—- Originally published October 5th—–
Picture the scene;
It’s the beginning of March at St Colman’s Park in Cobh, Co Cork.
In the 50th minute of the game, Wexford concede their fourth goal via a cruel deflection as a third league defeat on the spin is all but confirmed.
At the same time, 20-year-old Wexford-born defender Darragh O’Connor comes off the bench for his first appearance in senior football.
Fast forward 173 days, and that same young centre-back completes his move to former Premier League champions Leicester City.
As far as rises go, it’s hard to find many quicker than O’Connor’s in the last six months.
— Wexford FC (@WexfordFC) August 27, 2019
The ironic thing about that game in Cobh, O’Connor tells Pundit Arena, is, having been told he would not be starting, the defender had planned on leaving Wexford after finding first-team football at Ferrycarrig Park difficult to come by.
“One of my best friends was injured and he was meant to start,” O’Connor began.
“He didn’t travel so I was like, ‘Nice one, grand, I’m going to start this game.’ We got down to Cobh anyway and I found out I was on the bench. I texted my mother and my girlfriend at the time and said, ‘I’m leaving after tonight’s match.’
“Then Brian (O’Sullivan) put faith in me in the second half and it really went from there. I played well and got an assist in that match and then started against Shelbourne and went on from there.”
The 20-year-old’s thought process, he admitted, was initially rash and after being handed his chance with the First Division team he soon found himself as a regular at the heart of the Wexford defence.
O’Connor’s career may still have been in its infancy but his displays were catching the eye of the right people and after just 20 games in senior football he found himself being offered a trial at Premier League club Leicester City
He went over in July and was called back again a month later, and after impressing in the two games, he got a phone call outlining that the Foxes – Premier League champions just four seasons ago – wanted to sign him.
O’Connor explained that the deal almost hit a snag, but outlined how the process of him officially becoming a Leicester player occurred.
“I went on trial in July and then I was called back on the 5th of August, which is my birthday, so I flew back over again. I played a match on the 6th which was my second trial match and transfer deadline day was the 8th.
“I probably should have stayed but I flew home on the Wednesday morning, I should’ve stayed just to see if I was going to sign but I got home Wednesday and then I got a phone call saying they wanted to sign me and that I had to get back on a flight straight away.
“So I flew back over the next morning, did my medical and all by 1:30 but then there were complications with a deal for Denis Praet so mine didn’t happen then.
“It was a bit disappointing but I kept being told by my representatives that it would get done whether I go out to their sister club in Belgium or get in done in January or whenever.
“I knew in the back of my mind that it would be done. I got a phone call on Sunday saying they wanted me over on Monday to sign. It all got sorted in the end.”
O’Connor, like so many Irish kids, grew up dreaming about playing in the Premier League.
In school he remembers being quizzed on what he wanted to do with his life; “Everyone answers a fireman or something like that and I’d always answer the same; a professional footballer.
“Now my dream has come true.”
The 20-year-old beams about the surreal nature of the move, brushing shoulders with Premier League winners like Jamie Vardy and Wes Morgan around Leicester’s training complex.
O’Connor is aware that on the surface he has come a long way in a short time, but he is grateful to the clubs that helped him on his path, not least his schoolboy side Cloughbawn.
He may now be on the books of the former champions of England, but O’Connor cut his teeth in Wexford football, which he explained, in no uncertain terms, lacks the style and elegance of life in the Premier League.
“Playing with Cloughbawn was massive for me,” O’Connor explained.
“I think playing in fields with sheep and everything in it showed me that it’s not all ‘rosy in the garden football.’
“I remember getting shocked trying to get the ball, there was an electric fence around the field. That was just Wexford football.”
From Cloughbawn to Wexford FC with Waterford and Rovers in between, it hasn’t been the smoothest of journeys for O’Connor and the centre-back recognises that.
At 20 years of age though, he is going across the water just a little bit older than many Irish prospects who join academies as young as 14, 15 or 16.
O’Connor is aware of what his life is like without football, having worked as an electrician for two years, and isn’t of the mindset to allow this opportunity to pass him by.
He explained that he feels, going over to England at 20, as opposed to say 16 for example, means that he is more physically and mentally prepared for what’ll unquestionably be a massive challenge.
“I think I’m a lot more mentally and physically prepared to go over. I know I want it now.
“At 16, you’re wanting a bit of fame and everyone talking about you, but now I’m not bothered by any of that. I just want to put my head down and work hard.
“I don’t think I would have been ready when I was 16. I worked as an electrician for two years, I know how hard it can be without football so I’m not going to let the opportunity go by without not trying my best. I think I am better going over now.”
20-year-old defender Darragh O’Connor has completed a move from Wexford to Leicester City. The youngster made twenty appearances for Wexford, but went on trial at Leicester during the summer and impressed. O’Connor joins on a long-term deal.
(Source: Various) pic.twitter.com/Nqa4UDhtCw
— Leicester Xtra (@LeicesterXtra) August 27, 2019
Already though, he is starting to reap the rewards of his move.
He suffered a disappointing foot injury, but before that brief setback, he was invited by Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers to train with the Foxes first-team squad – a step towards fulfilling the three main goals he set himself when he first signed.
“I was having a meal with my family and I said that my main objective is to play every game that I can with Leicester.
“The second one is, throughout the year, to train five times with the first team.
“The third one is to finally put on that green jersey. I never represented Ireland when I was younger. Every young lad’s dream, when they’re younger, is to put on the green jersey and it’s mine as well.”
If O’Connor can continue to improve and feature frequently for Leicester’s U23s this season, then he’ll be on course to achieve goal number three, either at U21 or senior level.
The young defender though, finds his position slightly overcrowded with the likes of Nathan Collins, Dara O’Shea and Conor Masterson coming through as well as John Egan and Shane Duffy as relatively young, established centre-halves.
Although he admits he bases his game on Duffy, he expands on a trait which he feels has helped him improve his game tenfold since he first began incorporating it while playing for Cloughbawn.
He talks. A lot.
“I’m chatter box in a good way,” he begins.
“Most lads get sick of me on the pitch. I like to talk because when I talk I’m switched on.
“I know that I’m not going to sleep and the ball is going to go by me and we’re going to concede. I’m 6’2, I’m a big brute of a lad, I’m not going to get bullied.
“I’m an old-school centre-half. I base myself on Shane Duffy. I look at him and analyse his games. He’s not afraid to put his head where lads wouldn’t put their foot. He’d die for the cause. I’d class myself as an old-fashioned centre-half.”
Throughout our conversation, O’Connor frequently expresses gratitude; towards Cloughbawn for raising him in the game, to Rovers and Waterford for his experiences there and to Wexford for giving him his first taste of senior football.
O’Connor may have began his journey in football “playing in fields next to sheep” but he must now get used to life as a Fox.