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Lotto winner Kevin O'Connor going back to basics with his first love in football

The 24-year-old has six months left on his Preston North End contract and is aiming to revitalise his career with Waterford.

O'Connor is ready for a fresh start.
O'Connor is ready for a fresh start.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

SOME OF THE enduring images from Cork City’s celebrations after winning the 2017 FAI Cup final involve two players who were not involved.

They weren’t even Cork City players.

But they’re there, amid all of the delirium on the Aviva Stadium pitch, and are very much a part of it.

They’re parading in front of the supporters with Cork scarves, giving bear hugs to men in green shirts drenched in sweat, and in the dressing room afterwards as champagne soaked the walls.

Seani Maguire and Kevin O’Connor were the returning heroes, and they were most welcome. Both left Turner’s Cross for Preston North End during the mid-season break.

Their work was done by that point.

Maguire had scored 20 goals and was a striker in demand, while O’Connor’s stock as one of the most influential left backs – with a killer free kick as part of his arsenal – was rising. An Ireland U21 international, he joined his close friend by moving to the north of England.

john-caulfield-celebrates-with-former-players-kevin-oconnor-and-sean-maguire Kevin O'Connor (left), Seani Maguire (centre) and former Cork City manager (right) celebrate after the 2017 FAI Cup final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The team they left behind finished the 2017 campaign as Double winners. The pair were invited back for the Lansdowne Road showpiece and it seemed like the perfect goodbye.

It hasn’t turned out that way.

Maguire is still a Preston player, a key figure in a side challenging for promotion to the Premier League and a regular in the senior Ireland squad. His own experiences in England have been far from smooth, it must be said, but he remains an influential player.

O’Connor may have tasted immense good fortune in his personal life – scooping a €1million prize in the Irish Lottery’s Christmas Millionaire Raffle at the end of the same year he earned his move to Preston – but his professional experiences have tested him to the limit.

He lost his place at Preston to Greg Cunningham, went on a series of loan moves to Crewe Alexandra, Fleetwood Town, and a return to Cork, before earlier this week he came back to where it all began with Waterford for what is sure to be a final loan before his Deepdale contract expires in June.

The lottery win could be viewed as a poisoned chalice. The money has been shrewdly managed, but any suggestion that it lessened his desire to succeed is an affront.

I’ve always worked hard,” O’Connor says. “I just put that behind me and wanted to move on as quickly as I could. I didn’t want to talk about it, I wanted to forget almost, just put it to the back of my mind and concentrate on football.

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“I’ve worked so hard to be a footballer so I don’t want to just be remembered as someone who that happened to [winning the lotto]. I’d hope people don’t think it’s made me any less determined to succeed. It hasn’t. Football is my number one and that won’t change.”

It became clear to O’Connor that he would have to, though. “When you’re over there and things are not going well, you have far too much time to think. Everyone talks about it but when you dwell on negative stuff for too long it isn’t good for you.

“I’ve spoken to some of the lads about this and I will admit that I definitely wasn’t ready for what it was like in England, how selfish a job it is.

“I don’t know, here in Ireland you get the feeling that people in the team are all in it together. It’s not the same there. There isn’t the same atmosphere. I wasn’t ready for how selfish you have to be to succeed.

“That’s football. There will be times in your career when things just won’t go your way, what you have to do is be strong enough to get over those disappointments and get past it all.

“At the time, when you make a decision, of course you think it’s the right one,” he continues. “You believe what you are doing is right for your career and it’s only afterwards that you can look back and say ‘if only I did this or if only I did that’. No one can tell the future and know what the right thing to do is.”

Working under Alan Reynolds again, the pair have known each other since O’Connor was 14 and part of the FAI’s Emerging Talent Programme in Wexford, Wicklow and Carlow.

“I always chat to Rennie, he is top of the list when it comes to advice. He has been unbelievable for my career.

“As much as I want to achieve and be successful for myself, I want to do it for him. What he has been through, what he’s dealt with and overcome, he is a great man. I’m proud to have known him for so long,” O’Connor continues, referencing the assault last year which left Reynolds in hospital for a week.

alan-reynolds Waterford manager Alan Reynolds has been a major influence on O'Connor's career. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I want to play for Rennie, I want to give everything for him and if I can prove people wrong who are doubting me now that will be a bonus. I would say 99% of this game is about confidence and believing in yourself when others don’t.

“Rennie believes in me but there will always be plenty of people around to criticise and tell you what you’re doing wrong. The last couple of years have been strange, alright. When you’re not playing of course a lot of self doubt creeps in.

“I’ve no regrets. None at all. I know that I have given it my all every day. Maybe that hasn’t been enough for some people? I’ll have a full pre-season now to be able to get myself ready as best as I can.

“I’m ready to put the work in, I can’t wait.”

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