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'I ended up working for DHL Express and Zidane went on to manage Real Madrid'

Former St Patrick’s Athletic and Bohemians defender Maurice O’Driscoll on facing one of the greats, a brief spell managing in the LOI and his highly-rated son Aaron.

JUST LAST WEEK, Zinedine Zidane stepped down as Real Madrid manager after securing a barely-conceivable third Champions League title in two-and-a-half years.

As arguably the finest player of his generation, the Frenchman also won every major honour in world football.

But long before he was dazzling crowds at the Santiago Bernabeu and the Stade de France, Zizou visited the spiritual home of the Irish game — Dalymount Park.

Bordeaux met Bohemians were paired together in the first round of the Uefa Cup back in September 1993, and the 21-year-old midfielder featured for the visitors alongside fellow future World Cup-winners Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry, who scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 away victory.

“He had hair back then and he was quality,” says Maurice O’Driscoll, who played for the Gypsies that night. “One thing he had was a calmness on the ball. Everything was so natural with both feet and he was one of those players that, no matter how tight the situation was, he made it look so easy. He was a joy to watch.

“After the game, he seemed like a really nice guy and there were no airs or graces about him. You could see the quality that was there and the rest is history in terms of his career.”

MOD Zizou O'Driscoll drives past Bordeaux pair Zidane (right) and Lizarazu in 1993.

In the second leg, Bohs goalkeeper Dave Henderson had an unbelievable game but the French outfit still progressed with an aggregate score of 6-0. It was a couple of years later that O’Driscoll received a perfectly-timed photograph (above) in the post.

The iconic photo that will probably be on my tombstone is of myself, Zidane and Lizarazu,” he jokes. “I don’t think Zidane would remember me, although he might remember the dodgy moustache!

“That’s a great memory, it was an amazing evening even though we lost the home leg 1-0. I didn’t know anything about the picture at the time, but it’s something I’m very proud of.

“I have it stuck up and I show my son Aaron in case he doesn’t believe me that I played. I featured in Europe about 12 times and I was lucky enough to play against some top sides. With Zidane winning the Champions League for the past three years, it’s a great one to have.

“Unfortunately, I ended up working for DHL Express and he went on to manage Real Madrid.”

French Soccer - Premiere Division - Bordeaux v RC Lens A young Zizou playing for Bordeaux. Source: EMPICS Sport

For the boy from Walkinstown who spent endless hours kicking ball around O’Brien Road, Maurice got his first break in football at the age of 11 after being spotted by Noel McCabe — the well-known scout who is credited with Roy Keane’s move to Nottingham Forest from Cobh Ramblers.

“Considering I’m a lad from the southside, I wound up playing most of my soccer on the northside,” he says. “We would be on the little green at the end of our road, and there was a man who would pull up on a bike and see me play. I didn’t know who it was at the time, but he turned out to be Noel.

He was notorious for going around on his Honda 50 picking up players from everywhere… He’d probably be arrested if he did it now! Anyway, Noel asked me if I fancied joining Stella Maris.

“Back in those days, I might as well have been going to Timbuktu, but he sold it to me and it was all about going go ‘A’ football, so I said it to my mam and dad.

“That was an era when you went out a 9 o’clock in the morning and you came back in at 9 at night. You weren’t asked where you were or what you did, so I ended up joining Stella.”

The commute involved two buses there and the same back, but it was well worth the hassle as Stella possessed a talented side. McCabe was linked with Forest and trials followed for O’Driscoll, Robbie Best and Collie Curran. The teenager wasn’t  by his first experience of England, however.

“It was a different time,” O’Driscoll explains. “I remember going into the Forest dressing room with a dodgy haircut and a little bit of a moustache, which was trendy at the time, and being told ‘Here’s the Paddy’, and ‘You’ve got a bomb in your bag’. It was a bit daunting, to say the least.

“I went over two or three times and they actually offered me the contract but at the time I had no interest. I just wanted to stay at home.”

Noel McCabe 1997 Noel McCabe spotted O'Driscoll as a schoolboy. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

When McCabe suffered a bike accident, O’Driscoll left Stella for Belvedere’s U17s and linked up with Fergus McCabe and Philip Manly, who were “two great guys who had an influence on my career”.

At the age of 18, he spent two months at Arsenal after being invited over by scout Bill Darby. Pat Dolan was captain of the Gunners’ youth team at the time, while Niall Quinn had joined from Manortown United. However, a contract never materialised and he got his first taste of League of Ireland football at Drogheda United, who were managed by Mick Lawlor with Brian Kerr as his assistant.

“I went up there and it was a real baptism of fire as you’re playing with seasoned pros,” he says of his experience with the Drogs. “It toughens you up and there was no ‘Welcome to the League of Ireland’ kind of thing.”

When Lawlor resigned in November 1986, Kerr left too and took over at St Patrick’s Athletic a month later. Despite his limited budget, he began building a side that had the right blend of youth and experience.

The Saints narrowly missed out on the league title in ’88, and, with Richmond Park needing redevelopment, they moved temporarily to Harold’s Cross Greyhound Stadium at the beginning of the ’89/’90 season. As O’Driscoll explains, that presented its own challenges.

We’d train on Saturday morning and the first thing you had to do was take all the shit off the pitch because of the greyhounds on the track! There wasn’t much heading the ball in those training sessions.

“Even the dressing rooms at Harold’s Cross were so tight that you had Paul Nugent with his ear to the wall trying to listen in to get the tactics from the away side. But we had a great season and the crowds at the games were phenomenal. It was a time when the likes of Derry City would bring down big numbers.”

Brian Kerr Kerr as Saints boss. Source: INPHO

That year, Kerr led Pat’s to their first league championship since 1956.

“I was lucky enough to win the league with Pat’s, and it was an amazing experience,” says O’Driscoll. “We played Drogheda on the final day of the season and I scored, which was a fantastic memory to have.

“At the time, there was very much a drinking culture and we celebrated for a week. We had an open-top bus, where we were picked up in town and half of the people were looking up like ‘Who are they?’ kind of thing. They used to have electrical wires hanging down and we’d be coming up to them with everyone shouting ‘Duck, duck!’.

“But there were crowds of people around Inchicore and it’s a memory that I’ll always cherish.”

Primarily a centre-half, O’Driscoll was deployed in the backline and across midfield, but feels the regular chopping and changing of positions may have hampered him in the long-term.

“Looking back on my career, I was probably one of those players where ‘versatility’ would have been the word,” he says. “I came into that Pat’s team when Damien Byrne and Johnny McDonnell so there was competition for places.

“Even when I went to Bohs, I played every position across the middle of the park. Hindsight is a great thing, but at 19, 20 or 21 I should have said centre-half is where I wanted to stay. I was more naturally a centre half than anything.”

Pat’s went into financial turmoil and Bohs came knocking in ‘92. It was a difficult period of O’Driscoll’s life as he tragically lost both my parents in the space of a year, so the fresh start did some good.

“Bohs, at that time, were probably one player off being dominant for three or four years,” O’Driscoll tells. “We were nearly men, and Pat’s went on to win three more leagues in the ‘90s so you don’t know what way things are going to work out in football.”

On the final day of his first season, Bohemians just needed a draw away to Dundalk to win the league as they held a two-point lead over Shelbourne and Cork City.

“It was a bizarre situation because we went up to Dundalk but the bus broke down on the way,” he remembers.

It was the very last day of the season and every game was supposed to kick off at three o’clock. We arrived 45 minutes late and there were theories that we did it on purpose.

“We didn’t even have a warm-up and we just went out to play the game. With 10 or 15 minutes to go, there was a ball over the top and I’ll never forget it. Declan Geoghegan was left full and let it go out, but the referee gives a bloody corner. Tom McNulty scored and we lost the game 1-0.”

With Shels and Cork had both winning their matches earlier in the day, a three-way championship play-off.

“The crazy thing about it was we won the league on goal difference, but it didn’t go down to that,” he says. “The following year, you could win the league on goal difference so that’s the way things go.”

In a round robin, all three clubs played each other home and away but they couldn’t be separated — finishing on four points apiece. A second series was needed, but this time they played just once each at neutral grounds. Finally, after the long, drawn-out affair, Cork were crowned champions.

“Tolka Park on Friday night back then was a full house, likewise Dalymount,” O’Driscoll says. “They were great times to be associated with those games. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the play-off.

“I think we went through a phase of three or four seasons where we were the nearly men in terms of seconds, thirds and semi-finals. We signed Tony Cousins, but he was unlucky and it was one of those things. I had eight or nine years at Bohs though, and they were fantastic days.”

Maurice O'Driscoll 20/9/1996 O'Driscoll at Bohs. Source: © Matt BrowneINPHO

O’Driscoll struck up a centre-half partnership with Robbie Best at the age of 25 and feels that was the period he played his best football. A groin injury picked up out in Bray at 28 would have lasting effects, however.

“If I’m being honest, I don’t think I was ever the same player after that. It took them a year to diagnose what it was and I lost about a season as it was very stop-start. I was getting cortisone injections just to play and I was thinking I was okay.

“Looking back now, it was crazy and even though I got back playing on a regular basis, I was never the same in terms of flexibility. It was Gilmore’s Groin as well as other damage on top of that. I remember lying in the dressing room after that and saying ‘I’m in trouble here’, but in this day and age, I would have been back in three or four months.”

After a loan spell at Crusaders to regain his fitness, he returned to Bohs and, having managed the New Zealand national team briefly, Joe McGrath took over in 1998.

“What happened then was Joe came in and they offered me a three-year deal,” he adds. “Back then, they were paying 52 weeks, so that was unheard of. I thought ‘I’ll have a bit of that’, but Joe only lasted three or four weeks in the job.”

Roddy Collins was named interim manager and Bohs had a relegation battle on their hands, but got the better of Cobh Ramblers in a play-off. However, O’Driscoll wasn’t the biggest fan of Roddy’s managerial methods, and it came to a head after an FA Cup semi-final with Bray in 2000.

I’d be lying if I said we were seeing eye-to-eye,” he admits. “He called myself Brian Mooney, Derek Swan and Tony O’Connor into the dressing room and said he was going to build the team around us four guys. Three months later, I think Tony was the only one left! So that’s Roddy.

“He went on to win the double with Bohs and you can’t argue with that, but where I had a falling out with him was I when, having lost six or seven semi-finals in the FAI Cup, we got to the last four in 2000 and we were playing Bray live on telly.

“We were winning 1-0 and 20 minutes into the game he takes me off. I’m playing centre-half and Avery John was having a bit of a nightmare. I knew then that the writing was on the wall.”

Maurice O'Driscoll/Gary Haylock 20/8/1999 Playing for Bohs alongside Garry Haylock of Shelbourne in 1999. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He adds: “What upset me more was that we got to the cup final against Shels, when Pat Fenlon scored the winner for them. The build-up was fantastic and I remember Jimmy Magee saying ‘Maurice, you’ve lost all those semi-finals and now you’re in the final’, but I wasn’t even named in that matchday squad.

“That was devastating and all I ever asked was for Roddy to come to me and say I wasn’t part of the plans because you know what it’s like when you have all your family and friends at the game. I would have been a Bohs regular, I was eight years at the club and I had given a lot of my time to it.

“Managers have their own way of doing things and you move on but I had another year on my contract. I had the option to take it up and stay, but Roddy rang me up two days after the cup final and said ‘I suppose you’re going to leave now’.

I should have left then, but I didn’t. I could have joined Shamrock Rovers but I dug my heels in and thought ‘I’ll show him’.”

He ended up going out loan to Athlone Town with Greg Costello. Liam Buckley was manager, and they were challenging for the First Division.

“There was full houses at St Mel’s Park and it was a great time. It was funny being transported down from the luxury of Dalymount to there. I remember being in the dressing room and they used to have a heater in there, and it could be summer and you’d be boiling. Seemingly, if you turned off the heater it was connected to the floodlights so you had to keep it on!”

As retirement loomed, O’Driscoll had a brief spell at Dublin City under Johnny McDonnell and dabbled in the Leinster Senior League with Terenure CY before hanging up the boots.

Maurice O'Driscoll As caretaker manager of Pat's in 2009. Source: Margaret McLaughlin/INPHO

The original idea was to stay in the game and begin coaching, but after years of commitment to various clubs, O’Driscoll wanted opted to step away for a period.

“That’s what the plan was,” he replies when asked if he had always wanted to coach. “You take some time out for the family and Aaron had come along. You only realise when you step away from the game the commitment involved and what your wife and the family have to put up with. You think ‘Jesus Christ, I was never around!’.”

In 2006, his old team-mate McDonnell was in charge of Pat’s, while fellow Saints legend Paul Osam had taken over the U21s, and O’Driscoll was asked to come in to work with Oso.

“The remit there was to get players through to the first team but it was very difficult because they were a full-time outfit based in Celbridge and it was tough to get any players through,” he recalls.

“That was the challenge myself and Paul had. At the time, they were paying players ridiculous amounts of money. There was mad stuff going on, lads on two and three grand a week and they weren’t getting two thousand to the games on a matchday. But that’s the way it was.

“Paul then went to Bray and I took over from him. At the time, there was no link between the schoolboy set-up at Pat’s and the first team. So myself and Brian Dalton bridged that link and introduced lads that were 17 and 18 down to train with us. My thinking was that the natural flow of players should come from the schoolboy outfits. It’s ironic now that they have the U17s and U19s National Leagues.”

He also had a brief stint in charge of Pats’ first team when former Ireland defender Jeff Kenna parted company with the Inchicore club in 2009.

My Trivial Pursuit moment came when Johnny Mc left the club and Jeff Kenna came in as manager with Paul Peschisolido. That was a bit of a disaster, for want of a better word. I remember driving home from a meeting down in Cork and Richie Sadlier, who was the chief executive at the time, rings me and says ‘Listen, Jeff is gone’. I went ‘Okay’, and he asked ‘Would you fancy taking the first team?’. I went ‘Really?’.

“So we went to play Galway and we had Jason Gavin, Stuey Byrne and Ryan Guy there, so it was a really good side but Pat’s were in a relegation fight. I took the game, and we were 1-0 down at half-time with it being shown live on telly. I remember saying to myself ‘Okay, this is my moment’. So I told a few home truths to the players thinking I’d get a response, and then five minutes later we were 2-0 down! We lost that game 2-1 but it was an honour to manage Pat’s for two games.

“After the Galway game, when I was there were killings in the dressing room… I said to the players ‘Let it out’ and it was great. We played Galway and then we played Derry up there the following Tuesday. Pete Mahon then came in a week later as the new manager. I stayed another year with Pete but he had his own ideas.”

Around the same time, his son Aaron was coming through schoolboy football with the local club Kingswood in Tallaght.

“Eamonn Collins used to be always shouting in Inchicore ‘Can Aaron come down to us?’ and eventually he joined Cherry Orchard at the age of 11. The timing was great because I could step away from Pat’s, get to see him grow as a player and help him as much as I could.

“Jimmy Kelly was down there with Eamonn and they asked would I get involved more. It was great to get in and see Aaron and other players in that team. We had a smashing side. Most of them are either with Shamrock Rovers, St Pat’s, or UCD now, while there are five over in England.”

One of those who earned a move across the water was Maurice’s own boy.

“He was probably a late developer,” he says of Aaron, who is also a defender like his dad. “Going to Cherry Orchard, the coaching Eamonn and Jimmy were giving the kids was phenomenal. I’ve seen a lot of coaches, even in England, and without blowing their trumpet too much those two were fantastic.

“The beauty about what they would do is they would have a go at the kids, but in a positive way to tell them what they did wrong rather than roaring and shouting and the kids.”

After impressing at the Kennedy Cup, scouts began to get in touch about trials in England and the family opted to choose three clubs from several offers to go an visit.

“He went to Ipswich first and they were very keen to sign him,” he explains. “Then himself and Tyreke Wilson were picked up by Man City. We were very proud of him but it was difficult as parents to make a decision to let your child go over to England at 15 or 16 as he’s only a boy.”

O’Driscoll joined City’s world-class academy along with team-mate Wilson, but the promising youngster’s two years there were blighted by injury as he contracted glandular fever before a knee problem kept him sidelined for six months.

“Like any kids, all you want to do is play,” Maurice says. “We said ‘Why don’t you go down and have a look at Southampton’. So he had a look, played and they were really keen on him.”

At 17, Aaron put pen to paper on a two-year deal with the Saints in the summer of 2016.

“He was made captain of the youth team and he’s playing every week, which is all you can ask,” his father adds.

Cambridge United v Southampton U21 - Checkatrade Trophy - Abbey Stadium Aaron is doing well at Southampton. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Making the breakthrough in the English top flight is as challenging and competitive as it has ever been for young Irish footballers, and very few are making the grade when the richest league in the world have their pick of the best players from around the globe.

Realistic about his son’s chances, O’Driscoll has spoken to the Ireland U19 international about the importance of grabbing his opportunity if and when it arrives, while also preparing Aaron for an outcome in which it doesn’t.

“You look at young Declan Rice, who got his chance and when you get your chance you have to take it,” he says. “He had loads of luck and you need a manager that likes you too.

Man City are thinking ‘Let’s get all the best young players across Europe as much as we can’. The difference to when I went away is that now it’s a global game. They’re from everywhere and for the Paddy from Ireland, there aren’t too many making inroads at any Premier League club.

“You’d like to think there is more of a chance at Southampton, but it’s like everything else and I say to Aaron ‘You have to be ready if you do get your chance’. In fairness, he’s got a great attitude and he’s not one of these kids that has airs and graces about himself. He knows the hard work needs to be put in.

“The goal at the start of this season was to play with the U23s as much as he could and he’s had a good three or four months playing really well with them. It’s great for him and we’re in discussions to sign a new two year contract now.”

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