BASKING IN the aura of local glory, Thomas O’Connor slowly became a topic of pub chat amongst the GAA fanatics in south-east Ireland.
“I played GAA up until I left for Southampton when I was 15,” the former Good Counsel College (New Ross) student said.
“Maybe if I had stayed at home in Ireland and played up through Minor then I could have forged a career in the GAA, but when the opportunity arrives to come across to a Premier League team it is hard to turn down.”
GAA was always a constant in O’Connor’s life, but when the prospect of travelling across the pond to play in the big leagues was presented to him it was a straightforward decision.
From a local prospect in Ireland to a steadfast professional, his journey through the football leagues in England has been turbulent, and these days he is onto the chapter titled ‘Hollywood’.
Thomas was born in south Kilkenny but has strong connections with Wexford, as both his parents are from here.
And as well as attending Good Counsel, Thomas featured for New Ross Celtic FC during his amateur playing career. His fate was undecided at that stage, as he balanced the local pressure of playing for his GAA club, Tullogher-Rosbercon, with the prospect of becoming a professional footballer abroad.
I lived just 30 minutes away from Thomas and had the pleasure of featuring for a club that played against him on numerous occasions, Wexford Albion. However, my abilities were questionable, and it was often from the bench that I witnessed a young Thomas boss the Wexford Football Division.
“I never really got the chance to think about a career in the GAA, even though I liked it, but when a chance comes along in football you take it,” he explained.
Possessing such early promise, the conventional Irish “ould lads” would be in his ear about playing GAA at a high level. The local popularity and interest that comes with excelling in the GAA can be overwhelming, and pressure comes from all angles.
“I always liked GAA, but you always have that sliver of hope as a young footballer ,and when any opportunity arises, you must snatch it,” he said.
The modest chance of a career in football that he longed for arrived at such a young age. Thomas signed for Southampton when he was 15 and he enjoyed four seasons with the Saints, where his opportunities were quite limited.
It resulted in him being loaned out to Gillingham, where he spent one season before signing a two-year deal with League One side Burton Albion after his contract at Southampton had expired.
Thomas is more than familiar with the trials and tribulations of being a professional footballer by now, and how settling with one team is virtually impossible unless you are a rare exception.
After struggling to make an impact in Staffordshire, Thomas signed for Wrexham for an undisclosed fee just over a year ago. He’s enjoyed a fine debut season with the non-league side but, as he has shown across his career, change is always an option.
“You can never really be too settled in football, to be honest,” he said.
“Wrexham is a wonderful place to be at the moment and there is such a good buzz around the place with the new owners and the popularity of the documentary. Although, it can all change overnight and you can just end up moving somewhere else,” he noted.
O’Connor’s love for Wrexham is unequivocal, but his entry into the footballing world at such an early age means he still has hopes of bigger and brighter things.
After such a turbulent expedition around the English Football League, Thomas now finds himself wedged between the Welsh mountains and the Dee Valley, just near Cheshire and the English border.
His new club are capturing the hearts of every football fan and attracting the gaze of social media users, following renowned actors’ Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s acquisition of the club and the successful Disney+ series, ‘Welcome to Wrexham’.
“They would often come into the dressing-room after games and I can honestly say they are so down to earth,” Thomas said about the famous owners.
“They obviously have a massive interest in the whole project at the club, so they know everyone’s names and they’d chat away to everyone,” he said.
For all the prosperity Ryan and Rob have brought to Wrexham, their “ball knowledge” is still under construction. “They probably didn’t grow up watching football on the television but now, their knowledge is getting much better,” Thomas joked.
The high-profile actors may be alien to the sport like most football owners tend to be, but their distinguished status and deep pockets have helped Wrexham’s profile surge.
Since they bought the club, they have engineered a 364% increase in followers on Twitter and 670% on Instagram. On TikTok, which is also the club’s shirt sponsor, their newly-made account sky-rocketed from nought to 459,000 followers in a matter of days.
Their social acceleration has been parallel with their performances on the pitch, as hopes of promotion to the English Football League continue.
Their stint in the FA Cup has also illuminated Wrexham’s credentials for mixing with the best of the rest. They knocked out Championship side Coventry in the third round, a game in which Thomas scored a beautiful deft header in a 4-3 win.
They then produced an inspired performance against the Championship’s second-best Sheffield United. Thomas was on the scoresheet again, but a late goal from fellow Irishman John Egan halted Wrexham’s hopes of becoming just the fifth non-league side to progress to the fifth round of the FA Cup.
The replay was a tall order, losing 3-1 at Bramall Lane. The fairytale may have continued had Paul Mullin converted his second spot-kick and put Wrexham 2-1 up, but the quality of a team chasing Premier League football eventually shone through.
“I’m always happy to contribute to the side in any way I can. I don’t think there was much in it between us at Sheffield, and it was just a bit of luck at either end,” he said, as he reflected on Wrexham’s trip to Bramall Lane.
“It’s massive to play against a team like this. We have now put it up to two Championship teams in the FA Cup and I’m not saying we are Championship level, but the fact that we performed so well against Coventry and Sheffield shows the quality in the squad,” he said.
Wrexham’s love affair with the FA Cup was brought to a sombre end, but Thomas is keen to take away the numerous positives their run gave to the squad. All focus now turns to the National League, as Wrexham look to get back into the Football League for the first time since 2008.
O’Connor’s humble attitude throughout our chat illuminates him as a person but, as an athlete, it is all too similar.
“We have a great shot of getting promoted but we are still in second at the moment,” he acknowledged.
“It’s definitely going to be close. Notts County, who are first, are a great team and another massive club and with only one team going up, it’s not going to be a walk in the park,” he said.
“The play-offs are also a lottery and it’s sometimes a case of whatever team turns up on the day, but hopefully we can get promoted. We have a tough month ahead but with some more wins hopefully, we will be in pole position.”
With Notts County dropping points in recent weeks and Wrexham picking up crucial victories over Scunthorpe, Dorking and Chesterfield, the picture has changed, and O’Connor’s side recently sat at the summit of the National League, a point ahead of Notts County and with a game in hand.
From Wexford to Wrexham, the fairytale story that is developing looks destined to progress to its next episode, and Thomas is certainly playing a leading role.