Derry City winger Ollie O'Neill plans to checkmate Sligo Rovers
OLLIE O'Neill cuts a distinctive figure on the pitch with his longish blonde hair and his ability to glide past defenders but the Londoner doesn't conform to footballing stereotypes off it!
While some of his Derry City teammates an be found on the golf course or playing ‘FIFA’ on their game consoles during their downtime, you're more likely to find the Fulham Academy product honing his chess skills in an online classroom or engrossed in a good book. Not typical hobbies for your average 20 year-old professional footballer!
He's quick to clarify – “I'm not particularly good” – despite what he jokingly describes as his 'mild addiction' since moving to Foyleside.
"A lot of the boys are into golf but I'm not quite there yet," he explains. "I'm mildly addicted to online chess. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. I'm probably better at football than I am at chess. I've always known how to play and played every so often but the last few weeks I've just seemed to get a bit heavy on it."
Education has always been important for the multi-faceted, self-driven City midfielder and he's worked hard alongside his football development to achieve 11 A* GCSE grades and two A* A-Levels at the City of London Academic school on the banks of the Thames.
At the age of six he was spotted by Brentford playing for his local Sunday League team in West London and joined their youth set-up and had he not chosen the football path O’Neill says he would've trained as a journalist or some form of writing career.
"If I was to quit football tomorrow, it (journalism) would probably be one thing I'd be looking at going into quite quickly. It's a hard industry to try and get into at the minute with the amount of print publications going out of print, so I'm not sure where I'd work, especially if I was doing it in London."
O’Neill has the looks for television but let's hope he doesn't need to make that career switch anytime soon!
His football career has been quite linear since moving from Brentford's Academy to Fulham’s and progressing through the age groups - that is until he made the loan switch to League of Ireland football with Derry City.
It's a new experience, new climate and new challenges but he's met them all head-on even if he admits he's still quite puzzled by the unpredictable weather in the north west.
Snow dusting the cars in the street in the morning as he goes to training and several hours later he's taking a walk on a Buncrana beach in the spring sunshine.
"It rains twice a week here, once for three days and once for four doesn’t it?” he laughs, “The best thing was I woke up yesterday and it was snowing but by like 4p.m. I was on the beach in Buncrana and it was lovely."
Playing chess is a way to sharpen his mind off the pitch and it's clear O’Neill likes to solve problems on it.
Whether learning new strategies, mastering different tactics and controlling the centre of the board in chequered black and white is transferable to the football pitch or not, Ollie admits he's a player who must think on his feet against opposing defences.
Football loves a chess metaphor and Ollie analyses the pitch like he reads the board. Derry fans have already seen how he can impact a game having opened his City account against UCD while he's created several openings for his teammates in the opening five matches.
"I probably would be like that if I was on the bench," he added, careful not to acquire the 'super sub' label or be compared to someone like Ole Gunnar Solskjær who was a master at reading the game from the subs bench.
"That's probably where I get success in football, by thinking my way through it. Some players would be incredibly physical and able to impose themselves. For me, I need to solve problems on the pitch a bit more, tactically if that makes sense.
"Just to clarify on the chess, I'm not particularly good," he laughed. "Like, I'm okay but not by any stretch serious. It's a bit of a time-filler at the minute, that and reading," added O'Neill, who racked up a total of 88 appearances for Fulham’s U21s and U18s before his loan move to Derry.
Derry missed an obvious checkmate against Dundalk last Friday when they ran out of time without finding the end-game. However, Ollie and his teammates have taken great confidence from that performance ahead of another home clash against Sligo.
"We were quite happy with our performance and the way we controlled the game, especially the second half as we pushed for a winner. It just felt like one of those days when the ball just didn't drop.
"It was constant pressure for the last half hour. We had a few good chances without ever getting that killer blow which is something to work on. We keep doing that and we'll be picking up three points regularly."
A festival atmosphere is expected on match night at Brandywell as the city continues its St. Patrick's Day celebrations and Ollie is fully aware of the importance of making home advantage pay.
"The gaffer is big on having a strong home record. It shouldn't be a place where people come and enjoy playing or come and get points. It’s something we all want to crack down on I suppose."
He's produced moments of real quality in recent weeks. It's now about stringing those moments together, consistently.
"That's me in a nutshell, try to make something happen one way or another, creating or scoring. I just need to keep doing that and do it regularly over 90 minutes. Stringing moment after moment together."
Whether that's on the wing or as an inverted winger, (or in chess terms the 'bishop', gliding across the board in diagonals either side of the king and queen), Ollie doesn't mind but he's enjoying the freedom to express himself under Higgins.
"I'm quite happy with either being on the wing or in the middle, I genuinely am," he said. "I'm pretty flexible. A lot of times it will depend on the game. There will be certain set-ups when it suits to have your wide player rolling inside and the gaffer is good at recognising that. He also is happy to allow you a bit of freedom to go where the space dictates.
"Sometimes it comes down to what the full-back is like. With some full-backs you might want to play wider and go 1 v 1 and some you might be inside of.
"Little things like that influence how I'm thinking and obviously partly the tactical framework from the manager is different in different games but it's nice to have the ability to do both and adjust if you need to."
Already his loan move has proven beneficial in terms of his development and it's a learning curve he's relishing.
"That switch has been good for me and it's about applying things that I like to do or things that I'm good at to a different level.
"It is an interesting process because some things carry over pretty well and some things might not. I feel good now that I had those three or four games to get used to the tempo. From there it gets a bit easier to impose yourself on games probably.
"I came to play so I'm not surprised (he's been afforded plenty of game-time) but it's mad how quickly the time flies. I've been here five weeks now and it feels like it's gone really quickly.
"It's nice to be straight into the thick of the league action and the games come thick and fast which I like."
Derry could so easily be sitting with maximum points after five games but 11 isn't too shabby a return having been to Tallaght and Richmond Park.
"To be unbeaten and feel like we could've had more points is a nice place to be in. We want to get three points against Sligo. That second half against Dundalk was probably one of the most complete performances we've put out this season. We want to keep that rolling.
"Obviously we've got to look at Sligo's threats and put in a professional performance and get three points. That's the goal!
"They have threats and have had a mixed set of results but it's hard to read into results over the first four or five games of a season. As the league settles down you will find out more but they have some great players with ability and threats in different places. We need to be switched on to that and go and play our game."
After Friday night, Ollie can look forward to meeting up with the Ireland U21 team ahead of next Sunday's friendly international against Iceland at Turner's Cross and he can't wait!
"I love going away with the U21s. Last year was a really good experience. Obviously with a rather sad ending but to be involved in it was great. I'm looking forward to doing that all over again over the next year, 18 months and picking up more caps which would be great for me."