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Training with Phil Foden at Man City, returning home to Ireland and learning from Damien Duff

Aaron O’Driscoll is hoping to help Shelbourne enjoy a successful season on their return to the top flight.

Aaron O'Driscoll pictured playing for Shelbourne.
Aaron O'Driscoll pictured playing for Shelbourne.
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

WHEN DAMIEN DUFF calls, players tend to listen.

Aaron O’Driscoll was in demand after an impressive first season in the League of Ireland last year.

Longford may have been relegated from the Premier Division with a disappointing 15 points, but the 22-year-old defender still managed to stand out in difficult circumstances.

The youngster started every game and was named the club’s Player of the Year as a result of his performances.

Consequently, according to Duff, O’Driscoll turned down “a host of clubs” to sign for Shelbourne in the off-season, as they prepare for a return to the top flight after their promotion last year.

“I met Damien with about a month of the season to go last year,” O’Driscoll tells The42. “We just had a chat over a coffee. I really enjoyed how he saw the game and how he wanted to do things.

“Obviously, the full-time training and with [former Bolton, West Ham and Shamrock Rovers defender] Joey O’Brien coming in as well, I think with those two and the coaches that they’ve got, I’m still young, I can really improve.

“You can go to different teams, teams that are more established or whatever. But Shels are a massive club and in spite of us only coming up this year, it was a really good opportunity for me. So I had to think about it but my mind was made up quite quickly. I kind of wanted to get it done as soon as possible.”

There is a surreal element to O’Driscoll working under Duff. He watched him often while growing up and talks fondly of the Jose Mourinho Chelsea side that the Ireland legend was an important part of.

“His coaching has been great,” he adds. “It’s a lot of sessions I would have been used to over in England. It’s really professional and really enjoyable. We worked really hard, but a lot of it has been with the ball, all stuff I really enjoy doing.

“I think he has everyone’s respect. He didn’t have to come in and lay down the law and demand it

“Every one of the players in the squad respects him because of what he’s done. If we learn from him, it makes us better and it’s a benefit for us.”

The priority, of course, will be avoiding relegation. Having been promoted for the first time since 2013 the season before last, Shels went straight back down the following campaign. Nevertheless, O’Driscoll is optimistic the team can perform better this time around. Asked whether he would accept an eight-place finish if offered now, he feels the club can “aim a bit higher”.

And does he have any personal goals for the season?

“I scored twice last season. I’d like to add a few more goals because I’m quite good at attacking. As well, I want to build a relationship with the lads at the back and get as many clean sheets as we can and just excel in my own performance.

“When I met with the gaffer, that was his aim. He wanted me to push on and be the best I can be. I probably want the main highlights to be, five-plus goals, aim for 10-15 clean sheets, maybe that’s a bit optimistic, but if you don’t aim high, what’s the point?”

Shels will hope to make a positive first impression as they host St Patrick’s Athletic in their season opener on Friday.

“I’ve never actually played in Tolka because I obviously didn’t play them last year and I was based in England before that,” he says. “I’m actually really looking forward to playing there and it’s going to be a full house.

“My girlfriend’s parents are coming over, my parents will be there, a lot of my friends.”

O’Driscoll has had to be patient in waiting for these big occasions to arrive.

The son of former St Patrick’s Athletic and Bohemians defender Maurice O’Driscoll, he also played under former Saints manager Eamonn Collins as a youngster with renowned Dublin schoolboy club Cherry Orchard.

“[My dad has] always been my biggest fan. When I was in England, he used to come over and watch games. He was at most games last season as well. He’s a great supporter and it’s good to have someone you can come to for advice. Sometimes he’s probably my harshest critic but I think I need that.”

Initially a midfielder, it was only after being moved to centre-back that O’Driscoll started to excel at schoolboy level, earning a move across the water to Manchester City in the process.

“You see these stars and you aspire to be them,” he recalls. “But all round, tactically and technically, I was training a vigorous schedule from an early age. It’s definitely stood to me so far, and it will help me in the future.

“I crossed paths with Jadon Sancho a little bit. But from a young age, Phil Foden, I always was very impressed by and couldn’t get near him in training. I’m not surprised he’s been absolutely flying [in the time since].

“Physically, it took him a while to develop, but at training, I might have been twice the size of him but I still couldn’t get the ball off him.”

phil-foden-47-of-manchester-city-during-the-game-in-on-9152021-photo-by-craig-thomasnews-imagessipa-usa-credit-sipa-usaalamy-live-news O'Driscoll trained with Phil Foden in Man City's academy. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The Irish starlet spent two seasons in City’s academy before being released. Bad fortune put paid to his progress. A bout of glandular fever left him bed-ridden for weeks and stalled O’Driscoll’s progress, as did a serious injury picked up shortly thereafter.

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“It’s very much dog eat dog over there,” he says. “It was a bit stop-start. When I first went over, I was flying, then had that illness and then the following pre-season I had a knee injury, which was not ideal. And obviously, the calibre of player there, if you’re out, there are two or three lads waiting to take your place, even in the younger ages, who are just really good players.

“So you come back then, you’re down the pecking order and it’s tough, but that’s football, isn’t it? If you’re not playing, someone else will instantly take your spot.

“You’d be the same if you got the opportunity, so you can’t take it too personally.”

After leaving City, O’Driscoll then signed a professional contract with Southampton and spent four years at the club.

“I really enjoyed my football there. Obviously, I wished that I pushed closer to the first team, but it’s a very competitive environment. You can go through to the first team and if you don’t train well for a few sessions, that’s the manager overlooking you and that’s the way it is.

“When Mark Hughes was manager, I was training with [the first team] every day. I was in and around squads and stuff. I needed to push on then. That season, I came back, I was really fit and ready to go. But as you know, in football, managers get sacked and he didn’t last too long so a new manager comes in with new ideas — Ralph Hasenhüttl is doing really well with them now. He’s a good coach but obviously, coaches have their own opinions and stuff, and you can’t take it too personally. Those few months when I was training with Mark Hughes, I thought that was probably my best chance of breaking through but it just didn’t happen.”

O’Driscoll’s first taste of senior football came with Mansfield, as he appeared eight times for the League Two side during the 2020-21 campaign.

“I went from Southampton with no senior experience, which isn’t great at 20 to 21. Looking back, I probably should have gone on loan, but when you’re around that environment, thinking you’re going to get a chance in the first team, you want to stay.

“But it was a real eye-opener for me. It didn’t go the way I wanted it to. It was a great experience and I feel like I’m a better player from it.

“A similar thing [to Southampton] happened. Graham Coughlan signed me there. After 10 games of the season, he was sacked. Nigel Clough came in and he was honest with me. I was playing in midfield a little bit. He told me I needed to get more experience to be able to play centre half for his team. I went out, did that with Longford [on loan] and then at the end of the season we [both agreed] I would prefer if I came back home permanently and got another season under my belt. To be fair to him, he didn’t stand in my way. He was quite supportive and there’s no bad blood there.”

As well as gaining some invaluable experiences on the pitch, O’Driscoll met his girlfriend over in England, which helped assuage any sense of homesickness he would have initially felt as a youngster.

“I’ve made some great friends in football, but a lot of lads are just looking after themselves. When you meet someone outside of the football bubble, you can actually build relationships and stuff. It definitely makes it easier. Of course, you still miss the home comforts and stuff like that, and I’m back home now and really enjoying football. But if an opportunity arises in a few years when I start developing to go back to England, I’d jump at it. I’m still quite ambitious and I’m still young. 

“Overall, I was happy with how I did [at Longford] and this season, my aim is to go to the next level and not rest on my laurels.”

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Paul Fennessy

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