The Students’ assistant manager lives 100 yards from Cockhill Celtic’s Charlie O’Donnell Sports Grounds and tomorrow morning he’ll return to Buncrana to coach the club’s Under-5s.
He remains deeply embedded in the club but whether or not he’ll be made welcome in his local pub, The Excelsior, on Main Street tomorrow night remains to be seen and he’ll likely be buying the pints should UCD progress in the competition.
The former defender has represented Cockhill Celtic from the age of seven and spent 15 years in the club’s senior team where he’s played against Premier Division opposition in both the FAI Cup and League Cup, most notably in 2011 against a star-studded Sligo Rovers team managed by Paul Cook who had clinched the league title the previous season.
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O’Connor has been involved in every one of Cockhill’s ‘glamour’ cup ties over the past decade, pushing Drogheda United close in the FAI Cup in 2014 when losing 4-3 and losing also to Longford Town (2015) and Limerick in 2018.
On this occasion O’Connor will be in the opposition dugout as the Ulster Senior League kingpins attempt to cause a shock against the Dubliners and he'll be hoping to put his emotions aside for the duration of the match.
"I played with Cockhill from seven years right up until about three or four years ago,” said O’Connor. “I’ve coached every age group and was in the committee for about 15 years.
“Still, any weekend when I go up there I’ll be coaching on a Saturday morning, I’ll be taking the U5s or U7s so I’m still heavily involved in the club from all different angles. Not as much as I was but I still have a lot of contacts there and a lot of friends. I still look up results and still go to the games when I can.
“I played against Longford, Drogheda and St Mochta’s in the FAI Cup. I played in the EA Sports games against Sligo Rovers, I played when we beat Galway down in Galway. I played in the Ulster Senior League team for 15 years and only finished about three years ago. I would’ve played in all those games,” he recalled.
“It’s always a big game, a big occasion to be part of for the club. That time we played Sligo there were over 2,000 people at it and it was the team that won the league with Eoin Doyle up front. Some top, top players and it’s always good to test yourself against them.
“From Cockhill’s point of view, you probably want one of the big teams to get a big gate, a big crowd but UCD might not have that attraction the way Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk or Derry City would. Derry would’ve been the ideal game for Cockhill.”
As he watched the draw live from Abbottstown it never dawned on him that UCD could potentially be paired with his hometown club and when Cockhill were called out it didn’t sit all too easily with him.
“Unfortunately this week I’m on the other side of it. I’m with UCD and going out to do my best to help get the result for them. It’s nice but it’s the kind of draw you wouldn’t mind seeing both teams going through,” he laughed.
“I watched the draw and didn’t really think about the two teams being drawn out together. Then, when UCD were called out, I was thinking, ‘There’s a possibility here’ and the next thing, that’s what happened. It will be an interesting game and one we’re looking forward to.”
His former teammate, ex-Finn Harps and Institute goalkeeper Gavin Cullen, leads Cockhill to the Belfield tonight and for 90 minutes they’ll put their friendship to one side.
“Gavin is a good friend of mine and I still speak to him every week or so. On Friday it will be a different story,” he smiled. “There have been a few phone calls and texts sent at the time of the draw.
“When I go back up home at the weekend I’ll get a bit of stick from the supporters but it’s all good craic. I understand that myself. But it will be exciting on Friday. It’s all fairly good hearted and we’re all looking forward to the game.
“It’s a big occasion but football is a results business and it’s about doing whatever you have to do to get into the next round.”
O’Connor is UCD’s secret weapon for the first round tie and his local knowledge and that of both Sam Todd and Michael Gallagher, could prove vital.
“We fully understand the level of opposition we’re up against. Although they’re an intermediate team, we understand they’ve been one of the top intermediate teams in Ireland over the last five or six years so we need to play as well as we’re capable of otherwise we’ll be up against it.”
Premier Division survival remains the priority for UCD and they’ve given themselves every chance as they’re now tied with Finn Harps at the bottom on 12 points a-piece.
The FAI Cup, however, offers a nice distraction before resuming league duties on Monday night against Drogheda. The 1984 cup winners have good cup pedigree over recent years, reaching the semi-finals against a Dundalk team which featured Greg Sloggett, Liam Scales and Neil Farruggia in 2018 and most recently the quarter-finals where they lost to Waterford last season.
They have big hopes of staying in the competition for as long as possible this year and O’Connor admits they, like every team in the country, have dreams of reaching the Aviva Stadium.
“Every team wants to do well in the cup, it’s a completely different competition. We were in the First Division last year and got to the quarter-finals and got beat by a last minute winner against Waterford.
“If you win that you’re in a semi-final against Bohs. So with a good run of fixtures God knows what could happen. UCD were in the semi-final a few years ago and anything can happen in the cup. We’ll be doing our best to go as far as we can.
“It’s pure lottery and good excitement about it, something to look forward to. Four games and you’re in the Aviva so that’s the target. That’s the dream for everybody - to get there some day. You want to go as far as you can and if you get the luck of the draw God knows what could happen. So four games potentially and the first one comes on Friday. If we can knock that one off then keep going and see what happens.
“Obviously I know all the players and coaching staff at Cockhill but again, a lot of it is down to ourselves and our own performance. We know we have to bring our best and hopefully we can do that.”
It’ll be interesting to see who’s buying the rounds when O’Connor returns to Buncrana on tomorrow night.