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'I was considered not to be Irish... I could have buckled at any stage and drank'

John O’Flynn reflects on his career with Cork City, Peterborough United, Limerick and others.

John O'Flynn spent seven years at Cork City over the course of two spells.
John O'Flynn spent seven years at Cork City over the course of two spells.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

JOHN O’FLYNN ALWAYS knew he needed an edge to make it as a professional footballer.

The Cobh native started playing soccer at a serious level relatively late.

Growing up, Gaelic football, hurling and karate were all staples of his sporting life. A natural athlete, O’Flynn was adept at any sport he attempted.

“I was never pushed into any sport,” he tells The42. “My dad was always there to bring me where I wanted to go. I had the freedom to choose what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do really.”

It was around the age of 12 that he joined local soccer club Springfield based on the encouragement of one of their coaches, having impressed in the summer street leagues.

From there, he moved up to a higher level, playing with the Kennedy Cup squad, featuring alongside highly touted youngsters, including Niall McNamara and John Lester, who would go on to sign for Nottingham Forest and Everton respectively.

“We played a friendly game against the DDSL up in Dublin. I just remember the ball coming over my shoulder, just inside the halfway line. I turned and volleyed it into the top corner. I think that goal was the stepping stone that pushed me on. It was probably a week or two after that I got a call-up to the Irish underage squad.”

O’Flynn subsequently joined Leeds, widely regarded as the best team in Cork at the time, and started scoring goals “for fun”.

Scouts from across the water began to take notice. It was around the time of his Junior Cert, when countless days of school were missed, as he travelled over to England for trials with Derby County, QPR and Leeds United. In the end though, he chose Peterborough, who had a highly regarded youth team.

I can still vividly remember the day that I signed and all the family went. And then, it was time for them to say goodbye. It was at that moment that it hit me. Albeit it was just over an hour on the plane. My father came to so many home games. But it was just that realisation that: ‘Okay, I’m 16, I’m now on my own.’

“But I wouldn’t have got homesick. The digs we lived in at the time were great, a bit of a family atmosphere.”

There are an abundance of instances of exceptionally talented young footballers who go off the rails and never fulfil their potential, and O’Flynn was determined not to become another sad story.

“The character I had at that stage, I didn’t drink. I never drank while I was a teenager. It was never something that was on my radar. I wanted to be a footballer and drink was against that.

“So when I did move to England, there was a bit of pressure on me to drink. I was Irish and they considered the Irish to have a big drinking culture and that’s what you should do.

“There were a couple of lads in the first team of Peterborough at that stage, and I was considered not to be Irish. So there was that pressure and I could have buckled at any stage and drank. But I always stuck to my guns and never really cared.

“I suppose it went 360 then. By the time I could drive, the lads never bothered that I used to not drink, because I would drive them in and collect them after the nightclub. It worked in my favour in one sense, but it was a big step at that young age.

“Me and my dad talk now and in hindsight, he probably wouldn’t have let me go over so young. But at that age, no one would have been able to stop me. You’re just hellbent on being a professional footballer.

“There’s no right or wrong [on the topic]. But we’d never have spoken again if I was stopped from going to England.”

soccer-npower-football-league-championship-peterborough-united-v-nottingham-forest-london-road O'Flynn worked under Barry Fry at Peterborough. Source: Tony Marshall

O’Flynn continues to largely abstain from drinking alcohol to this day.

“Maybe holidays I could have a few Shandys, but drink is something I never got into. It became my thing that I just don’t drink.

“Growing up at that stage, if you get into drink, [for some people] it’s something that you need on a night out, and you can’t enjoy yourself if you don’t have it — I never had that experience. I could go out and enjoy my night, whereas other lads ‘needed’ it to be able to be themselves in one way.

“It was only in later years where lads would have been saying to me: ‘Jeez, I never should have drank, I wish I had done it your way.’ Whereas when you’re at that age, they’re all saying: ‘Why don’t you drink? You’re not Irish.’ Or stuff like that.

“It’s based on your personality and I never cared what anyone ever thought about me, or what they were saying about me. You can probably tell with the amount of haircuts and rash things I would have done when I was younger.”

He adds: “My brother ended up being on the Euro pro tour, he was a professional golfer, now he’s a personal trainer. He was looking at me, he was four years younger. He did the same thing, he never really got into drink. It was something that rubbed off on him.”

O’Flynn enjoyed his time at Peterborough, but acknowledges he had to earn the respect of his new team-mates.

Some of the lads that would have been involved with Peterborough at the time probably grew up with the youth team, and now three or four of their buddies have dropped off and there’s the Irish kid taking their place. So there’s always that competitiveness.

“Some young lads go to England and think once they sign that contract, that’s it, they’ve made it already. But it’s far from that. When you get over there, that’s when the real work starts. That’s what I always thought. Every day you’re training is a chance to show these lads how good you are and that you belong here.”

O’Flynn then took further steps in his footballing education, spending time on loan at non-league clubs Cambridge City and Bedford Town, scoring three goals in 22 senior appearances over the course of that period.

“I didn’t drive at that stage. There were lads collecting me and they were coming straight from work, from building sites and different jobs. So that was a big eye opener — their love for football and how much they wanted it. And they were working around the clock. I was this young lad in the youth team, football was my life. I’d get up and play, I didn’t have the hardships that they had. That [made me realise] how lucky I actually am.”

john-oflynn-sports-an-unusual-hairstyle O'Flynn pictured playing for Cork in 2006. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The Irish youngster returned from these loan spells better equipped to handle the physical demands of the senior game, but some bad news with regard to his Peterborough deal was on the horizon.

“Another vivid moment I had was the time we were all sat in the hallway, going in one by one to see if we’d got a professional contract. I was probably the only player in that youth team that got an extension — a six-month professional deal — all the rest of my team-mates are coming out crying.

“After that six months, the ITV Digital money that was coming in for clubs stopped. There was a collapse there and a lot of our players suffered.

I had done well in the reserves prior to leaving, I had probably a goal a game. But the conversation with Barry Fry was: ‘The money we thought was there isn’t.’ There would have been an interview with Barry, probably two or three months into my Cork City career, because that took off. He said that I could have played at any level, and they let me go because of the ITV Digital [debacle].

“But in my eyes, it was: ‘Okay, this is the biggest disappointment of my life so far. What am I going to do now when I go home?’ You have that reputation of a footballer playing in England and all of a sudden, you’re let go and you’re at home. You’re just one of the lads.”

Cambridge tried to convince O’Flynn to return to England, while others in Britain offered him a trial. In the end though, he signed for Liam Murphy’s Cork City team.

“I was lucky that summer soccer was coming in that year. By the time I came back from Peterborough, I worked in my aunt’s company for two weeks and was thinking: ‘Do I really want to be a footballer, or do I want to work?’ That work gave me an insight into what it involved and I was like: ‘Look, can I join one of the League of Ireland clubs?’

“I actually rang the chairman of Cork at one stage just to ask could I train with them, while I decided what I wanted to do. Shelbourne had rang, I was obviously on their radar. 

“I can’t remember who the phone call came from, but I remember saying: ‘If worse comes to worse, I’ll give you a ring.’ I’d a couple of things lined up in England. I got off the phone and I remember my dad’s face. ‘You just realised what you said there?’ ‘No.’ You said: ‘If worse comes to worse, I’ll ring you.’ I was like: ‘Oh no.’ He said: ‘Shelbourne won the league this year. They’re champions.’ I was basically disrespectful without even knowing it. So the way it transpired, when I signed for Cork, our first game was at Shels. I was thinking: ‘Well, I better be on top of my game for this match.’”

george-ocallaghan O'Flynn formed an impressive partnership at Cork with George O'Callaghan. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Of the Cork signing, he adds: “I went to watch them in their last pre-season game. Longford beat them 3-0 or 4-0 and I was like: ‘Wow. They’re not a great squad at all. Or else that’s a very bad game.’

“But I managed to say: ‘Okay, I’ll sign.’ It was midweek. I had two or three training sessions and we beat Shelbourne 3-0 in Cork that Friday, I scored two and I set one up for Georgie [O’Callaghan]. 

“We then played a cup game, I scored three and we played Bray, I scored two. So I had seven goals in my first three games. We were chatting as a family after, I was saying: ‘It’s probably the best thing that ever happened me, being released and being able to join with a team that [played me at senior level].”

O’Flynn had joined a promising young side and began to form a highly effective, “telepathic” partnership with George O’Callaghan, who he describes as the best footballer he ever played with in the League of Ireland.

After a fourth-place finish in O’Flynn’s first season, Pat Dolan replaced Murphy as manager and the club continued to make significant strides.

Pat would have had the likes of Dave Mahedy, the head of UL, coming down three times a week, doing stuff that Premier League clubs are doing now. This is 2003. So we were way ahead. Obviously, with them people coming down, the budget would have been stretched.

“We had the best buses, the best hotels when we were staying overnight, any European trips we were going three or four days before. Charter flights. We were basically living like Premier League footballers.

“In Pat’s day, he definitely brought a level of professionalism there that we hadn’t seen before and I don’t think the League of Ireland had seen.

“Pat would really rile us up. We’d be having chats about: ‘Who wants to be in the Irish senior team?’ People would be laughing at that stage. Even players in our squad. Pat was like: ‘It’s all a limitation you have in your brain. Anyone in this squad could play for the international team.’

“Then it transpired that, five, six, seven? How many players from that squad, the golden era, went on to play in the Irish set-up? So I think Pat’s man-management and getting the most out of every individual player was his biggest asset. 

“At that stage and probably still to this day, Pat’s not the most loved. We played against a few teams, and the players were asking us basically why are we playing out of our skin and trying so hard for this manager, he’s a whatever. We were saying: ‘We love him.’ We called him the ‘Bovril’. You either love or hate him.”

pat-dolan Former Cork boss Pat Dolan had a big impact on O'Flynn's career. Source: INPHO

Under Dolan’s watch, the club continued to make progress, finishing third and then second the following season, just three points behind champions Shelbourne on the latter occasion.

And finally, in 2005, Cork were crowned champions, finishing two points ahead of Stephen Kenny’s Derry City.

“We would have had lots of chats in pre-season prior to Pat leaving that ‘this was it’. We had a taste the previous year of what it feels like to almost get there. Then there was a falling out and there was a meeting just before the season started to say that Pat Dolan was no longer the manager and Damien Richardson was coming in, which rubbed people up the wrong way. Some players were hurt. We’d been working under this manager for the last few years and we all knew that we were primed and ready to win the league that year. So to win it without Pat, we were thinking it’s a sucker punch really.

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“Damien came in and had his own characteristics and his own way of playing. He just gave us freedom to express ourselves.

“In one sense, it was the perfect time for a manager to come in because of the squad we had and the calibre of player. We felt our training sessions were harder than our matches, because it was so competitive –we’d kick lumps out of each other.

That squad had big personalities that we were never going to get disillusioned and fall off the mark really. Derek Coughlan would have been around the club for years prior to us young lads. When it came to them tough times, there was always Derek to give us that speech. We had the hairs on our back stand up and we’d say: ‘Okay, this is about more than just us players. There’s a whole city and county relying on us to produce every week.’

“Everything seemed to click, up until the last third of the season, where the league should have been won long ago. We had a small hiccup, but that made it even sweeter on the last night of the shed and the final day of the season, having to win that game [against Derry] to win the league.”

Yet that 2005 campaign would end in disappointing fashion. After clinching the title, the Leesiders were upset by Drogheda in the FAI Cup final a few weeks later, suffering a 2-0 loss.

“The sheer fact that we had won the league — it had been so long — the city just exploded. We were like celebrities. People were dragging us into shops and we could walk out with whatever we wanted basically.

“We would have been sponsored by Guinness and the lads drank their brewery dry a few times. 

“In hindsight, we probably would have done a lot of things differently after winning the league. It seemed a long spell between winning and playing that cup final. We had a full week off and then we got back into it.

“We definitely trained well, but your brain was probably elsewhere and not fully focused. We stayed in the same hotel as the fans. I remember leaving in the bus prior to kick-off and we basically got a standing ovation. The fans made a little lane way and clapped us through, as if we’d won the cup, before we even got there.”

Source: ifgrounds/YouTube

O’Flynn and Cork did gain some redemption two years later, beating Longford 1-0 to finally win the illustrious trophy. Yet trouble was brewing behind the scenes with then-onwers, Arkaga.

“I never saw the club going into administration. Okay, there were talks. I felt there was stuff going on that was out of our hands. But I never really saw it coming to fruition, which it did.

“I was a footballer playing in Ireland for my local club on a decent wage. That was reflective of that company that took over and their bonus scheme. They ploughed big money and big contracts in there, but that was never going to sustain itself.

“For myself, you obviously live to your means and I was earning a decent wage. Next thing, you’re cut. You’re getting 40% of that wage. You still have bills to pay. You still have to think about the future. I literally had a week before the transfer window ended in England, to decide do I want to stay and earn 40% of my wages, or do I want to make a move. It was always in my head that I’d like to go back to try and prove that I belonged in England and I could play at that level.

“My agent at the time was from North London and Barnet is in North London. He knew the chairman. I stayed for my sister’s wedding and was gone the day after. Obviously, it was disappointing leaving Cork City the way the club was. But I had to push on and try to further my career.”

The initial outlook wasn’t exactly promising for O’Flynn, though he gradually began to enjoy his second spell abroad.

They lost 7-0 to Accrington or someone like that. I saw it on Soccer Saturday with the scores coming in. 5-0, 6-0, 7-0, I was like: ‘Wow.’ I was going over to this squad and they were struggling down towards the bottom. But I quickly got on my feet over there and scored 18 goals in that first season. We were safe from relegation. And the following year was probably the same thing. Down in and around the bottom half of the table, struggling a small bit, but we managed to stay up.” 

One of the biggest challenges was going from a team that was one of the dominant sides in Ireland to a struggling League Two outfit.

“You probably get 10 chances [in Ireland] and if you miss five or six, you’re invariably going to score one or two goals. But I felt at Barnet, I had to really fine-tune my finishing, because I might get two chances in a game and I needed to score.

“But I did get a lot of goals there. They had Albert Adomah and halfway through the season, Yannick Bolasie came in. They both went on to play Premier League football. So I had one on one wing and one on the other. It was more a case of: ‘Okay, hold the ball up, get it wide, get in the box, and get your goals. And a lot of my goals came from just that.”

crystal-palace-v-norwich-city-barclays-premier-league-selhurst-park O'Flynn played alongside future Premier League star Yannick Bolasie at Barnet. Source: PA

After impressing with Barnet, bigger clubs became interested in signing O’Flynn. Shrewsbury put in an offer, though the player had six months left on his contract and instead decided to let it elapse. Having spent pre-season training with Bristol City, he then agreed to join Exeter City, moving up a division in the process.

“It was down south. Every away game became the biggest of treks, but I really enjoyed my time there. It was four years and maybe just over two years of feeling good.

“I had a lot of injuries. I had a knee injury that I ended up getting surgery on. So my time there wasn’t flooded with goals, but I’ve been lucky over my career that I’ve managed to play in great squads. You’d never say that ‘this guy was a so and so’. They were all really close-knit.”

There would be some acrimony towards the end of his four-year stint there, however.

“I wasn’t really getting in the team or the squad. There was a difference of opinion between me and the management.

“Southend [tried to sign me and] were in and around the play-offs, and they wanted to kick on. I wanted to play football obviously, and [the manager] didn’t want me to go. I was probably third or fourth choice striker at that stage. I was saying: ‘Look, I’m not playing here.’ He was like: ‘I need you around.’

I wouldn’t have been the type of person to kick up a fuss and barge my way out of there. I said ‘I’ll stick at it’. And I would have ended up playing in games towards the end of the season that would have secured the club’s future [amid a successful fight against relegation].”

After being released by Exeter, O’Flynn signed back for a second spell with a rejuvenated Cork City in 2014.

“Looking back now and how it transpired, I played predominantly on the right wing and the style of play, it didn’t suit my game.

“It felt like I had a lot in me that was getting wasted on the wing. I was coming towards the end of my career and I was doing the most running I had ever done.

“At Exeter, we’d be predominantly passing the ball, interlinking and the Cork squad had a formula for success and winning. It was: ‘Get the ball up to [Mark O'Sullivan], Marky would flick it on or hold it up. So playing on the right at that stage, I would have been defending and the ball would have been kicked up to Marky. So I’d have to run up. And then if we lost it, we’d be back down. There wasn’t that build-up type of play that [would have allowed me to] be involved more.”

john-oflynn O'Flynn made his return to Cork City in 2014. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

O’Flynn had a better time after joining Limerick ahead of the 2016 campaign, finishing the season with 12 goals, joint-second in the scoring charts, and helping the club earn promotion to the top flight.

“Leaving Cork, I was not bitter, but I had stuff to prove. I wasn’t offered another deal there. 

“I was now the number nine. I had that supply line from the wing. I had Aaron Greene on one side and Stephen Kenny on the other, so it reverted back to what I used to do at Barnet. Hold the ball up, get it wide and get in the box.”

O’Flynn helped Limerick secure a seventh-place finish amid their first season back in the top flight. He then signed for Finn Harps in 2018, arranging a deal where he would invariably train with Cork City during the week before meeting team-mates ahead of matches.

“I couldn’t see myself driving seven hours for a home game. But it was [Finn Harps boss] Ollie Horgan’s sheer enthusiasm. He basically drove down to Cork, twice in a week, from Donegal, to speak to me. The first time, I didn’t want to disrespect anyone by just saying ‘no’. But he talked me into it basically with his enthusiasm. We shook hands and another promotion from the First Division ensued.

“I joke now, after two promotions, I can put on my CV that if any First Division club is looking for promotion, just give me a shout.”

O’Flynn has not played since that 2018 promotion-relegation play-off when Finn Harps overcame Limerick. Though he plans to ultimately make a comeback in the Munster Senior League, at 38, he now has other priorities in life.

“I’ve been involved in a start-up company, we’re almost two years now in business — Summa Sportswear. 

“I also have a start-up human, she’s 15 months old. 

“I’m still coaching a few nights a week with Cobh in Munster. So I’m still involved in sport.

“You get delusional sometimes as a footballer. When I came back to Cork, my wife and I spoke.

I did my Junior Cert and did a B tech in sports science, but never did the exam to get the qualification, because I headed home early — the stupidity of a youngster. So my CV basically would have been Junior Cert and a professional footballer CV of 20 odd years.

“I really had to say: ‘Okay, what do I want to do? Knuckle down.’ And from 2014 to 2017, I did different courses. I did my personal training course. I would have done my Uefa B. I did a physical therapy course, I qualified at that. So I just did as much as I could.

“I managed to meet good contacts with good ideas. I’d have a lot of contacts and my business partners would have a lot of contacts in Ireland and worldwide. So it seemed a good mix really to start up this sportswear company.

“We have done really well to date. We have umpteen teams in Cork. We have teams in the US. So it’s gone from strength to strength really.

“I’m sat outside DHL there now, I’m about to collect a few boxes of masks. We’ve done customised Cork City face coverings. We’re giving the proceeds of the sale to Cork City academy and the frontline staff. I obviously spoke to the chairman and okay’d it to use their crest. It’s nice to be able to give back to the club that gave me so much.”

soccer-coca-cola-football-league-two-port-vale-v-barnet-vale-park O'Flynn took inspiration from Paul Furlong at Barnet. Source: Neal Simpson

Speaking about his career in more general terms, O’Flynn concludes: “I just think look for any edge you can. My edge was: I didn’t drink, I tried to eat as well as I could, and ask questions.

“When I was at Peterborough, it was around the time that Patrick Vieira would have got a lengthy [first-team] suspension. We were playing behind closed doors against Arsenal. I remember walking off the pitch and just asking as many questions of them high-class footballers as I could.

“They must have been thinking: ‘What’s this guy about?’ But I asked: ‘What does it take? What do you do? How do you train? How do you sleep? What time do you go to bed at?’ I wanted to know everything that they did to try to replicate that. So [it's important to] find a role model you can jump on.

I played with Paul Furlong. He would have played with Chelsea and had a very good career. He wound up at Barnet and was my strike partner. He was 42 years of age. He was ripped to shreds and could still play every week, albeit they tailored his training programme.

“But just looking at how he lived his life, how he ate, how he conducted his day to day all around football. He just was like that at 42, that really opened my eyes on what it took sacrifice-wise to keep playing professional football.”

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