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'If you were from Ballymun, you could be turned away from an interview, let alone a job'

Bohs legend Tony O’Connor looks back on his League of Ireland career.

Tony O'Connor (left) celebrates his winning goal for Bohemians with Stephen Caffrey in the 2001 FAI Cup final.
Tony O'Connor (left) celebrates his winning goal for Bohemians with Stephen Caffrey in the 2001 FAI Cup final.
Image: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

IT BEGAN IN Ballymun.

Tony O’Connor would go on to win every major domestic honour in the game and establish himself as a Bohemians great, but initially he was just a normal boy who happened to be obsessed with football, perpetually playing out on the street with his friends from about the age of five onwards.

When the Dubliner was around eight, O’Connor joined local team Ballymun Boys and tried out organised football for the first time.

“In the early days, there was a man called Jackie Doran,” he tells The42. “Pretty much any kid who played football in Ballymun went through his hands. He was one of these individuals that every community needs. Without a Jackie Doran, there wouldn’t have been much football in the area.”

Doran was not the only big influence on ‘Toccy,’ with his sports-mad father also encouraging him.

“He played a lot of badminton, he obviously played soccer, he was a big hurler in his day. The nature of his work — he did a lot of country work, and in the country, there’s always a lot of pubs, so that put an end to his sporting career. 

“Like most kids, I played everything. I played Gaelic, soccer, anything that would get you a half day off school.

When Wimbledon was on, we’d play tennis. When the Aga Khan was on, we’d be doing pretend horse jumping. But soccer always came out top.”

His brothers, Dermot and John, known to many as ‘DOC’ and ‘JOC’, were similarly sports-obsessed, and went on to play GAA with Ballymun Kickhams.

The area O’Connor came from, Ballymun, had a bad reputation amid an era with high unemployment.

“When you’re living in an area, you don’t realise how tough it is,” he says. “I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. They were tough times generally for the country with lack of work. In areas like Ballymun, it was a lot more difficult.

“There were situations where if you were from Ballymun, you could be turned away from an interview, let alone a job. I never experienced it, but I knew of situations like that.

But when we were growing up in Ballymun, you knew who to hang around with and who not to hang around with. Ballymun got a bad name and there were situations that gave it a bad name. But to me, it was a fantastic place. There was always something to do. In the community, everybody was equal. Nobody was rich or poor. They were all the same. There was nobody better than anybody else.

“When you’re involved in organised sport or activity, you tend to stay away from the dodgy people. They don’t get involved in that sort of stuff. We kept our distance from anyone who was dodgy and vice-versa.

“I’m 20-30 years living out of Ballymun. I’m now up in Palmerstown. People ask me where I’m from, I always say: ‘Ballymun,’ even though I’m more years in Palmerstown.”

rt Former Ireland international Ray Treacy managed O'Connor at Home Farm.

O’Connor credits his parents and in particular his mother with protecting him from the small minority of unsavoury characters that populated the area during his upbringing.

“She’d always made sure all of us were involved in something. Once or twice, if your school results weren’t as good as they should be, my mother would never threaten to take us out of football. That was the last thing she’d do. She’d encourage us to do that, but just make sure we improved our grades. 

“My father was a great man, but without my mother, it would have been a totally different story. She was a very strong woman, like a lot of women in the area.

“I’m not too sure if it’s the same the way social life and circumstances are now. In those days, most mothers were stay-at-home mothers. You didn’t get up to any trouble, because your mother wasn’t too far by, or someone else’s mother wasn’t too far by. So she would make sure we’d always be involved in sports, the girls would have girl guides and stuff like that.

Women were smart enough to know that if you’re training Tuesday and Thursday, and playing a match on Saturday, that’s three days you’re away from trouble.”

And while he invariably stayed out of trouble, O’Connor was aware of the snobbery that existed and the way he was perceived by certain people simply because he came from Ballymun.

“There was a stigma attached to the name,” he adds. “But 95% of the people were genuine hard-working people trying to make it better for themselves.”

The ambition that would help him win multiple leagues and cups in the League of Ireland was evident from a relatively early age. At 15, he wanted to test himself playing at a higher level than Ballymun Boys, who were a lower-tier team. In the off-season, he went on trials for reputed schoolboy club Home Farm and did enough to stay there.

“I was there under the stewardship of a man called Matt Butler, who had done an awful lot for me. I was a top player in Ballymun, but when I went to Home Farm, all of a sudden, I was middle of the road. I wasn’t the top dog. But he took me under his wing and I had three great seasons there playing schoolboy.”

barney-rock-1989 O'Connor played on the same Ballymun Kickhams team as former Dublin GAA star Barney Rock. Source: Phil Carrick/INPHO

It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. O’Connor eventually graduated from schoolboy football to Home Farm’s reserve team. But he ultimately became frustrated with a lack of game time, and quit halfway through the season.

“I was never one to step out and raise my voice, but just felt I wasn’t getting a fair crack of the whip. But hindsight is a great thing. I didn’t realise the reason I wasn’t getting a game was because first-team players who were coming back from injury were being played ahead of us, which is natural protocol. I was young and innocent and didn’t realise that was the way it worked.

“I used to play a lot of Gaelic, so I ended up going and signing for Ballymun Kickhams’ senior team. That would have been 84 or 85. So I did about six months with them and kind of turned my back on soccer.

“I enjoyed the experience with Ballymun Kickhams. At the time they had a very strong representation on the Dublin team, with the likes of Barney Rock, Gerry Hargan, Anto McCaul, there was half a dozen or more [playing at inter-county level].

My debut for Ballymun Kickhams, I came on as a substitute for Barney Rock, which is my little claim to fame. Nowadays people would say: ‘Who’s Barney Rock?’ I’d say: ‘Do you know Dean Rock? His father.’ So I stuck at the Gaelic for about six months.

“Prior to that, I was in Australia playing mixed rules with an Irish schools team. I was 16 years of age. There were a couple of lads who had progressed onto the Dublin senior team and Niall Quinn was the captain of our team.

“But when I went to Kickhams, the first [international rules] series was about to happen. They knew I had been there. The senior lads who were hoping to get into the [Irish] squad actually bounced a few things off me — different tricks of the trade, how to play the ball and stuff like that. So I was welcomed very easily.

“Internally, I was overawed by them, but I didn’t let them see it, because they were only a bunch of lads. They just took me under their wing, and everything was fine.”

Eventually, O’Connor was persuaded to end his flirtation with GAA and return to Home Farm. By that stage, Ray Treacy had replaced Mick Lawlor as manager, and the former Ireland international took little time to hand him a first-team debut, as O’Connor made the first of over 500 League of Ireland senior appearances against Galway on 19 October 1986.

After three seasons of regular football with Home Farm mostly in the First Division, in the summer of 1989, a young relatively unknown manager by the name of Brian Kerr brought O’Connor to St Pat’s. The future Ireland boss had known the player from his time as an assistant coach at Home Farm.

“Of course I said ‘yes’ straight away, because I was going from an amateur club to Pat’s. Ray Treacy said: ‘I would only stand in your way if I felt you weren’t progressing.’” 

niall-quinn O'Connor played international rules with Niall Quinn as a teenager. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

O’Connor says it was always apparent that Kerr was a special coach with a highly innovative approach.

“Going back to the ’80s, the level of coaching was pretty basic. It served its purpose. Pre-season training was running up and down hills. You didn’t see a ball. You’d be on the side of the road with streets lights on in the winter.

“It wasn’t like what they have nowadays. The potential to do proper training wasn’t available, the facilities weren’t there.

“When I signed for Pat’s with Brian, you could see straight away, his knowledge of the game, positional sense, coaching, it was a bit of a culture shock to me, because I hadn’t really been used to that sort of stuff, and all of a sudden, we’re getting proper coaching.”

He continues: “Some of his team talks, they were emotional. His heart and soul was in everything. His drive was for the match on Sunday. Everything was focused for Sunday. You’d go out on the pitch, not that you’d be bashing walls down, but you’d be going out two inches taller than you were because of the team talk you had and what he expected you to do. He was a very good motivator as well as being a brilliant coach.

Brian was a character too, he wasn’t all serious. He was quite humorous at times. Even you hear his commentary on TV, he still gets great laughs over the things he says, he was saying them all the time in the dressing room. We’d be looking around at each other saying: ‘What did he just say?’

“He assembled a fantastic group of players for the year 89-90 that we won the league. I was just on to Maurice O’Driscoll — that was the year I met Maurice and to this day, he’s probably my best friend in football. 

“Pat Kelch, Johnny McDonnell, Damien Byrne, Curtis Fleming, Joe Lawless, Mark Ennis, Paul Osam, Dave Henderson in goal, you wouldn’t be able to afford these players nowadays. 

“Brian plucked a lot of unknowns from low-ranking teams. They had gone unnoticed by other managers. In my mind, the team Pat’s won the league with, I find it hard to see a better team in the last 20-30 years.

“[Winning trophies for] the first time was definitely the best. I was 22 years of age. After we won the league in Drogheda, our celebrations were open-bus tours from the Mansion House up to Inchicore. The place was decorated with flags, people were on the drink for two or three days, as is the case.

“When I did win it again with Bohs, things had changed, but that’s not to say it wasn’t any less enjoyable.

“And of course, when you win it at 22, you think ‘this is grand, we’re going to win a few more of these’. It was a long time before I got another.”

brian-kerr Brian Kerr pictured during his time as St Patrick's Athletic boss. Source: INPHO

Under Kerr, Pat’s won their first league title in 34 years and fourth in their history, finishing three points ahead of Derry. Nevertheless, despite their remarkable success, it wasn’t long before this great team broke apart, as better-resourced sides made a move for their top players.

“Inchicore was in bits, it wasn’t playable or safe. It needed a lot of work to be done, so we opened Harold’s Cross for three years. Money was tight and of course, when we were successful, other clubs started inquiring and a lot of players, myself included, moved on. As you’re getting older, you’re looking to get a house, buy a mortgage. If you get an offer elsewhere that might be a bit better than what you’re on, in those days, you couldn’t blame people for moving.”

In 1992, O’Connor signed for Bohs, the club he supported as a boy. He was still part-time, however, combining football with his work making jewellery.

“I work for myself now. At the time, I worked for somebody else. In fairness to my boss at the time, he was a Pat’s fan, he was quite flexible. If I needed time off, it was not a problem.

When I moved to Bohs in ’92, I continued there. In those days, everybody was part-time. You trained Tuesday and Thursday, played your match on Friday or Sunday, whatever the case may be. That was it. I continued working away all through my football career. There was one stage when Roddy Collins hinted that I should go full-time, but at that stage, I was 31 or 32, I wasn’t going to. If I was 21, that’s a different ball game.”

Bohs were managed by Eamonn Gregg when O’Connor arrived and their team included Alan Byrne, Robbie Best, Paul Whelan and Declan Geoghegan. But despite the presence of these accomplished players, O’Connor’s first season at the club ended in agonising fashion.

“It was in our own hands. We headed up to Dundalk on the last day of the season. We just needed a draw. Of course, on the way up, the coach breaks down. We were two hours standing on the side of a road waiting for a second coach to get us. We got up there at 10 to 3 and we had 15 minutes to get ready. It was madness. We lost 1-0 on the day and unfortunately, it threw open a three-way play-off between ourselves, Shels and Cork. Eventually, Cork won it. It was a real sickner. To me, we were the best team in the league.”

This pattern of just missing out on major trophies would continue for Bohs throughout the remainder of the 1990s. They lost four FAI Cup semi-finals on the bounce, while they had to settle for the runners-up spot in the league in both the 1995-96 and 1996-97 campaigns.

“It was a ‘nearly man’ type thing and it got to the stage where I thought it was never going to happen. I was going to play my career out at Bohs and I thought I’d never get a trophy.”

Source: brucemox/YouTube

The Gypsies did eventually get their hands on some silverware, ending a 23-year wait to win the league title amid the tense culmination of the 2000-01 campaign, while also claiming the FAI Cup that year.

“It was the year of the foot-and-mouth disease. I remember Cork were at home and we were beaten 1-0. We had 10 or 11 games left and I felt that was it, it was gone. We had run dry.

“The following day the foot and mouth came into play. There were no games for a period of four weeks and in those four weeks, we trained, we did what we had to do and recharged our batteries. For the rest of the season, I think we won 10 or 11 games in a row. I thought we were dead and buried, but after the break, we just went on a run. We were untouchable basically. 

“At that stage, I was the only one left from the ’92 team. The rest had been moved on. We went down to Kilkenny [on the final day]. We beat them handily 5-0. We also needed Cork to beat Shelbourne. That result went our way as well. It was fantastic. There were big celebrations all the way home from Kilkenny. But we were in the cup final a week or two after, so we had to tone it down.”

O’Connor was then instrumental as the season climaxed in fitting fashion. His goal was enough to earn a 1-0 win over Longford at Tolka Park in front of over 10,000 fans.

“Yeah, that was a shock to me,” he admits. “It was a bit of a miscue, but it was the only way the ball was going in.

You get kind of selfish in that situation and think ‘I’d like to win it 3-0, but as it’s only 1-0 in the dying minutes, you think ‘I’m going to get all the credit’ [he laughs]. It’s a terrible way to think, but that’s the way I was thinking at one stage. But it was great for the club. They really needed it at that stage, because there was a big investment put in. 

“Roddy had started bringing players in — the likes of Kevin Hunt, Dave Morrison and Simon Webb, great acquisitions for the club. And so the rewards came in the end.

“After the cup final, it was a good celebration. I was 35 at that stage. The lads were all going to nightclubs, I’m going to my bed at home. These 25 year olds took me on as one of their own, but I was at a different stage in life. I was married with three kids.”

trevor-molloy-digital O'Connor describes Trevor Molloy as one of the most talented players he ever shared a dressing room with. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

There were several exceptional players in that team, including Trevor Molloy, a former Ireland underage international who was part of the Brian Kerr side that famously secured a bronze medal at the 1997 Fifa World Youth Championships.

“He’s a headcase, a messer, one of the best players I’ve ever seen skill-wise,” O’Connor remembers. “He did things with a ball that you wouldn’t see Roy of the Rovers doing. You’d do it on the PlayStation. But he was a headcase in a nice way.”

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Another idiosyncratic character was manager Roddy Collins. A dispute with the club’s hierarchy would see him replaced by Pete Mahon right after the double triumph.

I got on well with Roddy, there was never a problem between me and him, maybe because I wasn’t in his line of vision every day, whereas others could be. He does some crazy things and fantastic things, that’s just the way it is.

“I haven’t seen him in a while, but if I bumped into him tomorrow, I’d have a pint with him. He’s a great man to have a laugh and a joke with.”

Others, however, did not have quite as good a relationship with the soon-to-be Carlisle manager.

“He was that type of person. He knew how to work a player, and when he got that work out of a player and he had done what he needed, if that player was surplus to requirements, Roddy would let them know straight away.”

Bohs would reach the cup final again the following year, and O’Connor scored once more, though on this occasion, they lost 2-1 to Dundalk.

“I’d scored two goals in two seasons, and both of them were in cup finals. When the fans see me, they think: ‘He always scores in the finals.’”

stephen-kenny O'Connor worked under Stephen Kenny at Bohs. Source: INPHO

Mahon’s spell in charge at the club proved short-lived and he was replaced by a promising young manager, Stephen Kenny. The new boss guided the side to another league title in the 2002-03 campaign, as they finished five points ahead of Shelbourne.

“I had known Stephen quite a while. He was with the reserve team when I was up there in Pat’s. A very intelligent fella. Even then, you could see his ambition was to go further than League of Ireland. He’s achieved that and it’s well deserved. I think he’s a bright shining light for the future of the Irish football team.

“He’s very much his own man. He has his own way of thinking and his philosophy of football. He’s not afraid to express himself and do what he has to do to experiment. But you could always sense he was going to go on to bigger and better things.

I had a season and a half with Stephen at Bohs. At the end of the 2003 season when we won the league, my contract was up. He let me go basically, but he had to do what he had to do. There was no badness in it. I was 36 years of age. He’s dealing with a full-time squad and I was part-time. You do the sums and you realise that your time is up. So he basically just said ‘listen, it’s been a pleasure,’ and we just shook hands. I couldn’t complain. I didn’t think I’d still be playing football in the league at that stage.  

“But when I left the meeting with him, it broke my heart. I was in the car crying on my way home. I realised it was the end of an era for me and a part of my life that was really enjoyable.

“You know it’s always going to come, but you don’t see it coming. When it does, you should expect it, but it’s a shock to the system.”

O’Connor contemplated retirement, but John Gill persuaded him to sign for a season with Dublin City. It went better than expected, as the club won promotion from the First Division.

“It was a lot of travel — the likes of Cobh and Finn Harps. I said: ‘Do I need this?’ I gave it a go.”

The veteran defender then stayed on for another year, but could not prevent the side’s relegation right back down to the second tier, as they finished bottom of the table on 25 points.

john-gill John Gill persuaded O'Connor to join Dublin City following his Bohs departure. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

So at 38, O’Connor finally opted to hang up his boots.

“I didn’t miss it one bit,” he says. “You’ll always hear ‘you’ll miss the dressing room,’ and that’s true, because it’s a bit of craic. 

“But it’s when you step away from it that you realise: ‘How in the name of Christ did I manage to do it all with a family, football and a full-time job?’ Anyone who’s involved in football, their wives or partners who backed them all the way, you have to give them credit.

“There’s an awful lot of time given towards football. Some people probably don’t realise it. And if you haven’t got the backing of a good partner, that can be an awkward situation.

I’ve missed weddings and birthdays. I missed my sister’s wedding because we were playing up in Dalymount and the wedding was on the same day. She wasn’t too impressed. 

“So when I did finish up, I didn’t miss it at all, to be honest. I thought I would, but I didn’t. I had enough to do outside of football that kept me occupied.”

O’Connor did, however, return for a brief stint coaching Bohs reserves for two seasons, starting in January 2008, in conjunction with former team-mate Pat Fenlon’s tenure in charge of the first team.

During this period, O’Connor would work with a number of very talented players, including future Ireland international Matt Doherty.

“I knew he was better than what he was doing when he was with us,” he says. “Sometimes I see Matt and think ‘he just does enough’. When he was playing with us, he’d just do enough to be on top of his game. He could have pushed himself more. It’s just the way he is. If an opposition player upped his game against him, he’d up it more than the opposing player. He was one of them quality players that could just lift the gears if needed.

“He’s so laidback it’s unbelievable. I used to say ‘is this fella for real, he has so much potential’. He was a fantastic player.”

matt-doherty O'Connor coached future Ireland international Matt Doherty at Bohs. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ultimately though, O’Connor decided coaching “wasn’t for me”. He explains: “When I was 18 or 19, you wouldn’t question a coach or anything like that. I found attitudes had changed with the 18 year olds of today. They had a bit more to say, they questioned this and that. Sometimes, it was questioning for good reasons. Sometimes, it would have been a bit disrespectful.

“I just felt there was an air of arrogance, not in every player. You see it in the youth of today — 15 year olds on the street and they’re as arrogant as anything. When you see that in a football team, you can have characters trying to get one up on another fella in the team. You could see too much of that arrogant attitude coming into football among kids who hadn’t even made it [as professionals] at that stage.”

Regardless, O’Connor will always be remembered as a Bohs legend. He was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2007 and still regularly attends matches with his sons.

Given all he achieved in the game, any young players would be wise to take heed of his advice. 

It’s a lot harder nowadays for lads to get through, because life is different,” he explains. “When I was a kid starting out, pretty much everybody worked Monday to Friday. But now, kids who are 22 or 23 are playing football and still in college, working on weekends to try to get money for college, accommodate their football training and stuff like that. It can be hard.

“My advice is just be patient, get the head down and do the hard work, and enjoy it. You have to be going out on the pitch relaxed and enjoying your football. I’ve gone through it myself where you go all tense and you can’t perform. So you relax and appreciate every minute, because it’s a fantastic part of your life.” 

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Paul Fennessy

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