'I proved them all wrong and I'm living the dream'
Everton told O'Kane he was too small to be a pro – now he's facing Liverpool on big stage
Published 24/01/2014 | 02:30
"IF it was easy, sure everyone would be at it... "
The words are embedded in Eunan O'Kane's memory. In his head, he still hears his father Charlie repeating them over and over again.
His colloquial slant on an old saying aimed to remind his son of the virtues of hard work, particularly when faced with the challenge of succeeding in a competitive field. To make the grade, Eunan would have to persevere through adversity.
In the summer of 2009, he met with a setback which tested that theory. The scene was David Moyes' office and the attendance was the then Everton boss, his reserve team coach Alan Holden and a teenager from Derry who was present to find out if he would be getting another contract. It was Moyes – now Manchester United boss – who did all the talking. He was the bearer of bad news.
The basic rejection was bad enough for O'Kane; the insult was in the detail. "He said there was no issue with my football ability," he recalls. "It was my size that was the problem. There was nothing more to say; I just wanted to get out of the room as soon as possible."
Put simply, the Everton hierarchy thought he was too small to be a professional footballer, a view that the 5' 8" central midfielder continued to encounter in the battle to overcome the crushing disappointment. It's the harshest form of feedback, an assessment which an individual can do nothing about.
His only option was to go elsewhere and challenge their logic. This week, as a Championship regular preparing for an FA Cup visit from Liverpool, and a likely candidate for Irish recognition in the next 12 months, the Bournemouth man confesses to feeling pretty satisfied with how things have panned out.
"I wouldn't consider myself to have made it by any stretch of the imagination," cautions the 23-year-old, "And I'd never say anything to those people now; they know they said it themselves.
"But my career is progressing at a steady rate, I'm making a living in the Championship and it's nice to be able to smirk to myself and know, deep down, that I was told I wouldn't do something and I've proved them wrong. To play at Championship level when I left Everton was a distant dream. And I'm here now..."
Tomorrow promises to be the most exciting day to date. While the release from Everton caused professional heartbreak, the club itself never really held his affections.
As a member of the youth team, he was expected to turn up at Goodison Park on Saturday to watch the senior side when his mind was more interested in developments on the red half of the city.
He wasn't the only Liverpool fan in the Toffees academy and, when the opportunity appeared, he had company for Anfield visits to cheer on his first love.
The midweek Champions League nights with Chelsea and Arsenal are the abiding memories.
"It wasn't a big secret," he grins, "Although I didn't broadcast it to everyone; I was selective in terms of who I told. But when Liverpool came to Goodison, it was quite obvious which way I was leaning."
Those loyalties will be cast to one side at the Goldsands Stadium as he plots an upset, yet he admits that he would prefer if Brendan Rodgers eschewed the temptation for squad rotation. He wants to experience the full Liverpool package, and hopes that his idol Steven Gerrard is in opposition.
"If you were to ask me who I'd like to model my game on, I would say him," he enthuses.
Steadily, O'Kane is growing his own fanbase. His most significant supporter is John Yems, the football operations and recruitment manager at Bournemouth. Post-Everton, O'Kane went home to mix part-time Irish League football at Coleraine with 6am starts for work in the office of his uncle, a building contractor.
Yems, a seasoned coach and scout in the lower leagues, was working for Torquay when he checked in on a televised Sky Sports match between Coleraine and Glenavon. Instantly, he was drawn to the confident ball-playing midfielder who grabbed a brace in a 3-0 win.
By January 2010, Torquay had secured his signature and after two and a half impressive seasons in League Two, Yems encouraged his new employers to invest. Bournemouth achieved promotion from League One at O'Kane's first attempt, with the reappointment of manager Eddie Howe key to his development.
Howe's philosophy suits a technically assured passer who is now at home in a role just in front of the back four. Size doesn't matter; keeping the ball does.
O'Kane admits that he frequently encounters opponents with a direct style of play that he would struggle to implement, with Sheffield Wednesday a recent example.
"I'm not being critical of them," he explains, "I just feel in that kind of set-up, for what their midfielders are expected to do, you can get people to do it better than me.
"Here at Bournemouth we have a manager who wants to play football, and trusts me to do jobs that bring out the best in me. He sticks to those principles at all times; if we stray away from them – even if we win – he reminds us of that."
So, don't expect an old-school aggressive approach from the underdog. The fans who camped overnight to secure tickets – for the second time in six months, after Real Madrid's surprise visit in the summer – should be treated to a free-flowing encounter.
"We're not going out to kick them and intimidate them," says O'Kane. "I don't think we have the players do it."
In the process, he intends to attract the attentions of a high-profile fellow countyman. Martin O'Neill's appointment has given fresh hope to every player on the fringes and his assistant, Roy Keane, is scheduled to be on ITV duty for the Saturday lunchtime encounter.
O'Kane was on standby for their opening double header with Latvia and Poland; he only learned of the fact when his Bournemouth colleagues approached him in the lobby of the team hotel on an away trip to offer congratulations – the club had tweeted the notification from their official account.
A lack of injury withdrawals meant he remained on the waiting list but he is grateful that Noel King, the squad selector, put his name in the mix.
It was King who persuaded O'Kane to join a long list of defectors from Northern Ireland to the Republic after representing the IFA from U-16 to U-21 level. Naturally there was a backlash but his relatively low profile at that juncture reduced the quantity of internet abuse.
The fact that he's a level-headed, articulate character who chooses his words carefully also helps; there is no desire to fan the flames and he asserts that his choice was influenced by football factors.
"Not every decision you make is going to please everyone," he says. "But as soon as you make the decision, you have to accept that it (abuse) is part and parcel.
"I had to do what I felt was right and didn't want to look back and wish I had done something else; you have to know what's right for you."
The presence of Ian Harte in the Bournemouth dressing-room, a face from his childhood TV viewing, has given access to stories about pulling on the green jersey on the biggest stage.
"I was starstruck when I met him," O'Kane concedes. "But I try to soak up every bit of information when he talks about his experiences, just to learn from these older pros that have seen everything and can guide you through."
He knows, however, that he must seize control of his own destiny. There's no point in expecting favours.
"He (O'Neill) is from Derry but that connection won't do anything for me," he laughs. "I've just got to keep working."
Charlie, who will be part of the 12,000 capacity crowd tomorrow, would approve of the sentiment. Eunan continues to preach his father's advice to the masses. "If it was easy, sure everyone would be at it.." is the greeting message on his Twitter page.
Liverpool certainly won't be easy, but it's only those who put in the graft that earn the chance to take that test. Five years after being told these occasions were above him, the diminutive dynamo is ready to scale new heights.
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