Belfast Telegraph

Footballers' Lives with Conor Pepper: 'I have had many breakdowns after my knee injury. It was heartbreaking to think my career could be finished'

 

Conor Pepper
Conor Pepper
Conor Pepper with mum Angela and dad Andy
Conor Pepper with sister Naoise
Tough time: Conor Pepper in hospital after his serious knee injury
Standing tall: Conor Pepper blocks Rangers ace Jason Holt
On the ball: Conor Pepper in action for Glentoran

By Graham Luney

Glentoran ace Conor Pepper on nearly quitting football, why he's grateful to Ronnie McFall, spell in full-time game and life at Oval

Q: How did your career start?

A: I was playing for my local team in Portmarnock in County Dublin, just a small local club. I started quite late, around the age of 12. I was on holiday with my parents in Spain and ended up joining in at an Arsenal summer camp.

An Arsenal scout came to watch me play and I ended up with a district team, which gave me a platform. I played for the North Dublin Schoolboy League, and went to Kennedy Cups and Milk Cups. Cherry Orchard encouraged me to join them and it was an easy decision for a 15-year-old to make. From there I moved on to St Patrick's Athletic.

Q: How did the move to Inverness in 2012 come about?

A: I had been on trial before I signed for St Pat's. Inverness boss Terry Butcher told my parents he really liked me and wanted to offer a deal. I heard nothing for six to eight months so I thought the chance had gone.

Then a phone call came through from someone who said Inverness had lost my details. Terry then phoned me and offered me a two-year contract. I was in the Pat's first team and they were keen for me to stay but I wanted to see what full-time football was about. I had trials with English clubs and it was something I wanted to try.

Q: How did you adapt at Inverness?

A: The first six months was a bit of a whirlwind but worth it in the end. Terry Butcher was a massive name and Maurice Malpas was his assistant with a wonderful history at Dundee United.

I had two brilliant old school football guys in charge who were happy to look after the young lads. Richie Foran, a Dub, was the captain and Aaron Doran was another Dubliner.

Richie saw a bit of me in him and took me to meet his family and looked after me. It was a great dressing room at a nice family club so it was a smooth transition.

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Standing tall: Conor Pepper blocks Rangers ace Jason Holt

Q: You scored on your debut, did you have good times there?

A I actually found it really tough at the start because the standard was quite high. I was young, just finished school and you're in an environment with a lot of old pros. I was shy and nervous around everyone. I phoned my dad Andy after a month and said I might come home. I was nearly crying when I was struggling in passing drills and my confidence took a hit.

We had many injuries going into an away game against Hearts. I was taking it all in when Aaron said to me, 'Terry keeps looking at you'. I felt like I had the worst week of my life in training and I was telling my dad I'm miles off everyone else. Sure enough, we were losing 2-1 and down to 10 men with Richie sent off and Terry said, 'Conor, get stripped'. I came on with 10 minutes to go and the ball fell to me at the back post and I tapped it in, in the 94th minute to draw 2-2.

It was a surreal feeling because no one knew who I was and suddenly I was put in front of a camera with no idea what to say. I can't watch the interview back! I made another sub appearance against Celtic and got an assist in a 4-2 defeat. When I came into the dressing room, Terry pulled me over and said, 'Well done, son'.

That meant a lot to me. Just two weeks earlier I was telling my dad I'm miles off, then in my first two SPL games I got a goal and an assist. If that ball hadn't fallen for me at Hearts I could have been going home. I was then left out of a double training session going into Hibernian away and I found out I was starting that one.

I was shaking with nerves on the bus and felt sick. Terry said, 'Look son, don't worry about it, you deserve this and just enjoy it. When you grow up these are the big stadiums you want to play in'. That meant a lot to me but we went 2-0 down.

Then I scored from about 25 yards to make it 2-1. Terry was fuming at half-time, saying, 'An 18-year-old has made a show of you all'. I was trying not to smile but we were still losing. I was young and naive but they are still great memories.

Q: Did you learn a lot under Terry?

A: Yes, he was great. He took young lads out of the team to take some of the pressure off them. Terry called me into the office at a time when I wasn't playing regularly and he knew what I was thinking. I couldn't even look at him, I was that scared and he knew I wasn't alright.

He told me not to worry about not playing, he was doing it to protect young players. But then John Hughes came in as the new manager and said to me, 'You're too young to be in the first-team dressing room'. So I didn't kick a ball and didn't know where to turn. A year passed me by.

Q: In 2014 you signed for Greenock Morton. How did that go?

A: Jim Duffy means more to me as a man, not just a manager. It was a young team and I got a chance to play. I trusted Jim and we won the league in our first year. I had won a trophy which was special. I then moved to right-back and was flying until my injury in February 2016.

Q: That knee injury, sustained against Hibs, was horrific. How terrible was that time?

A: I just went to cross the ball and it happened. I've been to Easter Road twice - once I scored on my debut, then I nearly got a career-ending injury. The pain was excruciating, I was grabbing the ground, shouting and screaming. I was 21-years-old and other clubs had been showing an interest in me.

I had two operations, one for the cartilage on the right knee cap and the second was reconstruction to hold the knee cap in place. I had a lot of emotional breakdowns but Jim was a huge support. I used to sit in his office crying so the lads wouldn't see me.

Jim got me medical help and encouraged me to think about coaching. He gave me the Under-20s job which was a massive opportunity. He added me to the teamsheet as first-team coach so I could be on the bench with the lads.

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Tough time: Conor Pepper in hospital after his serious knee injury

When Jim left I came back to Ireland where another manager said he would sign me but then the deal fell through and after being out injured for so long, this promise came to nothing and the transfer window was shut. I was crying my eyes out in the car thinking how long will it take to return to playing? I texted Jim and he encouraged me to keep going. My dad thought I was going to quit but then a scout suggested a few contacts up north. I got a phone call from Newry City boss Darren Mullen who offered me a game in Dublin.

Twenty minutes later, Ronnie McFall called me and offered me a chance to play in a pre-season game. I had to apologise to Darren as I felt Glentoran was a good opportunity and he was very understanding. I travelled up to play in the game but it was rained off after 20 minutes.

I just sat in the car with my dad and I started to think it was a sign to call it a day. I had started a personal training course and maybe it was time to forget about playing. Jim called me the next day and said he told Ronnie I could do a job for him. He wanted a central midfielder and Ronnie gave me a six-month contract. I signed before making my debut against Cliftonville, my first game in about 28 months.

Q: How did it feel to have Ronnie show that faith in you?

A: He took a chance on me when no one else would and I've nothing bad to say about Ronnie. It hurt me when he left because we had to take responsibility.

The players weren't playing well. Ronnie came to Glentoran to do them a favour and he didn't need to take abuse off supporters. When we were warming up Ronnie was getting abuse and that was getting to me. I tried my best for him and thanked him for his support. It was a major deal for me to return playing and get a second chance.

Q: Just how tough was it to cope with the knee injury?

A: I was breaking down so much, the knee was swelling up and you just didn't know the extent of the damage. The pain was incredible, I was pushing physios away and crying my eyes out in the dressing room. Doctors told me there was nothing they could do for me and I thought my career could be over.

We found a surgeon in London who was positive but I always felt it would be impossible to get a club after being out for so long. We paid for the operation ourselves but then you have a lengthy rehabilitation period and the fear of something going wrong. I was running within seven months and proud of that. My knee is a trophy to me as I spent so long to get it strong again.

Q: Do you have anger over the lost time in your career?

A: I do. I could be playing at a higher level but the injury made me grow up so much quicker. I was an immature boy when it happened but I understand the game so much more now. I'm more well rounded now and take my fitness, strength and conditioning seriously. If anyone has an injury and needs help I'm here for them.

Q: How did your family react?

A: My sister Naoise, mum Angela and my dad were very supportive and I have my own little family in my gym now. I forgot what it felt like to come in from a warm-up and put your shirt on. The lads take that for granted but I thanked the players for that in the club's WhatsApp group because it meant so much to me and my family.

It was nice to walk into a tunnel and be ready for a game again. All I knew was football and it was cruel to have that taken away. My family and friends are closer after what we've been through. I'm working harder now because of the time I've lost.

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Conor Pepper with mum Angela and dad Andy

Q: Who is the best player you have played with and toughest opponent?

A: Graeme Shinnie, who is now Aberdeen captain. He's a quality player. For opponent, any of the Celtic players, Victor Wanyama, Charlie Mulgrew, Anthony Stokes, they were on another level. I've played at Ibrox and Parkhead in front of 60,000 and it's nice to have those memories. I live for the big atmosphere games now.

Q: It's been all quiet at Glentoran apart from a new manager, coach and a potential takeover involving significant investment. What have you made of it all?

A: Firstly, it's unfortunate Gary Smyth and Paul Leeman couldn't at least finish off the season because they are great guys. I've nothing but good things to say about them and I'll definitely stay in touch. I'll see them during the second part of the A Licence this year.

That being said, we needed a Pro Licence coach in if we were to go for Europe this year via the play-offs. Since Mick McDermott came in the door I've been nothing but impressed by his professionalism, his training sessions and how he carries himself. Within such a short space of time he's had an impact on the group and it's good seeing how different people work.

Paul Millar is another one who has been very good. He came in and set it straight about what he was looking for and got hands on with things quickly and that has been great too. With regards the potential investor, there's not much to say until it's done.

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On the ball: Conor Pepper in action for Glentoran

Investment is important and if it's going to help the club move forward that's great. It will make sure we as players are showing we are good enough to be a part of the next few years and make Glentoran a force in the Irish League again and it would be great to build something special.

Glentoran is a massive club, I didn't realise how big. We brought about 1,500 fans to an Irish Cup game at Crusaders and not many clubs in Ireland do that. If this club started to win trophies there's no limit to what can be achieved. I'd love to see the club taste success and hopefully I can be part of that.

Snapshot

Date of birth: May 4, 1994

Place of birth: Dublin

Previous clubs: Portmarnock, Cherry Orchard, St. Pat's Athletic, Inverness, Greenock Morton

Glentoran record: 34 appearances

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