IT WAS A surreal moment of anti-climax in Eamonn Deacy Park: the game was over, St Patrick’s Athletic were officially League Cup champions for 2015, only no-one was celebrating at the referee’s final whistle.
Galway United’s players were suffering their defeat in front of their own supporters but it remained curious that St Pats’ squad were not jumping up and down in elation following Conor O’Malley’s decisive save, which meant they had won the penalty shoot-out.
O’Malley allowed himself a quick moment of celebration but was ready for the next penalty. Only there were no more penalties — the scoreline read 4-3 and the EA Sports Cup was their’s.
A few moments of awkward confusion followed before it finally dawned that the cup was destined for Inchicore — no-one had been keeping count.
O’Malley sees the funny side of it now. People have wondered for decades what goes through a goalkeeper’s mind during a penalty shoot-out, but the St Pat’s number one admits that keeping track of the score is simply not one of them.
“I saved the last penalty and looked up and didn’t see any reaction”, he said speaking to The42 this week. “I wasn’t sure either, I don’t really remember. I do remember looking at the lads thinking ‘is this over?‘
“But when you’re in the middle of a penalty shootout as a goalkeeper you’re not really thinking about the score — it’s not going to make much difference to you, you just have to save the shots that are put in front of you.”
It was a moment of hilarity for neutrals, uncertainty for others but ultimately a crowning moment for what made been a tremendously successful season for the goalkeeper during his first season in Inchicore.
O’Malley joined St Pat’s following the withdrawal of Shamrock Rovers B from the First Division and found game-time more forthcoming than even he had expected as a 20-year-old.
“I was going into the season thinking if I got 10 games I would have been happy”, he says.
“I got a bit lucky — it’s weird when you’re a substitute goalkeeper because you need somebody to get injured to get your chance to play. You don’t want anybody to get injured but the experience helped me.”
“Brendan [Clarke] got injured and I was in for about 10 games. That made me settle in but as the season went on I might have got a bit nervous playing. When you are thrown into it like I was with Brendan’s injury you have less time to think about it and I think that helps.
“I had 23 games in total in my first season and I was very happy with how it went. I couldn’t have expected more having been signed as second choice.”
O’Malley stepped in during the 2015 season when veteran number one Clarke broke his finger midway through the season.
Born and raised in Westport, he admits that winning his first major honour in Eamonn Deacy Park months after signing for Liam Buckley was a special feeling having played with and against many of the Galway squads during his days at Westport United, Mervue United and Salthill Devon.
“It was a great feeling and especially down in Galway in front of a full house. When I was six or seven I was playing for Salthill so I knew a lot of the lads on that Galway team. It wasn’t nice for them obviously, but it was a nice feeling to win it in Galway in front of a lot of people I knew from home.”
2016 saw a return to the status quo, meaning Clarke took his regular starting spot between the sticks while O’Malley suffered recurring injuries with his quad. The goalkeeper featured just three times, but admits that at the end of last season manager Buckley showed his belief in the player to be his regular number one this season.
Working alongside Barry Murphy at Shamrock Rovers when he first came to Dublin not yet in his 20s, O’Malley knew his former team-mate’s arrival at St Pat’s would breed competition for the starting position, even with the departure of Clarke to Limerick.
“I played with Barry at Rovers and knew how good he was, so I was a bit nervous. We both trained throughout pre-season but Liam had said to me at the end of last season that I would be number one if I was fit.
“When we signed Barry I had doubts because he is a very experienced goalkeeper at this level, so I wasn’t sure. Barry played the first four games and got injured and then I got in and have stayed there ever since.
“Sometimes it just works like that as a goalkeeper. One injury can put you in and out of the team.”
Despite St Pat’s flirting dangerously with the threat of relegation, O’Malley has enjoyed a brilliant season. The 22-year-old is the league’s youngest starting goalkeeper but performs with an air of quiet maturity each week.
With 18 starts to his name this campaign, the player is finding his footing, even if self-critical of his performances.
“I’ve been happy enough with my performances but there have been some games where I’ve been very disappointed. Over the last six or seven games I’ve found a bit more consistency in my game and felt a lot more comfortable.
“I’ve made some good saves but also made one or two errors that I’d like to cut out of my game. At the end of the day goalkeepers are always going to make mistakes.”
The player admits he initially came to Dublin because it meant he could pursue third level education alongside football.
Completing a degree in mathematics in Maynooth University last May, O’Malley joins players such as Darragh Markey, Sean Hoare and Jamie McGrath to have played for St Pat’s and went to the college.
“There was the option to be third choice at Rovers and maybe go out on loan , but with Pat’s and Maynooth having that partnership it made sense — Brendan Clarke and Ger O’Brien were my managers at college at the time”, he says.
“Liam brought me in and made me number two. I was going into my final year at college so going to Pat’s suited me. It worked out in the end because I ended up getting plenty of games that year and did well.
“I finished college last May. We all trained in the morning and might miss some lectures and head into college in the evening. Most of the young players at Pat’s are in college — Rory Feely is in DCU, Darragh and Jack Bayly were at Maynooth — and Jamie McGrath.”
O’Malley worked as an actuary during the off-season and highlights the security which having a degree can offer footballers at a young age. A Plan B, he says.
“It benefits the players because it gives them that backup plan. You see some players return to Ireland when they’re only 16 and they’ve nothing to come back to. No Leaving Cert, some don’t even have a Junior Cert.
“Older players are going back to college now because they didn’t have the chance to do it when they were younger. I think players in the league are more knowledgeable about planning for their future now.
“I studied maths at Maynooth and am in actuary and financial services now. I worked in the off-season but told my employers that I wanted to give football another few years full-time.
“I was in college for the past few years and it’s only in the last four months that I’ve experienced full-time football. Maybe in a few years I will do both, but for now I’m happy to just play football.”
O’Malley is disappointed with the season St Pat’s have suffered this year. Despite enjoying a campaign of personal development which has offered a window into what promises to be a long career in the game, St Pat’s have performed below par.
“We had a poor start and with the three teams going down straight away there’s pressure on you. Maybe in the first few weeks we didn’t react well enough. Then we got the two wins over Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians and should have pushed on from there, but we didn’t.
“I don’t know what the reason for that is. There have been a lot of games where we should have done better. We should have done better against Limerick, we should have beaten Galway. It’s just that right after those two wins we should have pushed on up the table, but we didn’t, we sat back and started dropping from there.
“It was hard to get confidence back in the team but I feel that it’s back there now.”
Last Friday’s victory against Derry City felt like a tide changing, he says.
Going into the break 1-0 down and without a single league win in two months, the second half saw a revival which brought with it a 2-1 win and a roaring atmosphere back to the stands of Richmond Park.
He says criticism of the side has been warranted at times this season owing to a lack of ability to see games out when it mattered most. But the side, and it’s manager, are sticking to their principles, he says.
“It was almost like a big relief. The final whistle after the Derry game was probably one of the best feelings I’ve had coming off a football pitch. You’re coming off and it seems like luck is turning for you.
“I know we haven’t done well this year, but I think it’s been individual errors more than a collective mis-function of the team.
“Liam is sticking to his principles and we could have had more wins in the last six or seven weeks. We got the win against Derry on Friday and just hopefully we can push on and keep doing well playing the way Liam wants us to.”
Growing up playing Gaelic football in Mayo and representing the county at minor level in 2012, O’Malley says that football was always the sport he wanted to pursue.
He uses the example of Sean Maguire as how far a League of Ireland player can go, and admits that pulling on the green jersey for his country is a motivation he keeps in mind, even at a distance.
“I think every player in Ireland wants to go to England, but as a goalkeeper there’s no rush. If I went to England now I wouldn’t be playing — where at Pat’s I’m playing every week. I’m getting great experience here so for the next year or so I’m very happy to remain at Pat’s.
“The standard is improving in the League of Ireland and you see with a player like Seanie Maguire and how well he he is playing. He went over to England when he was younger, came back, and has worked hard to get himself back over there.
“It is encouraging when you see lads that you played with and against making that move. It shows that if you keep working and keep playing and get as many appearances under your belt as you can in Ireland that you can make it.”
Soft spoken and modest beyond measure, O’Malley has shown a maturity between the sticks and in his decision-making in life which not only gives him the option to pursue his dream, but also a career to fall back on.
Coming from Westport where many children harbour dreams of coming to Dublin and lifting Sam Maguire in the Hogan Stand, O’Malley admits he has always had his sights set on football, even if a career in the green and red of Mayo was waiting in the wings.
The Pat’s number one says he grew up admiring Iker Casillas, but may one day look to emulate another goalkeeper from the west of Ireland.
“I looked up to Shay Given playing for Ireland growing up”, he says.
“It’s every kids dream to play for Ireland. You’re watching these incredible nights like when Ireland beat Italy in the Euros — that’s why you play football. You’d love it if it did happen one day, but it’s a long way off at the minute.”
Already making an argument for the title of the League of Ireland’s best goalkeeper, it may be closer than the 22-year-old thinks.
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