’s memory.

Having already overcome Scotland and Greece in the elite qualifying round, Ireland needed to win away to Germany to qualify for the U17 European Championships in 2007. McCormack would go on to be named his country’s Player of the Year at the age grade, but the campaign ended in disappointment as Ireland missed out on a place in the tournament following a 3-0 defeat to the Kroos-inspired Germans.

“The way he was able to read the game, he could see two or three passes ahead of everyone else,” McCormack says. “He didn’t have incredible pace or anything, but his intelligence and composure on the ball was just something I hadn’t seen before at that stage.

“I remember trying to stay close to him, but I just couldn’t. He completely controlled the game. I had done my job well in the previous games, in terms of breaking up play and stopping the opposition. But that game was something else. It’s a pleasure to have played against a guy of that calibre, to be honest.”

While reminiscing about a time when he tangled with a man who’s now one of the world’s elite footballers, it may be tempting for Conor McCormack to wonder what might have been had his own career taken him down a different path. Instead of harbouring regrets, however, he’s grateful for what he’s got — and understandably so.

UEFA Under 17 Qualifier Germany v Ireland McCormack battles for possession with Toni Kroos. Source: Bongarts/Getty Images

Of that 18-man Ireland U17 squad that took on Germany a little over a decade ago, just five are now playing the game professionally. Only Everton midfielder James McCarthy and Huddersfield Town winger Sean Scannell can claim to be at a higher level than McCormack.

The Louth native had won every major honour in Irish domestic football by the time he was 24, but since joining Cork City last season he has arguably been producing the best football of his career. After describing McCormack as “a revelation”, City boss John Caulfield handed the combative midfielder a new two-year contract and the captain’s armband in the weeks that followed the most successful season in the club’s history.

Dubbed the League of Ireland’s equivalent of Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante, McCormack’s tenacious displays in front of City’s back four were vital as the Leesiders completed their first Premier Division and FAI Cup double.

The Kante comparisons were certainly a compliment, particularly given that McCormack’s ambition when he moved to England as a teenager was to emulate another PFA Player of the Year award winner and midfield general.

McCormack, who played his schoolboy football for Bellurgan United, was on the radar of several cross-channel clubs by the age of 14. Nevertheless, his mind was already made up even before Manchester United invited him to Old Trafford to watch a Premier League game against Middlesbrough in October 2004.

“Myself and my dad were big United fans so we had already been over to watch them a few times as fans,” McCormack explains. “Then when they did approach me, they brought the whole family over to watch a game. I was just in awe when I got there. A lot of clubs wanted me to come in but I had no interest in anything other than going to United at that stage.

“I was brought into the dressing room after the game when all the players were getting changed. They said I could meet whichever player I wanted and obviously I asked for Roy Keane. The game had only just ended but Keane was already watching it back on TV. He was just sitting there on the physio bed, eating pizza and chips. He looked fairly angry because they didn’t get a result — it was a 1-1 draw.

Cork City v Limerick - SSE Airtricity League Premier Division McCormack has been dubbed the N'Golo Kante of the League of Ireland. Source: Eóin Noonan

“Dave Bushell at United was the lad who brought me in. He asked me if I was sure I wanted to speak to Keane because he didn’t look too happy about the game. But I did anyway and he was really nice, asking me about myself, what my plans were and giving me some advice. He was my idol — such a determined and tenacious player with an unreal desire to win — so that’s a memory I’ll never forget.”

After joining the club when he turned 16, McCormack spent two years at Manchester United. He came through the ranks alongside the likes of Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Danny Drinkwater, but a breakthrough ultimately eluded him.

The benefit of hindsight allows McCormack to recognise now that his prospects of succeeding in England would probably have been aided by joining a club further down the pecking order, but try convincing a teenage United fan that rejecting a contract offer from Old Trafford is a wise career move.

McCormack: “When you’re moving away from home at such an early age, there’s obviously going to be a lot of factors — like homesickness — to take into account. You’re also talking about the biggest club in the world at the time. I could have gone to a smaller club where I maybe would have had a better chance of breaking in, but I was a United fan so all I wanted to do was go there. It might not have worked out for me but what I learned there I’ll never forget. It set me up for the career that I have had.

“The experience at United stood to me. When you’re told that your contract isn’t going to be renewed, you can’t see it as the end of the world. You can’t go into your shell and give up straight away. I ended up moving on but I’m delighted that I went to United.

“Maybe it would have been easier to make an impression at another club — who knows? — but after being a Manchester United fan as a kid I couldn’t say I regretted joining them.”

inpho_00559375 McCormack playing for Shamrock Rovers against Tottenham in the Europa League group stages in 2011. Source: INPHO/Donall Farmer

Despite having offers in the UK, McCormack bucked the trend by heading for Italy when his time at United came to an end. After spending two-and-a-half years with Serie B club Triestina, he returned home in 2011 and began a hugely successful League of Ireland career which included spells at Shamrock Rovers, St Patrick’s Athletic and Derry City before his move to Cork.

McCormack’s second season at City hasn’t been quite as straightforward as the first, during which John Caulfield’s side were 18 points clear of Dundalk — the League of Ireland club McCormack supported in his youth — at the midway point of the campaign. However, the champions are certainly in title contention once again. Ahead of their trip to face St Pat’s tomorrow evening, they trail Dundalk by two points having played a game less.

McCormack believes the best is yet to come, and that the upheaval in terms of the personnel available to Caulfield has been a significant factor thus far. Only three of the players who started Monday night’s 2-0 win over Limerick were on the pitch when City kicked off last season’s triumphant campaign at Finn Harps.

“When John [Caulfield] approached me about being captain this year, I was absolutely delighted,” says McCormack. “But it hasn’t changed my game one bit. Winning games and trying to get the best out of the team is what I’ve always done anyway. I wouldn’t say there’s any extra pressure on me. I certainly don’t feel it.

“From the team’s perspective overall, I think the big difference this year for us is that there are so many new players. When I came in last year I think it was just me and Ryan Delaney who were the only new players brought into a settled side. This year there must be six or seven. These things take time.

“We can play a lot better in games, but at the same time we’ve been getting results. We’re happy about where we are at the minute and I believe things will only continue to improve.”

As long as Toni Kroos doesn’t arrive at Oriel Park when the summer transfer window opens, McCormack will remain confident in his side’s prospects of retaining the title.

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Paul Dollery

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