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Time was right to come home, insists Glenavon ace O'Connor

Michael O'Connor opens up on end of full-time career and his abrupt NI exit

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Flashback: Michael O’Connor (left) scores for Crewe against Liverpool in the League Cup at Anfield in 2008

Flashback: Michael O’Connor (left) scores for Crewe against Liverpool in the League Cup at Anfield in 2008

AFP via Getty Images

Flashback: Michael O’Connor (left) scores for Crewe against Liverpool in the League Cup at Anfield in 2008

Earlier this year, Michael O'Connor had Manchester United legend Gary Neville on the phone, successfully talking him into a move to Salford City.

In the end, the west Belfast man played just eight League Two games for the club - owned by Neville and a few more of United's famed Class of '92 - before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Fast forward a few months, his full-time football career is over and he's waiting for the Irish League season to kick-off with his new club Glenavon.

It'll be a change of pace for the 32-year-old, who was a first-team regular for eight clubs across the English Football League during a 16-year stay.

"The plan was always to move back at some stage, although maybe not this summer," he explained. "There were about 1,100 players out of contract in England and with the whole Covid situation, I knew it would be tough at my age to get another club and get the money that would be worth staying there for.

"We made the decision to come back when I got the call from Salford manager Graham Alexander to say I was being released back in May. We put the house up for sale immediately and that was it."

It was a full-time career peppered with highlights, not least his trips back home to play international football.

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All that came to a puzzlingly abrupt halt after the last of his 11 senior Northern Ireland caps, in a 3-2 defeat to Luxembourg in September 2013.

"It's a big thing to play for your country but I'm just disappointed I didn't get more caps," he admitted. "Eleven isn't too bad I suppose."

But it could be better. Or should be, if you ask O'Connor.

He had been a regular in squads under Nigel Worthington, who had handed the then Crewe star a senior debut back in 2008.

Once Michael O'Neill took charge in 2012, however, that substitute appearance in Luxembourg proved the first and last under the new boss.

"I was getting picked regularly and then suddenly it just stopped," he said. "I got injured, didn't get picked and then I was on standby. It just simmered out from there. It got to the stage when I wasn't even on standby and I knew that was me done."

His international freeze coincided with a bright run of form at club level, as he helped Rotherham to promotion to League One and then signed for Port Vale.

There, O'Connor completed a clean sweep of Player of the Year awards in the 2014-15 campaign.

But still no call-up.

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Michael O'Connor

Michael O'Connor

Getty Images

Michael O'Connor

"Michael spoke to me about six months after the Luxembourg game," he explained. "That was when I had signed for Rotherham in League Two but he told me to try and get myself back up to League One and that my chance would come.

"We got promoted that year and then I was playing League One football. I moved to Port Vale and got five awards. I was doing well week in, week out and still didn't get picked. I knew that was me done so it would have been a waste of time to contact anyone. It just didn't work out.

"It was very important to me to do well at club level at that time."

But still, with Northern Ireland by then on their way to Euro 2016, there must have been a frustration?

"Yeah, of course," he mused. "(Michael) named the squad a few times and I'd look at it and think, 'How are they getting picked?' but I just got on with it. It was important to me to do well at club level as well. He's the manager, he picks the players and there's nothing you can do."

As well as that disappointment, his early career brought relegations with Crewe (from League One) and Scunthorpe (from the Championship) but there have certainly been more bright days than dark.

Chief among those were three promotions as he helped Rotherham from League Two to the Championship in back-to-back seasons and then played a key role as Lincoln City went up into League One just last year.

"I've won the league, come second and also won the play-offs so I got promoted in every way possible," he smiled. "But that play-off with Rotherham in 2014 was definitely the best one.

"I had a great career over there. I played 35-40 games on average every season, bar when I did my ACL. The most I played was 49 games for Port Vale the year I won the awards.

"When I first went over, I was very homesick and there were two or three times I was going to come home. Once I broke into the first team at Crewe though, when I was about 18, that was it.

"I played for a couple of seasons in the Championship with Scunthorpe and ended up as their top scorer with eight league goals the season we went down.

"There is a jump to that level. If you're technically good, you'll fit in. In League One and Two, you get the ball and there are players round you. In the Championship, you get more time on it but if you lose it in the wrong position, nine times out of 10 it's a goal. That's the difference."

He'll no doubt notice another change as he returns home for his first season of Irish League.

Ballymena United and Larne had eyes on the midfielder but Glenavon got their man on a two-year deal.

"I spoke to Paul McAreavey (assistant) and met him and Gary Hamilton (manager) one night," O'Connor said. "They were brilliant and I agreed within two hours of meeting them to sign.

"We had a good chat about what Gary has done at the club over the last nine years and I had spoken to Sammy Clingan. They both talked about what a great set of lads are at the club.

"Sammy was at Linfield before but said great things about Glenavon, about the lads and about Gary as manager.

"I just want to enjoy the last few years of my career now. I've played full-time football for 16 years but I'm nearly 33 and I'm winding down a little so the part-time idea suited me, to be honest.

"If I had an option for full-time football, I probably would still have picked the part-time option. It's just that stage. I did my B Licence and Glenavon are putting me through my A Licence so I can begin to concentrate on doing a bit of coaching as well and looking to the future with that."

O'Connor's 16-year stay in full-time football is over but he's hoping there are more big days still to come with the Lurgan Blues.


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