Television is a constant part of the background for anyone involved with Wrexham FC.
There was last year’s hit, the ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ documentary on the Welsh club, which was sparked by the 2020 takeover by screen stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, and of course their own Hollywood careers.
For Thomas O’Connor, one of three Irish players on the books, it’s another type of television that matters, being on BBC 1 tomorrow for the live game (Wrexham against Sheffield United) and then hopefully making another appearance on ‘Match of The Day’. It’s an honour which the Wexford/Kilkenny lad earned in the last round, when his goal in the non-league club’s win away to Coventry City made it to TV.
“Coventry was great,” says O’Connor, who joined Wrexham from Burton Albion 12 months ago and scored the team’s third goal in that thrilling 4-3 win at Coventry.
“We know the league is our bread and butter, so, when you do get a Cup day like that, away to a Championship team and winning, it’s hard to beat.
“It was a bit surreal to see yourself on ‘Match of the Day’ when you are used to seeing the Premier League lads there every week.”
There are times when everything about Wrexham seems surreal. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the first (and to date only) British football club visited by Britain’s new monarch, was Wrexham where King Charles III seemed more than happy to chat to the American owners.
“They come over for some games, and they were here when the King came to visit the stadium before Christmas. There’s a good buzz around the club and the exposure we get is not a bad thing,” says O’Connor.
“I’ve seen bits of ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’, one of my friends is a big fan so he said, ‘You should watch this, especially as this guy now owns your club’. The two lads are really into it. When I first came here I did wonder was it all a front for some business thing, but they are massive fans and have a genuine interest. You see some owners who are not football fans but these guys are.
“Even before the American owners came in, Wrexham had a big fan base. It was always a sleeping giant, they just didn’t have the infrastructure to push on and get out of this league. It’s crazy how many new fans we have, because of the owners and the documentary.”
The exposure for the club in general, and this week for the Cup tie, is not what midfielder O’Connor (23) is used to as he’s spent most of his career in the shadows. There is an aim to sustain that career for as long as possible, at as high a level as possible, so he could join one-time underage international team-mates like Dara O’Shea and Gavin Bazunu in the senior squad.
But it’s been a long road to get this far, as O’Connor did well to get scouted playing for local club New Ross Celtic, without having to take the traditional route to England via one of the Dublin schoolboy clubs.
“It’s not easy to get spotted at a club like ours, I played for the county in the Kennedy Cup, that’s where the English teams spot you,” says O’Connor. “I was at New Ross Celtic from the age of four and I owe them so much.”
A talented athlete, he could deliver in other codes, but with a county split. “I am from right on the border, the parish is in the Kilkenny side (Rosbercon) but the closest soccer club was New Ross Celtic. I played soccer in Wexford and played hurling in Kilkenny. If it was a Kilkenny v Wexford match in hurling, I’d support Kilkenny, but my parents are for Wexford. When you play hurling for a Kilkenny club, you’ve no choice but to support Kilkenny,” he laughs.
“I played hurling and a bit of Gaelic football too. I was decent at hurling, I played a bit for Kilkenny at U-15s but I was too busy with soccer.”
He was part of a large Irish cohort at Southampton (most of whom are now back in the League of Ireland, like former flatmate Aaron O’Driscoll and Seán Brennan) but the first team was out of reach as he learned while on loan.
“I came to a point at Southampton where I knew I had to move on, I had two loans at Gillingham and I had the sense that there was not much contact. Southampton weren’t really looking for me to come back and be part of the first team. There’s no point in being at a club if you’re not in contention to play, so, they said I could move on,” he says.
A move to Burton Albion was cut short when Wrexham made a bid 12 months ago, though it was a gamble to leave a league club and drop down, despite Wrexham’s obvious ambition to be back in the football league after a painful 15-year spell in non-league.
“Yeah, it was a risk to go non-league but I was confident we’d get up. You have to take a chance,” he says.
He knew little about Wrexham before joining but the size of the club soon hit him: League One side Burton had a gate of just over 3,000 for his final home game, but for his home debut with Wrexham, they had 9,000.
Now, having gone to Coventry and won, another Championship side line up as opponents.
“We have a good home record so that will stand to us, though we don’t play against the quality of Sheffield United every week,” he says.
“The Racecourse is a tough place to come. If they (Sheffield United) have seen the Coventry result they will show us more respect.
“We go into every league match as favourites, we are expected to win every game, but in the last round of the Cup and again this weekend we’re the underdogs, so it’s a free hit.”