Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 1°C
# Interview
'I want it twice as much as I did when I first moved to England'
Kevin O’Connor is determined to get his career back on track after a year that put him to the test.

SINCE MOVING FROM Cork City to Preston North End and back again, Kevin O’Connor has learned to take the rough with the smooth.

After swapping Turner’s Cross for Deepdale in the summer of 2017, his opportunity to make an impact in the English Championship arrived on the first day of November that year.

Preston North End v Burnley - Pre-Season Friendly - Deepdale Martin Rickett Kevin O'Connor at Preston North End. Martin Rickett

Between then and St Stephen’s Day, he played eight times. O’Connor was satisfied with his contribution from left-back as Preston embarked on a nine-match unbeaten run.

Having helped Cork City to win their first League of Ireland title in 12 years, he was now establishing himself with a club chasing promotion to the Premier League. 

A substantial Christmas bonus then arrived in the form of a present from an uncle, who sent him a lottery ticket which happened to yield a €1million jackpot. It was a remarkably fortuitous end to what had already been the best year of his life.

In stark contrast, 2018 would put O’Connor to the test. The return from injury of compatriot Greg Cunningham pushed him back down the pecking order at Preston. Thereafter, loan moves to Fleetwood Town and Crewe Alexandra didn’t work out as planned.

For O’Connor, there was no correlation between the newly-acquired wealth and his reality as a footballer. While his bank balance increased substantially, the 23-year-old’s confidence on the pitch was in a gradual decline which he struggled to halt.

Eager to ensure that 2019 is better than its predecessor, O’Connor weighed up his options in January. The Wexford native was about to roll the dice on another loan move in the UK when he sat down for a meeting with Cork City manager John Caulfield in Manchester.

“I had the best years of my life the last time here in Cork,” O’Connor tells The42. “Once John came calling it was a no-brainer. I knew that this was the place where I could get my confidence back. Playing with this group of lads in Turner’s Cross is exactly what I need.” 

John Caulfield celebrates with former players Kevin O'Connor and Sean Maguire Ryan Byrne / INPHO O'Connor and Sean Maguire with John Caulfield after Cork City won the 2017 FAI Cup. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

O’Connor, who remains contracted to Preston until the summer of 2020, will stay in Cork until the end of June, when his future will be reassessed. For now he’s savouring the opportunity to play an active part in an environment he feels will be conducive to his attempts to rediscover his best form.

Despite earning Ireland U21 caps and a transfer to England because of his displays as a left-sided full-back, O’Connor is now set to revert to the midfield role he was known for when John Caulfield first brought him to Cork from Waterford in 2015.

Within a couple of minutes of being introduced as a substitute for his return to Leeside, he scored a sublime free-kick in the recent President’s Cup defeat to Dundalk. Although the goal ultimately had no impact on the outcome, it was a welcome antidote to a year that O’Connor is glad to have put behind him.

“It was a very hard 12 months,” he says. “When I broke in at Preston I thought I was doing well. I was happy enough with how I was performing. But with someone like Greg Cunningham there, it was always going to be tough to keep my position.

“I went out on loan then and it can be hard to settle into a new place when you know it’s only a short-term thing. Even though the lads at the clubs were good, you never really feel 100% part of it. You feel even more left out of it then when you’re not playing.

“It was frustrating. You just want to be out on the field playing. That’s what you enjoy doing, that’s what you love. You’re working as hard as you can to try and force your way into the team every week.

“When it’s not working, you start to realise that you’re just not going to be picked, and you know you’re only training for the sake of training. Coming in every day when you know you’re not going to play is a hard place to be.

Kevin OÕConnor celebrates scoring his side's first goal Ciaran Culligan / INPHO Celebrating with Dan Casey after his President's Cup goal against Dundalk. Ciaran Culligan / INPHO / INPHO

“The first thing that goes is your confidence. You start doing things you haven’t done on a pitch since you were 11 years of age. Then you start second-guessing yourself, and once that happens you realise just how low your confidence has gone.

“Generally a fella who’s been sent out on loan is low on confidence anyway because he hasn’t been playing. You’re itching to make it work but it’s hard to do that when you’re second-guessing everything you’re doing.”

O’Connor, who was part of a large Irish contingent at Preston, adds: “People think you’re living the dream life because you’re over in England, but it’s far from that. It can be tough, especially when things aren’t going well.

“I was probably blessed in a way because there wer a lot of Irish lads around. Myself, Brownie [Alan Browne] and Seanie [Maguire] all lived within 10 minutes of each other. It’s great to have fellas like that around, but at the same time they have their own lives as well.

“Some days you’d be finished training at 1pm, you go home and end up sitting there for the rest of the day with nothing to do. There’s a lot of time to think then. If it hasn’t gone well for you that day, you have a long day of over-thinking it. Switching off in those situations was the hardest part, I found.

“When you’re not playing, you start asking yourself if there are things you should be doing differently: ‘Am I eating the right things? Am I preparing right?’ When you’re playing every week you never think like that. You’re on auto-pilot — you just repeat and you’re cruising through.”

O’Connor’s prospects at Preston weren’t aided by the fact that he arrived at a club who were no longer under the stewardship of the man who signed him. When Simon Grayson departed for the Sunderland job, former Norwich City boss Alex Neil was appointed at Preston.

Preston North End v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship - Deepdale Martin Rickett Battling for possession with Sammy Ameobi of Bolton Wanderers. Martin Rickett

“I met Simon Grayson once, which was when I went over and signed,” he explains. “A few days later he was gone. It was a bit of a mad situation. On the one hand you’re thinking that everyone at the club is starting from scratch so you’ve got the same chance as everyone else to prove yourself, which is all you can ask for.

“But the new manager coming in had seen what the lads were like in the Championship by playing against them when he was at Norwich, so he obviously had an idea of what he wanted to do. You’re not his signing either, which makes it a little bit harder.

“I had to bide my time. I eventually came on in a game against Aston Villa and I was happy with how I did. But football is a game of opinions. One manager might love you and want to play you every week, but another manager doesn’t see the same thing. You just have to deal with that. The manager is trying to do the job in the way that he feels is best.

“When Greg Cunningham moved to Cardiff at the end of last season, I was hopeful that it might open the door for me. But a new left-back [Andrew Hughes from Peterborough United] was signed then, so unfortunately I still wasn’t getting a look-in.”

O’Connor knows he’ll be dismissed by sceptics as another League of Ireland export who failed to make the grade across the water. While refusing to make excuses, he’s undeterred by the appraisal of those who haven’t experienced the inner workings of the professional game in England.

Many peers — including his close friend Sean Maguire — have succeeded despite falling at the first hurdle. Players like Dundalk duo Pat Hoban and Patrick McEleney have also discovered that English football, particularly in the lower echelons, doesn’t always provide an accurate measurement of one’s calibre.

Ability is just one of several key components. Factors such as injuries, styles of play, changes to coaching staff and league position can conspire to prevent a newcomer from making progress in a high-pressure environment, where managers are often only a few bad results away from being presented with their P45.

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Kevin O'Connor with Mijat Gacinovic Donall Farmer / INPHO Tangling with Mijat Gacinovic while playing for Ireland U21s against Serbia. Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

“There’s a lot to be said for being in a good environment and the effect that can have on how you’re playing,” says O’Connor. “It didn’t work out for Hoban over there but he came back to a place he’s happy in and he was banging in the goals again.

“McEleney was unbelievable here before he went to Oldham. But they were struggling in League One so they weren’t looking for a fella to get the ball down and do nice things with it. They wanted lads to run around for 90 minutes and get in a scrap. That’s not how you’re going to get his quality out of him. He’s back at Dundalk now and I’m sure he’s a lot happier.

“The League of Ireland might not be perfect, but it’s a lot better than it’s given credit for. There are some unbelievable players here, it’s really competitive and I’m enjoying being back in amongst it. I really feel it’s something people should get behind.

“By no means do I feel I’m done in England personally. I want to go back and put a stamp on it. But the main thing for me is proving myself and being the best player I can be. As long as I can do that, I won’t mind whether it happens here or over there.”

After being held in reserve for Monday’s win at Sligo Rovers, O’Connor will hope to be back in action for tomorrow evening’s visit of Derry City to Turner’s Cross.

It’s another opportunity for him to be involved in the game he insists he’ll never fall out of love with, irrespective of the extent of his long-term financial security.

“Football has been my life since I was about four years of age,” he says. “I was always at my happiest when there was a football at my feet and that still hasn’t changed.

Kevin O’Connor after his last game at home Cathal Noonan / INPHO Bidding farewell to Turner's Cross in July 2017. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s never been about how much money you have at the end of your career. I live and breathe football. I’m watching games every day. The [lottery] win was great but I pushed it to the back of my mind once it happened. I haven’t even seen it since.

“If money was the main thing, I’d have just sat in the stands at Preston and watched the lads play. That’s not what I want. I want to play and prove what I can do while I still have the chance to.

“I’ll never lose my appetite. I want it twice as much as I did when I first moved to England. I’m disappointed with how it went so I’m working my socks off to be better than I was before.”

Bernard Jackman joins Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey to discuss the backlash to World Rugby’s league proposal, captaincy styles, sports psychology and more in The42 Rugby Weekly.

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