How a Killarney boy who joined Celtic ended up working for the Northern Ireland FA
In the latest of our popular series, ex-Irish League star Diarmuid O'Carroll tells us about his struggles with the mental side of the game, his time at Celtic and how a Killarney boy ended up at the Northern Irish FA.
Q. What are your early football memories?
A. I turned out for my local team, Killarney Athletic. Gaelic games was big and I played that too, but always leaned towards football. That made me a bit of a black sheep but I played with my brother Anthony, who was a year and a half older. We were blessed with a good team, some of which went on to represent Kerry in GAA, which is evidence of the level of athlete we had. At 15 I joined Home Farm in Dublin, they flew me up on a Sunday morning, I played at lunchtime and got a train home. I did not realise at the time that I had a chance of getting a move across the water but others in the industry believed that it would happen.
Q. At what point did you start thinking you could have a good career in football?
A. I quit GAA at 15 and some found that hard to accept. Two teachers in my school refused to teach me. It was madness, and after my dad set them straight they wised up. GAA is life in Kerry, to the extent where even when I was off school sick they wanted me to come in and play GAA. After joining Home Farm, I ended up at Celtic as a teenager. A few boys I knew and played with in international sides and with Home Farm, including Darren O'Dea, went over and it helped me settle. The club were brilliant, but having the boys for company was a massive help.
Q. You struggled to deal with the mental side of the game. Did those issues surface at Celtic?
A. I loved it for a few years but then I lost the love for going to training or kicking a ball about. I loved watching football, but if I had a bad shot it would have killed me for a week, and a bad session would kill me for four weeks. If you look back at my time at Glenavon, for example, you will see I had the odd great game but inconsistency in my performance was still evident, largely due to the mental side of the game. I'm not someone who has any regrets in football, I've done everything that I could have and I'm acutely aware that at times the mental side of the game worked against me. People will look at me and say I don't lack confidence, but in the training sessions and games my emotions were up and down. It wasn't until the later stages of my career when I switched my focus to coaching and my career after football that the game became fun again. Much of the pressure left me when I joined Cliftonville.
Q. Was it difficult adjusting to life after Celtic?
A. I was there for five years, then went to Morecambe, Airdrie and Iceland, so I had a progression or transition back towards the part-time game. I chose to go to Iceland as a last attempt at finding the love for the game again and also for a fantastic life experience. When I went to Glenavon I still wasn't in the right place to perform at my best, but things started to change after working closely with Packie McAllister.
Q. You retired at the age of 29. Was that your thinking for some time?
A. It was a decision that was long planned. After joining Cliftonville I started to work towards coaching badges, joined the Irish FA and did a lot of work developing clubs. I had no interest in going back to the full-time environment as a player but I wanted to pass on my experiences to other kids or players so they could learn from my experiences and mistakes. I built up my coaching experience over a number of years within the Irish FA and within the various clubs I worked with. I've never considered going back to playing, although if Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter asked me to come back for a month I would consider helping someone who I admire and trust. People have offered me good deals but that would be a distraction from what I want to do. I've got a better balance to my life since stopping, and it's allowed me to pursue coaching which is my passion. I don't want to miss the boat while I'm young, enthusiastic and love it. I'm continually asked if I miss the game but I'm in it seven days a week, it probably takes up more time now than during my playing days. I had offers to go back and play with some of the top teams, but I'm not going back as it would be unfair if I wasn't fully committed. The only thing I miss is the buzz of games such as on Boxing Day, but I'd still rather be involved on the coaching side.
Q. So at what age did you know you would retire early?
A. Not at 20, probably about 24. I thought if everything was in line I would retire. There was one time I turned down a weekend trip to Valencia with Pro Licence coaches including access to Gary and Phil Neville and joining Jim Magilton. I had to turn it down to play eight minutes for Crusaders against Ballymena United on the Saturday. I would have learned so much from that and I think that was a lightbulb moment. I had the mentality that I was lucky to win many trophies and not suffer a bad injury, so it was a good time to bow out. It was always important for me to be honest, so when I spoke to managers like Oran Kearney and David Jeffrey, I felt it would be unfair on them and disrespectful to give them a commitment when my priorities were starting to be elsewhere.
Q. Give us an insight into what you have been doing in football since retiring.
A. I've been in the Irish FA for almost four years on the administrative side, developing clubs, policies and structures. I'm also ambassador for Electric Ireland's initiative to support grassroots football clubs. It's a fantastic initiative that allows clubs to raise money for new equipment. Every time a customer switches to Electric Ireland online or over the phone and nominates a club under Club Game Changers, that club will receive £25. The Irish FA Foundation are eager to develop the game so it's imperative our work both on and off the pitch is first class. As well as the administrative side, I'm now a Uefa B licence tutor and love working on coach education. I've also recently completed my Uefa A licence, Uefa Elite Youth A licence in Scotland and I'm finishing my sports coaching degree at Ulster University.
Q. Do you have a big family?
A. I have an older brother, Anthony, and younger sister, Edel, who is living in Australia. We were an active sporting family due to our parents' love of GAA, rugby and football. My wife Anne runs a make-up studio on the Antrim Road called Studio A and she loves that. We got married in June 2014 in Cyprus and met in Killarney in my last year at Celtic when she was touring with Riverdance.
Q. You've run marathons in aid of Suicide Awareness. Is there any particular reason for that?
A. I was always conscious living in north Belfast that a lot of families are affected by it, and mental health is a massive issue. A few close friends have experienced it in their families and there is no point in running a marathon for something generic. Suicide has also affected my own wider family so it's an issue close to my own heart. You do what you can, take inspiration from the cause and hopefully raise a few quid.
Q. What would you say your best moment in football was?
A. Signing for Celtic and playing internationally was massive. Club-wise, I would say the League Cup win with Cliftonville. I had so many lows in terms of mentality and motivation, and been in a few relegation battles at previous clubs, but to score the opener and win a trophy was a fantastic feeling. It was pure enjoyment because me and the lads hadn't won a trophy before, and I'll never forget the celebrations we had afterwards.
Q. Who was the best player you played with and toughest opponent?
A. I was lucky enough to train with Roy Keane and Neil Lennon at Celtic, but in terms of a real team-mate, Aiden McGeady was very good at Celtic. He was a year above me but was always exceptional. Domestically, Liam Boyce is as talented as I have seen in the part-time environment. My toughest opponent would be my good mate Darren O'Dea, who booted me around the place at Celtic. Paul McShane at Manchester United's reserves was also really tough to play against. One time I played right-back at Ross County and Robert Snodgrass played for Livingston against me, that was a strange experience.
Q. It's been quite a journey for a kid from Killarney, who played for the Republic of Ireland up to Under-21 level and ended up at Crusaders and working for the Irish FA. Have you got any stick about that?
A. I sometimes get a bit of banter about it, but to be honest it doesn't bother me one bit. I love my roles with the club and with the Irish FA, and any talk of me being from down south is only ever a joke about me stealing players for the Republic. My first experience of the Northern Ireland v the Republic debate was when Darron Gibson played against me one week and ended up my team-mate a week later. This is an ongoing discussion as there's active recruitment going on and there are people with certain backgrounds who will naturally have more allegiance with the south. However, I do feel the perception of the Irish FA and their teams has changed massively, in particular since the introduction of Club NI and the growing number of staff and players from nationalist backgrounds. The new stadium at Windsor Park is an open and inclusive environment where people from all backgrounds come and enjoy football, which is the main thing. Many people will still feel the national anthem is divisive and won't feel comfortable playing/attending until this is changed, a debate I'm sure will rage on for years.
Q. Do you think religion or politics can be kept out of football in this country?
A. One hundred per cent. Football should never involve either, play for the jersey on your back with everything you have and that should be it. People will look at Crusaders, for example, as a traditionally protestant club, but I have loved my time there and have nothing but respect for the people there. Or, as Linfield manager, David Jeffrey had his own personal beliefs but he probably had more catholics playing for him than protestants. Someone's name or religion should be irrelevant, the only questions should be, 'Is he the best player we can pick?' and 'Will he represent the club appropriately?'
Q. After going to Celtic at 16, what advice can you offer young players hoping for a move?
A. The stats are against you, but I would never say don't go. It can work if you pick the right club and environment with the right security and deal. A negative when players leave at 16 is the pressure is massive and they think they're Cristiano Ronaldo and get a real shock when they land across the water. Homesickness can be an issue but, saying that, I feel too many young players use that as an excuse and an easy way out if their level isn't quite high enough - no one is homesick when they're flying and the main man. In saying that, you look at Paul Smyth, Mark Sykes and Gavin Whyte who are better players from their Irish League experience even though they didn't go at 16. There are benefits to going early and also to staying put and gaining first-team experience, every player is different and should be treated as such. A risk is that a lot of things can come into a young person's life between the ages of 16 and 21, and to stand out locally you must be exceptional, such as Liam Boyce. I was lucky - I played professionally for eight years and I would consider that a success. How could I turn down a deal at Celtic? Go for it, but keep other things in your life like education.
Q. Would you like to be a manager one day?
A. I'm not sure, but I might try it when I'm older. Guys like Brendan Rodgers and Eddie Howe are an inspiration as they are leading the way for young coaches who didn't play at the highest level. I've had good conversations with Stephen Baxter about it and I was sounded out about a job by a club last season but the timing didn't suit. A manager must have a ruthless streak and a focus on discipline, while coaches can focus on development of technical and tactical ability. Management was never on my mind as I believe my attributes are more suited to coaching, but your outlook can change. At the minute I like to coach and help players rather than be the big bad wolf, but we will see how my career develops.
Date of birth: March 16, 1987
Place of birth: Killarney
Previous clubs: Celtic, Ross County, Morecambe, Airdrie United, Valur (Iceland), Glenavon, Cliftonville, Crusaders