The 51-year-old, who made close to 100 appearances for the Candy Stripes, returns to the city this weekend alongside fellow members of Felix Healy’s famous 1997 Premier Division title winning team to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a feat that remains the Candy Stripes’ last top flight title.
O’Dowd played a major role in one of the club’s most memorable ever seasons but says it was the close camaraderie and team spirit that remain with him to this day. Pointing to what he calls Derry’s “something special”, the former keeper says the Candy Stripes retain that special ingredient that you don’t find at the Dublin clubs.
“I would always recommend going to Derry to any player. If any footballer asked me what Derry was like I would tell them it was the best I was treated and the best club I was at throughout my career. And that’s coming from a lad that’s a Shamrock Rovers fan and played for Shamrock Rovers,” he insisted.
“Derry City is a fantastic club. Down here you don’t really get what you get up in Derry. If you play for a Dublin club, and while Dublin isn’t massive, but not a lot of people in Dublin know League of Ireland players, especially not in our day.
“When I was playing for (Shamrock) Rovers you would get recognised the odd time by obviously Rovers supporters and a few Bohs or Shels fans but up in Derry it’s a totally different world. You are walking around the town and everyone knows you. It’s a real football town, nearly like an English town, where it’s a one team city.
“The community really revolve around the team in Derry. Clubs in Dublin can kind of get lost a bit, especially because a lot of football supporters in Dublin would also be Premier League fans. Supporters of (Man) United, Liverpool and those sort of teams, but you always got that sense in Derry that while they might support cross channel teams, they always support Derry City first and foremost. If you asked someone in the city who they support, they would always say Derry City first while in Dublin they might automatically say Man U, or Liverpool or Celtic.
“Even the ‘Derry Journal’, they would have a few pages every week on Derry City whereas in Dublin, papers would have two or three inches on the whole league so, yeah, it was a totally different experience for me but one I’m so glad I experienced.”
On Saturday, O’Dowd and his fellow 1996-97 title winners will receive a Mayor’s reception in Guildhall to mark the 25th anniversary of a triumph that few saw coming.
The Candy Stripes had finished in sixth place and a massive 21 points behind champions, St Patrick’s Athletic, in the 1995-96 season and O’Dowd admits pre-season ambitions were quite modest with no one in the 1996/97 Derry squad thinking or evening talking about challenging for the league, let alone winning it.
However, a quarter of a century on, the former St Pat’s keeper believes it is only with hindsight that you can fully appreciate the quality of the squad that Healy had assembled. Indeed, he recalls that once he and his fellow Dubliners, James Keddy, Tommy Dunne and Richie Purdy, started to settle into life in the Maiden City things really started to take off, singling out Sean Hargan, who was getting his first real taste of senior football during that title winning campaign.
“We didn’t really think we could win it at the start of the season because the season before wasn’t great. You can’t really go into the next season thinking, ‘We fancy ourselves here even though we finished mid-table last season’. It wasn’t like that, it was just over the pre-season we started to get a good team bonding together,” he explained.
“The four Dublin lads and the Derry lads, there was a good mixture. At the start the Derry lads didn’t know what way to take us but once we really started to get to know each other it was brilliant. The boys made us all so welcome and someone who typified it was Sean Hargan. He was a great young lad.
“It was his first season and he was unbelievable. You saw the career that he went on to have, he was unbelievable. ‘Pizza’ (Peter Hutton) won every award going that season and then you had Heggsy (Paul Hegarty) beside him - what a player and talk about an unsung hero, Heggsy was that! Then obviously Coyler (Liam Coyle), we had a super team and, as I said, once we all started to click the team spirit was unreal.
“If you go through that team, you just start saying, ‘Jeez, what a player, what a player and what a player’. Now looking back on it, maybe we should have thought at the start of the season ‘Why shouldn’t we win the league with the group of players we have’, but you have to remember at that stage Shelbourne were paying big money and they were full-time.
“They were paying massive wages so we knew it was always going to be hard to compete with that but especially as they were training every day. Look, it was a fantastic time in my career and we had a fantastic team.
“People sometimes say that we had the best team but not the best individuals but if you go through that team player for player, there’s not many players in our team who wouldn’t have got into the Shelbourne team at that stage, or indeed into any league team.”
Looking back, the ex-Shamrock Rovers, Drogheda United and Shels net-minder, now a father of three himself, says he doesn’t know how his mother and father came through such a terrible time but stressed the Brandywell club, manager Felix Healy, the players and the supporters all played a part in helping the family try to come to terms with Conor’s loss.
“It was tough for all the family. I have my own kids now, so when I look back on it now, I don’t know how my Ma and Da go through it,” he reflected, “I have three boys aged 24, 16 and 15 and I was thinking, if my 16-year-old died in two years time how would I have ever get through it?
“It was bad enough for us brothers but now more and more so being a father, I don’t know how my Ma and Da came through it. Obviously time is a great healer, but you never really get over something like that. The club, Felix (Healy), the boys were all fantastic at the time, they gave me and my family so much support and we’ll be forever grateful to the club for that.
“The supporters were also fantastic to us at that time, I can’t leave them out as they were brilliant as well. We got a lot of messages of support and all that sort of thing from Derry City fans. All that support helps so much.”