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'Two months ago I was training with Wexford. How am I now surrounded by Premier League footballers?'

Darragh O’Connor talks to The42 about his unusual journey to Motherwell, via Leicester City.

Darragh O'Connor.
Darragh O'Connor.
Image: PA

Updated Oct 23rd 2021, 8:34 PM

THERE ARE MANY paths to the Premier League though few are as lightly worn as Darragh O’Connor’s. 

“I never had trials across the pond, I never played Kennedy Cup. ‘How is this happening to me?’ It still baffles me to this day.

“How I got that move to Leicester, I don’t know.” 

O’Connor was born in London but moved to Wexford at the age of five and played every sport he could find – “I did Community Games too: went to Mosney and got silver in…some sort of thing” – and faithfully answered ‘footballer’ whenever school would ask what he wanted to do when he grew up. 

He slowly leaned towards soccer over GAA as the years slipped by but says there were never any true ambitions of making it in the UK. He played nonetheless: at centre-back with his local club Cloughbawn and then briefly at Waterford, before he returned to Cloughbawn and then joined Shamrock Rovers’ U19s. 

He spent a year at Rovers and then joined Wexford FC in the League of Ireland First Division. He lived in Dublin and was training to be an electrician, all the while chewing up a motorway three times a week to train and play for free at home.

And then, in February 2019, shortly after joining Wexford, he got the message that slammed the throttle on his life.

“A lad got in contact with me. He said, ‘I saw you play last year at Rovers’. I looked at the text message and thought, ‘You are full of shite.’

“I only played a few games at Rovers because, in the build-up to the season, I got a concussion in the training session the week leading up to it. That put me out for two months. I played three or four games and then couldn’t get into the team. 

“He was a scout, working for an agency.

“‘Right, I’ll entertain this fella and see what he says to me.’

“So I had a few conversations with him and met up with him. He said, ‘Now you’re in the Wexford team, send me on your games and I’ll do a highlights video.’ 

He cut the video together and O’Connor went on playing with Wexford, where the season began stodgily but improved. Whereas in March Wexford were hammered by Galway and Cobh, they drew with both in July. Prior to what proved to be a goalless game with Galway, O’Connor was unusually nervous, and for no discernible reason. 

“I remember eating a pasta before the game. I was sitting down and Mam said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’

“Normally I’d be up for the game. I said to her, ‘Mam, I’m really nervous for today. I don’t know why, but I’m really nervous.’

“‘What are you nervous for? It’s only another game.’”

“I remember sitting down thinking, ‘I need to play well tonight.’ But nobody had said anything to me.”

It wasn’t just another game.

Utterly unknown to O’Connor, his highlights package had come across the desk of Sean St Ledger at Leicester City.

St Ledger had retired and was working as a senior scout at the club, while also holding down a coaching role with the Republic of Ireland U15s. He asked one of the Irish-based coaches in the U15s set-up to scout O’Connor and deliver his judgement, and the game picked was the game with Galway. 

O’Connor played well enough for the worlds to collide days later. 

“I was doing 120 down the motorway, going back home after finishing work on a Friday, and the agent rings me, ‘Darragh, unfortunately, you’re not going to be able to play against Shelbourne next week.

“We were playing Cobh on the Saturday, and then playing Shels the following Friday.

“‘What? Why can’t I play?’

“‘For the simple reason you’re going over to Leicester City on trial.’

“I nearly crashed the car when he said it to me.

“I got home eventually, and myself and Mam looked at each other. ‘Darragh, what the hell is going on. How have you managed to do this?’” 

Leicester wanted to take a closer look at him and rather than send St Ledger to watch him at Cobh that weekend, they decided to bring O’Connor over to the training ground for a session and then a friendly game with the U23s. 

“Myself and Mam flew over. Mam was more excited than I was. We had a morning flight, half seven, and went with Ryanair. Shock with Ryanair: it was late taking off. 

“So then I arrived at Leicester’s training ground at five past 10. Training was at quarter past 10. Most of the boys were out on the pitch. I walked in and they said, ‘You have to get changed. Training is on in five minutes.’ I had no time to think about it. I had been worried about missing training with the flight. Leicester sent a taxi to pick me up, yer man was doing 90 miles an hour on the motorway to try and get me there. It was madness.

Before I knew it I was out training. We did the warm-up and then went into a possession game. I have never been more nervous in my life. ‘I don’t want to touch the ball. I do not want to touch the ball. Do. Not. Give. Me. The. Ball.’ For the whole session: ‘I don’t want the ball. Don’t give me the ball. No. No. No. No. No.’ I felt so out of my depth.

“‘I am so out of my league. They are so quick. The pitch is a carpet, I’m used to playing in…Cobh. I am so out of my depth here.’

He wasn’t. He played a training game at centre-half and against Sheffield Wednesday the following day. It finished goalless and Leicester told him they’d be in touch early the following week, while the Wednesday coaches ambled over and sounded him out.

O’Connor left thinking that he must have done okay if the opposition were showing an interest.

In the end he was waiting hours, not days, for Leicester’s call. They wanted to take another look at him, and so he flew back over for another session and game. He returned on 5 August, played a game on 6 August and returned home on 7 August, with transfer deadline day brought forward to 8 August. 

On the day he returned home, the agent told him, “‘Darragh, do not go to work. Do not do anything. Clear your whole schedule. This might happen.’”

That night, they rang. 

‘We are booking another flight, so get yourself to England in the morning as you’re signing for Leicester City.’

O’Connor and his family arrived at Leicester’s training ground on deadline day. He did his medical but was then met with complications. The vast majority of Leicester City’s administrative staff were otherwise engaged at the King Power Stadium, where Aiyawatt ‘Top’ Srivaddhanaprabha was being announced as the club’s new chairman, succeeding his late father.

That left one staff member at base and not enough time to process what proved to be two last-minute deals, with Dennis Praet arriving for the first team from Sampdoria. 

At 1pm, with four hours of the window remaining, the Head of Academy told O’Connor, agent and family that it looked likely that the deal wouldn’t be done in time. 

“We were sitting there for a while and Brendan Rodgers walked in. He said ‘Nice to meet you, what’s happening?’ The agent told Brendan what had happened, so Brendan got up from the table, walked into the office and I could hear him. ‘What the fuck, why isn’t this being sorted?’

“I was a 23s players as he was trying to sign a first-team player, but still he was saying, ‘Don’t care. You need to sort this out.’” 

4pm passed and the deal wasn’t sorted out. 

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“I was gutted, but at the same time I was thinking, ‘I must be good if a Premier League club wants to sign me for their academy. I must be decent.”

O’Connor returned home, determined to play for Wexford in an FAI Cup tie away to Derry City. Agent and club kept working on a deal, advised O’Connor not to play in Derry to avoid injury and, following an appeal to the FA, two weeks later was told the deal had got the green light. 

O’Connor ultimately spent two years at Leicester, playing for their U23s side. He didn’t play at first-team level but occasionally got the opportunity to train with them, earning  the kind of education money can’t buy. 

“I remember thinking during the warm up, ‘How am I here? Two months ago I was training with Wexford. How am I surrounded by Premier League footballers?

One session, we were playing a small-sided game and Jamie Vardy was on the other team. For the whole game, he didn’t touch the ball for his team. Instead, he was constantly in my ear. ‘Why are you standing there? You should be standing here. What happens if I make this run? Now what happens if I drop off, are you going to come with me? Or are you going to stay? Because that guy is going to run in behind you if you leave the space.’

“That is what the first team environment at Leicester was. ‘Right, we can see a lad with potential, let’s help him.’ I was more afraid to give the ball away in a 23s session than a first-team session. If I gave the ball away in a 23s session, I was shouted at. Not in a bad way, but in a, ‘Ah, fuck’s sake, you gave the ball away’, way.” 

“Whereas if I gave it away with the first team, they said nothing. They just won it back. As a team. Everyone came in to win the ball back, and then spread back out again to keep the ball.

“Even the mindset of the boys: anyone can give a ball away, but it’s your decision after that defines you. ‘Are you going to put your head down and not even bother, or are you going to react and get it back?’ That changed my mindset completely.” 

After two years of U23s football, Leicester decided he had hit a ceiling while O’Connor was ready to move on to play senior football. There was interest across England and Scotland but he settled on Motherwell in the Scottish top flight and is there now, trying to poke his way in from the fringes of the first-team.

He’s still just 22, has made his first-team debut in the league but is now out recovering from a hamstring injury. 

“That’s life now: I am trying to get back into the squad to try and then get back into the team. I’m not making the bench as there are so many experienced players ahead of me, so I need to keep training hard and keep training well.”

O’Connor is unassuming to say the least, but I put it to him that he’s better than he has given himself credit for throughout our interview. 

“I know what I am good at now, but I still need to improve on that every single day”, he replies. 

“You could say I have more belief in myself, but I still don’t think I’m a good player. I don’t think I’ll ever think I’m a good player. Whenever I play a game and then watch it back, I never pick positives out of the game. Never. I always look at the negatives. ‘What have I done wrong? Why couldn’t I do that?’

I need to brush up on that side of that game but still improve the good aspects of my game. That is my mindset every single day: Give it 100% in training every single day and train the way you play. That has always been my mentality. If you’re not going to give it 100% on the training pitch, you might as well not even turn up. There’s no point in me thinking about how many games I will play or the possibility of a call-up for Ireland because I’m not in the squad and I’m not in the team. I need to focus on the here and now, try to improve myself and get into the team. I am very much in the moment.” 

He can also count on a supportive family. 

“I came home from training one day and my brother had come over to visit me. He was just sitting there playing Fifa. I saw a red card, and asked, ‘Who have you got sent off?’

‘Oh, you.’

‘I am finally getting minutes on the pitch, and you’re getting me sent off!?’

‘Yeah.’

“I just started laughing.” 

 You can follow Darragh O’Connor on Twitter and Instagram.  

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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