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O'Carroll stepping back to go forward

F OOTBALLERS are renowned for their superstitions, and their attachment to so-called lucky rituals or charms, which they believe affect their performance. For Airdrie United's Killarney-born striker, Diarmuid O'Carroll, it's a lucky charm with a difference -- his mother.

"My family are my most regular supporters," he explained, "and between them they have been to five games already. My Mum has been over twice and I have scored each time. She's my lucky charm. I want her over every week."

Parents Joe and Eileen and sister Edel were staying with Diarmuid over Christmas and he had been hoping all week yesterday's game with Dunfermline would go ahead, but the snow and ice put paid to that.

Not many Kerrymen have made their mark as professional footballers, so O'Carroll had no models to emulate when he decided, at 16, to concentrate on soccer. He joined Home Farm, where he had Darren O'Dea as a team-mate, and eventually they both moved to Parkhead.

They played in Celtic's youth team together, alongside Aiden McGeady, but the attrition rate was high. "A good few made their debuts in the first team, but not many made the side, apart from Aiden, most of us moved on," he recalled.

"It's like any job, you can have your doubts, but ultimately it's about belief in your own ability and realising that there's no point in kidding yourself. You have got to make a move, and that's what I did, going to Morecambe and then to Airdrie -- not everyone can get through to the first team."

Although he spent five years at Celtic and made his senior debut on loan at Ross County, where he also scored his first league goals, O'Carroll believes his season at Morecambe was where he really learned his trade. "It was a good experience for me as I had never been in a first team squad all season before that."

He experienced the joy of being selected, the agony of being dropped, the frustration of being taken off -- "yes, all the bumps and stuff you need to go through, and I loved every minute of it. I never had a bad word to say about it. I got on well with everyone, including the manager, Sammy McIlroy. I think I should have got more chances to play, but you have to accept what happens and move on. There's no point in being bitter about it."

He started 15 games and scored five times, so he was sure he would find another club soon enough. However, when the transfer window closed at the end of August, he was still available. At that time, I spoke to him and asked him if he was worried.

"No," was his answer. "I'm in a good position now because clubs can't sign anyone unless they are a free agent like me. I have moved back to Scotland and I am training with clubs because they know me from my years with Celtic.

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"I've got a few options but I'm not rushing into anything because I don't want to make a wrong decision. That way you can be stuck and unhappy."

O'Carroll finally signed for Scottish Division One side Airdrie United, who were rooted to the bottom of the table. He has since played 12 games and scored four goals, a decent return, but win bonuses have been scarce, and a gap has opened up between Airdrie and the club above them.

At one stage, it was a race between Airdrie and Roy Keane's Ipswich Town as to which would go longest without a win. While there was plenty of media coverage of Keane's travails, O'Carroll was allowed suffer in silence.

So, did he make a wrong decision in signing for Airdrie? "Not at all," is his response. "My decision was made to get back to enjoying playing every week and for the full 90 minutes because I haven't done that before. And that's how it has turned out. It has gone well for me, but just not yet for the team.

"We have got good players and we score against the best teams in the division, but we need to close the door at the other end. In the last four games, we scored 10 goals, but we let in 15. We have had four or five defenders injured and when we get them back, hopefully we can make a push. Two wins and we're right back in it."

Last week, they played away to Ross County, one of the tougher venues in the league, scored three goals, but didn't even get a point as they conceded five. However, a more hopeful sign came in the third round of the Scottish Cup when they played league leaders Queen of the South. "We played them off the park and won 4-0," said O'Carroll, who contributed one of the goals. "If we click, we can beat anyone."

O'Carroll is a realist, who sets himself achievable targets. "I didn't come here expecting to win the league. I knew what I was getting into. I wanted to play, do well and that's worked. Hopefully my performances will get me somewhere better next year. I want to be playing again at the top level. This is the first time people have seen what I am capable of on a regular basis. Put me in a better team and how many goals would I get?"

Talk like that might seem disloyal to Airdrie, but O'Carroll is on a one-year contract, so he must look ahead. "First and foremost, I want Airdrie to stay up and do well. My first aim is to keep them in this division, but anyone who plays in this division would be lying if they said they didn't want to play in a higher one."

His motivation comes from his love of the game. "I want to play at the highest level and achieve all I can. You need a few breaks along the way, but I would love to play with the likes of Darren O'Dea and Aiden McGeady again."

At 22, he has been capped at every level for Ireland except senior, and he concedes his hopes of achieving that "are a long way off, a pipe dream. I have to focus on what I'm doing, but players who have made their international debuts in their mid to late 20s are the model for me and I'll dream about it until it's over."

Among his team-mates at Airdrie is former Longford Town and Bray Wanderers' striker Paul Keegan, who, at 37, is one of only two part-timers at the club. O'Carroll has thought about playing in the League of Ireland and talked to a couple of clubs but decided "to stay here as long as I could. Our club has one of the smaller budgets, but is very stable financially, and none of the clubs in this division are going out of business."

O'Carroll retains a deep affection for his native county and has a keen interest in their GAA exploits. "I didn't get over to the All-Ireland this year, but I watched it in an Irish bar. I have a few friends on the team, like Killian Young, and it's great to see him doing well. I get over for the games as much as I can."

The young Kerryman might not be quite where he wants to be just yet, but with regular football this season, he has the opportunity to bring his dreams closer to fruition.

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