Belfast Telegraph

Conor has key role as Northern Ireland men lead Oldham's push for survival

By Laure James

Pausing as if the weight of responsibility has hit him for the first time, Conor Marlin says: "The smallest things we do now can be life-changing."

In truth, still only 30, Marlin's boyish, wide-eyed appearance belies his great experience. The Oldham Athletic analyst is prepared for anything, having spent many years coaching at youth level and paved the way for charges of his to break into international and Irish League teams.

As a coach with Club NI, Marlin's aim was to shape teenagers into future Northern Ireland heroes.

Yet now, having jumped ship from the Irish Football Association to run a fine tooth comb through League One opponents, he knows he can help make or break players' careers in professional football.

He was lured to Boundary Park by Latics manager and compatriot Stephen Robinson, a former assistant of Michael O'Neill's and ex-coach of Northern Ireland's under-age teams.

Marlin's still got one eye on his home country's international prospects, however, particularly as Oldham is becoming an Ulster home from home.

"The English staff here joke that the Northern Irish are taking over," Marlin smiles.

"The physio who was here before Robbo arrived, Stuart Irwin, is from Ards and we've got players who are household names in Northern Ireland.

"Ryan McLaughlin is well known from his time at Liverpool. He was unlucky with injuries, but is doing really well at the minute.

"Cameron Dummigan, Carl Winchester and Billy McKay have also been in previous Northern Ireland squads and we've a couple of kids here in the youth team as well.

"Ryan's problems have mainly been fitness-related, but he has been coming into games more and more.

"Michael came to see him and the other lads against Rochdale quite recently, and Ryan played brilliantly.

"Cameron was bought on deadline day, so he needed a couple of games to get into it, but he is a great attacking full-back and is lucky he's got coaches here who are working so hard to build young players.

"Ryan is still only 22, Cameron is 20 so has another campaign at Under-21 level, but he will at least find his way into that squad, which he has captained.

"I think they are two excellent prospects for Michael, or whoever is in charge at a time when they're needed.

"In many ways it's not surprising there are lads here who Robbo knew before.

"The most incredible thing is that when he took over, he had to sign 22 players.

"That's absolutely unheard of.

"We are now fighting our way out of the relegation zone and things are looking positive for us.

"We've had to start from scratch, you never see that in professional football these days."

Northern Ireland have had an impressive start to their World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign, overcoming fancied Azerbaijan 4-0 last month to go into a four-month hiatus in second place; a position envied by all in Group C barring all-dominating Germany.

Yet boss O'Neill's big objective is to build a legacy.

There is little to be gained from reaching the final 16 at Euro 2016 and challenging for a place in the World Cup if young lads cannot aspire to achieve something similar years from now.

It's a mantra Marlin has inevitably carried with him into his first job in professional football.

"When I was with the IFA, I was doing a lot of things, managing Under-18 schoolboys and managing Club NI, and then coaching in the evenings, so they were long days," he says.

"Now it's about analysing the games, picking out ways to get better, working for Sean O'Driscoll and Stephen, but I always think about Northern Ireland, I can't help it with so many registered players at our club.

"Sean managed at youth international level with the Republic of Ireland some years ago, and he gets it too.

"He has had so much experience at the top level, including assisting Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, and managed so many good clubs, like Nottingham Forest and Bristol City. We all want to build legacies."

Moreover, Marlin is confident that while Oldham are a professional outfit, as a League One analyst he will have a greater hand in influencing match days than his counterparts at Premier League level.

"I doubt analysts at Manchester City, Chelsea or Leicester, or wherever, will have the ear of the first-team manager as much as I do," he says.

"I don't know for sure, but I am sure there are many more of them, all looking at the same things and perhaps not having their voices heard."

It's not just the added responsibility which suggests Oldham is something of a baptism of fire for Marlin.

They're fighting to break free of the drop zone, have been one of many clubs at that level to have a transfer ban imposed and their tie with Peterborough last Saturday was the only game in the top five divisions to be called off because of a frozen pitch, prompting concerns over Boundary Park's condition now winter has fallen.

"I'm at the coalface here and of course it's not easy, but we do the best we can and we've got a great team which can deliver results, both the playing staff and the coaches," he adds.

"You end up putting your life and soul into the job.

"We play a lot of games here, quite often on both a Saturday and a Tuesday, and you just want to win because it makes or breaks your weekend.

"You don't think of anything else.

"I want to work at the highest level I possibly can and just as the lads playing for us are thinking of making the step up, so am I."

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