Skippy comes to town

Chris O'Connor, goalkeeper

It is sometimes forgotten, in the flurry of departures and returns of Irish young people who take 'gap years' to spend time in Australia, whether working or in more well-heeled cases backpacking, that there is traffic in the other direction too.

Some of it is just as unfocused, but a few know exactly what they are doing, and why.

Chris O'Connor is as Australian as they come. Born in Brisbane, with ancestors from Limerick, Cork and Tipperary, he is tall and blonde and would look quite at home in Bondi beach tourism photography.

Sure enough, he also played cricket while he was growing up, and ran a bit, and all the other lads played soccer, too, when they were young.

But, he tells me, "about 14 or 15, lots of them decide that soccer is for wusses, the macho games are Rugby League or Australian Rules. Especially if they're getting a bit of bulk on."

It may not help that many schools use soccer as a PE substitute, often seen as a way of giving the teachers a bit of free time. And the attitude, both in school and in the limited number of schoolboy clubs, is a lot less competitive than here: the game is played, generally, for fun.

"I was amazed the other day to hear coaches and parents talking about whether their lads were ready, whether they were fit enough, whether they'd had enough training before the start of the season. It was 8- and 9-year-olds they were on about, for gods sake!"

Chris's family (he's the middle one of three boys) lived quite close to Rochedale Rovers' grounds, which may go some way to explaining why he was signed for them at the age of 6. And he stayed with them until he left for Ireland.

"I never felt any attraction to the other codes," he says, "even when, in the higher grades, we began to notice how much bigger they were – there was less interest in soccer, there were smaller crowds, there was less funding."

But at a time when so many of his generation were heading off to the big stadia and backpage headlines of the AFL, Chris himself was beginning to look at football more seriously. "I played up front until I was about 11," he recalls, "until one day we were short of a goalie and the coach said 'Who wants to go in goals?' and I put up my hand."

And after that he just stayed there. "Some of the lads thought it was stupid to want to be in goal, but it felt good to me." And presumably it felt good to the coach, too.

By age 15, he was playing in what is there called the Junior Colts, equivalent it appears to an Under-17s setup, and for the Senior Colts (Under-18s) at the same time, when the senior team faced a 'keeping problem.

"The first-choice senior 'keeper dislocated his shoulder, and I think the Reserve goalie was out of favour for some reason. So this particular weekend, I played for the JCs on Friday evening, and on Saturday afternoon for the SCs. Matches were played at fixed times, 3pm, 5pm and 7pm for the various levels.

"So for the 5pm game on Saturday I was asked to sit on the Reserves' bench, and sure enough the goalie got an injury after about twenty minutes, so I played the rest of that game. And at 7pm, I was on the bench for the first team."

Heady stuff. Who would go back out in the field after that, even if it meant lining out again for the Junior Colts on the Sunday morning – which it did!

There was one additional factor in the readiness of the various coaches and managers to play the 15-year-old.

"All the goalkeepers trained together, separate from the rest of the squads, but they were also all involved in first team shooting practice sessions. So all the coaches would see who was in form, who was good."

From then for a year and a half, Chris was the regular first team goalkeeper for Rochedale Rovers, with the exception of a short period when they were fighting a relegation battle in the State Premier Division. They survived, but the powers that be had got nervous for a time that the youngster might buckle under such pressure.

Rochedale Rovers, he tells me, are the second-biggest soccer setup in the State, with extensive clubhouse facilities (bar, restaurant, function room and the rest) and excellent pitches – but far less spectator amenities than would be normal here.

But State isn't national, and the structure in Australia is very different from the structures in Europe, with State by State leagues, and one limited national Premier league above that, though with an Academy/Under-21 tier below it.

A junior national squad is selected through a process of regional and State tournaments run by apparently strict age-groupings. And Chris didn't quite fit the age profile when he went knocking at that door in late 2001 for the Queensland tournament.

Nor was anyone home when he tried out for a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sports in Canberra, which fields one of the teams in the national Academy-level competitions. Or when he tried for a place at Sydney United.

What were they all watching?

Meanwhile, he had become disillusioned with school, and dropped out to take up an apprenticeship, but decided that, too, was not for him. Still playing with Rochedale Rovers, he found a job in the clubhouse, which was no doubt convenient when he needed time off for matches or training!

At this point, the vicissitudes of parents' lives played a part in his.

Dad is Stephen O'Connor (born in Cairns, but whose roots go back to Kerry, we will not be surprised to learn), a former rally driver and a senior steward with the Confederation of Australian Motor-racing Societies. He and mum Susan had separated some years previously.

Now enter stepdad Paddy Dillon, with experience of soccer at St Patricks Athletic and Drogheda, a member of the Irish 1988 Olympic team – and with some continuing contacts in the Irish game, despite 15 years down under.

So last year, Paddy made some calls, and a trial was promised with Bray Wanderers. Even then it was not all plain sailing, as there were assumptions about the season, and when pre-season games and trials would be happening. Plans were made, and then had to be dramatically speeded up when Bray boss Pat Devlin gently pointed out in January that pre-season would be in March because of the switch to summer soccer!

"I don't know what I expected to find in Ireland," Chris laughs, "something like Braveheart, I suppose! I left having told everyone to expect me back soon, even my girlfriend. But when Pat offered to sign me, all that went out the window."

So brothers Daniel (20), who's into electrical instrumentation after a flirtation with football, and Michael (15), who has ambitions to ride his motorbike competitively some day, will have to wait a while to see Chris again. As will step-sisters Elaine (17) and Gemma (16).

Unless some of them take the gap year route to Ireland. Or Chris gets the passport he needs to pull on a green shirt, and maybe play against the Socceroos one day.

Mícheál Ó hUanacháin
first published in the match programme, 22 August 2003

NB: Rochedale Rovers continue to take an interest in Chris, with “Bray Wanderers (Chris O’Connor’s team)” ranked top of their international Links – above FIFA!
We’re happy to return the compliment
Rochedale Rovers (Chris O’Connor’s old team)

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