By JOE CALLAGHAN | PUBLISHED May 14 2016 in The Times Ireland edition
THEY’VE raced past the roses. Jugs of mint julep ran dry. Churchill Downs sits empty, quiet now. Kentucky has already had its Derby … just don’t tell James O’Connor.
‘The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports’ had Louisville in raptures last Saturday afternoon, the first leg of American racing’s vaunted Triple Crown bringing out the hordes who pine for the timeless tradition of the thoroughbreds.
Seven days on though, Kentucky plays host to another derby this Saturday night. A newer world version. Louisville City welcome St Louis FC to town and O’Connor will look to keep his runners ahead of the field.
The Bray native has called Kentucky’s biggest city home for almost two years now. He’s in his second season as a manager, having oh so begrudgingly brought a prolific playing career to an end in 2014. Two rungs down from the bright lights of the MLS, the only Irish-born manager in the three-tiered pyramid of professional soccer Stateside, O’Connor is not so much cutting his teeth as bearing them.
The relentless drive, the intensity that saw him rack up over 600 games as a player, it’s all still there. It’s just harnessed differently now.
“I’m a bit of a nut. I’m a nerd of the game,” O’Connor told The Times this week, fresh from training with his squad, who currently sit atop the USL’s Eastern Conference and boast the best record across the league. “I’m always looking at every aspect of the game, right down, every nut and bolt, at teams and players and managers and learning as much as I can.
“As much as you’d like to think you’re on top of everything and the best that you can be, you make mistakes. There’s going to be moments in your life where you think ‘okay, that’s happened. It wasn’t great. Why has it happened?’ And you go and learn from it. That was the case with year one here.”
Year one, by the way, was far from a disaster. In their inaugural season, Louisville made it to the semi-finals of the end-of-season playoffs. But from the manager’s office to the mayor’s office, sights are set high in the Gateway to the South.
In an era of rapid MLS expansion, Louisville wants in on the big time. With no little justification. The club has already attracted a huge following in a city that reverberates to sport but has more often been known for its college teams. O’Connor’s eclectic pro side — 11 different nationalities including Dubliner Niall McCabe who has shone in midfield — have struck a chord in a place that came fourth in rankings of US cities most tuning in to the English Premier League.
“There’s a fantastic ownership group here. They really believe in the city and have some really impressive plans. If you look at the size of the potential fan base. There’s a huge passion here for soccer. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of it,” says O’Connor, who along with wife Amy, son Ollie and daughter Maisie have settled in the south.
“They’re really fantastic people, really friendly. People say they want to help and you feel they really do. There’s a really strong Irish community here too which is always nice. It would remind you of home in other ways — you could get rain, hail, snow and then sun all in one hour. It’s amazing really — where football can pick you up and take you.”
Football originally took him across the Atlantic in 2012 when he swapped Yorkshire for Orlando, helping the nascent outfit make that final push into the MLS before Kaka and Co. came in to take over the next part when O’Connor hung up his boots. They owed him nothing, leather worn down a hundred times over across the fields of England.
Fourteen years spent in the engine rooms of Stoke City, West Brom, Burnley and Sheffield Wednesday saw him ignore ache and pain to clear the 40-game mark on nine different occasions.
“When you play that amount of games, your mentality comes into it. It trumps the physicality at times,” says the 36-year-old, who still has to restrain himself in training daily. “Mentality in sport is huge, it’s everything. You look at Tom Brady with the Patriots. The man is a multi-millionaire and has won it all over and over. Yet every year, he’s competing to win another Super Bowl. It’s pure desire, pure mentality. You look back at Tiger Woods when his physicality wasn’t there. The mindset, the desire plays a huge role.”
If the desire was never lacking, opportunities sometimes did. Luck too. O’Connor thrived with Ireland Under 21s but never won that senior cap. He bossed Championship midfield battles yet never played in the Premier League.
“I know I couldn’t have tried any harder. It must be absolutely horrible as a player to look back and think ‘if only’. I don’t ever think ‘if only’. When you’re playing you think it’ll never finish. But Father Time waits for no man. More than anything, you want to be able to look back and say ‘I couldn’t have tried any harder’. Opportunities maybe didn’t happen for whatever reason but it was never for the lack of effort.”
Even in conversation O’Connor’s focus, his drive, comes across in spades. One struggles with the image of him sharing an apartment with George O’Callaghan, one of the more loveable wandering rogues of recent Irish football, in those early days in Stoke. “They were great times…great stories,” he laughs of a domestic set-up that also included lifelong friend Clive Clarke.
But he’s all about the here and now, O’Connor. You reference a picture of him tackling Dirk Kuyt in an Under 21 international way back when and he tells you how it applies to manning a touchline in Louisville.
“You play against those guys and the most important thing is to learn. Even then I was trying to learn. I’m still the same now. I’m an avid reader. I have a real thirst to be better,” he says, mentioning a close friendship with Richard Nugent of 21 Leadership, a figurehead in that field. “It’s something I’m passionate about — learning, constantly improving. As a coach, you are a teacher, you are a leader, you need to use a lot of those principles that cross all those divides.”
Saturday is about to come. Another derby awaits Kentucky. For James O’Connor, you sense his next race is only getting started.
(Copyright The Times, Ireland edition, Saturday May 14.)