"I don't care about the critics" says new Longford signing O'Conor

Article by Kieran Burke - @KieranBTS

Image with thanks to Longford Town FC

Image with thanks to Longford Town FC

Having lost the services of Daniel O’Reilly, Sam Verdon, Mick Kelly & Dylan McGlade over the course of the off-season, Longford Town boss, Neale Fenn will most certainly have endured a few sleepless nights worrying about a potential lack of experience inside his locker room for the forthcoming 2019 season. Last week, the former Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk star made inroads towards fixing such an issue with the acquisition of thirty-one-year-old veteran midfield player, Paul O’Conor from Bray Wanderers. Having played almost the entirety of his league career in the top-flight of Irish football (234 of O’Connor’s 265 career appearances have come in the Premier Division), Fenn and Longford Town FC supporters will be hopeful that O’Conor is the man to add not only some much needed guile to “De Town” midfield but also some creativity and goals, given the loss of last seasons top-scorer, McGlade, to none other than O’Conor’s former club, Bray Wanderers. Despite such high hopes, there has been cynicism from supporters with some arguing that O’Conor is a player who’s best years may be behind him and the move to Longford illustrates a desperate attempt to reignite a stalling career. Speaking exclusively to BetweenTheStripes.ie reporter Kieran Burke this week, O’Conor rubbished such a notion, while also detailing his reasoning behind the move to the Midlands club.

“I’ve never cared what other people have had to say about me or my career. Peoples opinions these days change so quickly that there’s no point and the ‘critics’ are usually people that have never played the game at a high level. I was very happy with my form in the second half of the first season with Limerick and the year we got promoted whilst also reaching a cup final. When you are part of a team that gets relegated like we did at Bray, people will always question your abilities, that’s just the way it is but to say my career is in decline because of it, I would obviously disagree. I’m not looking to kick start anything! I’m at Longford to try and enjoy my football again after a tough year and hopefully get promoted.”

Going on to further detail his thinking at the time of putting pen to paper with “De Town”, O’Conor outlined the great respect he has for current manager, Neale Fenn.

“As I said, the main factor (for signing) was because I wanted to enjoy my football again and I wanted to play for a club that tried to play the right way. The manager likes to have his teams play football the right way. He’s respected by a lot of lads still playing in the league and I had met with him before and was impressed. I’m looking forward to working with him and Daire (Doyle).”

No matter what your views are on O’Conor’s career and its current trajectory, there is no denying it has been an extreme rollercoaster experience in recent times for the midfielder. Relegated with Limerick in 2015 before steam rolling the First Division twelve months later, only to suffer an even tougher relegation with Bray last season, a season that saw “Seagull” players ballot for strike action over unpaid wages, O’Conor now steps into a division that looks set to be dominated by free-spending Shelbourne FC and ironically, Bray Wanderers. Asked whether his new side can compete against such vast resources, O’Conor admitted the challenge lying in wait for Longford Town is a great one.

“I think it’s as tough a league as the First Division has been for a long time. But this is what the league has been calling out for., a competitive First Division and with the playoff system that’s what we get. Shelbourne will obviously be favorites with the signings they’ve made but I think the squad we have here will surprise a few people. It will be tough of course and we’ll need to get a good start but we’ll certainly be competing for promotion.”

And it is a strong start to the league which could prove to be make or break for the likes of Longford Town next season, given the huge levels of investment at Shelbourne and Bray in the off-season. In an almost scripted start to the 2019 First Division, O’Conor will travel with his new team-mates to face the side he tasted league success with in 2016, Limerick FC. With the Munster club suffering relegation last term as well as facing into some bleak financial issues at present, many will view Longford as heavy favorites to start the season with a win away from home. However, O’Conor feels Tommy Barrett’s side will still prove to be dangerous opponents despite the off-field drama currently hanging over the club.

“It’s very important (a good start), consistency is the key for any successful season and that’s what we’ll be striving for. As I said earlier, Shelbourne will be the favorites to win every game with the money they have spent but getting a good start will make things a lot easier for us later on in the season, so hopefully we can get that.”

“It hasn’t been a good couple of months from the outside for Limerick. However, I still think they’ve a few dangerous players in their team that can cause damage and they’ve a bit of experience in there too, so I wouldn’t take them lightly. I don’t know if we’ll go in to the game as favorites with it being the first game but it will definitely be a tough opening game. We’ll obviously be aiming to win the game but we won’t be taking them lightly.”  

Last seasons second tier had an overriding theme of youth and player development across almost all ten competing clubs and as such it was almost fitting for UCD to lift the title at the end of the season. However, 2019 already has a different look to it with big money being spent on experienced campaigners at Shelbourne and Bray, while Galway United have brought back Vinny Faherty and Iarfhlaith Davoren in recent days. Given that fact, even the arrival of O’Connor at Longford is unlikely to quell questions over a lack of experience and big game know how inside “De Town” ranks, prompting Neale Fenn’s latest signing to reveal his intentions to help out the clubs younger players where he can this season.

“It’s a very young dressing room but it doesn’t lack quality. I think all the players will have big roles on and off the pitch regardless of age this year. I will obviously try and help lads when needed but to be honest, from what Iv’e seen so far there’s a hunger in the team to want to win, even in training, and that’s the main thing you could want from a team.”

With pre-season training now well underway across the leagues twenty clubs, supporters are finally starting to rediscover that weekly sense of match day excitement as the pre-season friendlies start to come thick and fast. It must be said, Longford Town look to have arranged some fantastic ties for their players to test themselves against some of Ireland’s best with friendlies against Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians, Dundalk and Cliftonville scheduled. The importance of results in such games are often questioned by fans and pundits alike and while O’Conor admitted results were not the be all and end all in pre-season, the midfielder does feel Longford have done a great job of arranging such challenging fixtures.

“We will look forward to playing them. The teams we are playing in pre-season will be looking to win the Premier Division, so that’s the best type of test we can get. While it is important to getting that winning habit early, it’s not always the necessity of the games. We will be using the games to get our match fitness to the level we expect. That’s the main thing to get out of these games and to make sure when the season starts we are all feeling fit and on the same page of what we need to do.”

As well as having enjoyed the sweet taste of promotion with Limerick in the past, O’Conor was also a member of the Sligo Rovers side that clinched Setanta Cup glory back in 2014, the same season Longford Town claimed their first ever national league title. Longford Town are of course a club with great cup tradition having won back to back FAI Cups under Alan Mathews in 2003 and 2004 as well as a League Cup triumph during the same period. With all of that in mind, O’Conor was still quick to dismiss any notion that Longford may take their eye of a strong league campaign in favor of a surprise cup triumph next season.

“Promotion is the main focus for sure. The bonus of a cup run is it gets the town going and excitement flowing but we’re hoping to get that excitement from a serious promotion push. Playing in the top division has to be the main aim for the club and it has to take priority over everything else.”

Rounding off the interview, O’Conor was asked to describe his best abilities as a player for supporters who may not have seen a lot of him in action in recent years. Taking up the opportunity to outline his commitment to the cause at his new club, O’Connor remarked:

“My best qualities are trying to get myself into the box and score some goals. Supporters can expect that i’ll give everything to try help get the club promoted.”

Longford Town supporters will have their first opportunity to run the rule over O’Conor and the rest of Neale Fenn’s new arrivals for 2019 when the Midlands outfit travel to Roadstone for a pre-season friendly against Premier Division title hopefuls, Shamrock Rovers at 11:30AM next Saturday.