Sunday 22 July 2018

'Leaving pro sport can cause you to question who you are'

O’Connor searching for light at end of the tunnel after quitting League of Ireland aged just 26

Dave O’Connor is looking to build a career for himself outside of football. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Dave O’Connor is looking to build a career for himself outside of football. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

For as long as he can remember, Dave O'Connor's main working possessions have been his football boots and gear and everything else he required for the regularity of training.

His world now is the folder, complete with colour-coded sections, that he is carrying under his arm as he walks into the lobby of a Blanchardstown hotel.

There's a hint of sheepishness when he is asked about what it contains.

"There's about 10 CVs in there," he laughs. "Maybe 10 cover letters for different companies. And just notes.

"I'm trying to network with people I've known through sport, so I like taking notes down, taking different ideas from people and then going home and looking up and researching what they are involved in."

The 26-year-old is used to having other details on his mind at this time of the year. Training. Fixtures. Homework on opponents. Set-piece instructions. All of that and then some of the more idiosyncratic details of life as a professional footballer in the League of Ireland.

David O'Connor playing for Shamrock Rovers. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile
David O'Connor playing for Shamrock Rovers. Photo: Paul Mohan / Sportsfile

It is those factors that have caused O'Connor to step away over the winter for the very simple reason that it simply wasn't viable any more. He had options to continue as a full-time player in the league, yet this was a battle between head and heart and the head was going to win.

When the former UCD and Shamrock Rovers defender helped Limerick escape relegation at the end of the 2017 season, he knew that he had to get out of the game for the sake of his own longer-term well-being.

Average

Only eight other leagues in Europe have a lower age profile than Ireland's top flight, with the average of 24.4 reflecting the pathway it offers for emerging talent and the realities of older pros slipping away.

There are experienced players challenging at the top end of the table who are on full-time, 52-week contracts but they are a select few and even their long-term security is questionable.

O'Connor is a textbook case for players in the next tier down, and he has a topical real-world description for his plight.

"There's a squeezed middle and I'm in that bracket," he says. "If you're not one of the top 10pc of players in the league, it's very hard to make a career in the league and you have to think about making a living for yourself outside of that.

"People look at pro football and in many ways it's the dream job. It's something I aspired to do from my teenage years and I sacrificed an awful lot to do it. And I managed to do that for years in the League of Ireland. But it's professional in inverted commas.

"It's not professional for the majority of us. Lads in their mid-to-late twenties like myself are being squeezed out because we can't make a living any more from playing.

"The average age is coming down and it's giving a lot of younger lads a chance to play professionally but they will eventually fall into that bracket too."

His time in Limerick is an interesting case study. O'Connor spent a couple of days per week in rented accommodation and then commuted around the free days in the schedule. That meant travel and petrol costs.

"The money I was earning was covering those expenses but there was no way of thinking about saving money," he stresses.

He is now back living with his parents in Trim, and knows that secure employment would be required if he ever wanted to think about getting a mortgage.

Senior figures in the league on decent contracts have been turned away by the banks, so individuals on a 40 to 42-week, one-year deals are never going to have any joy. "A complete non-runner," he says, matter-of-factly.

On the face of it, the articulate O'Connor should be one of the luckier ones.

He's not in the contingent of players that left school in their teens to go to England only to end up back home a few years later.

Instead, his senior football journey kicked off at UCD where he mixed football with gaining an arts degree and then a masters in geography.

However, he wasn't sure of his preferred career path - a contrast from old team-mate Robbie Benson who qualified as an actuary before pursuing a full-time career with Dundalk - and signed for Shamrock Rovers knowing that he was effectively delaying a decision.

That uncertainty is why he decided to step away from the 2018 season because he needs to dedicate all of his energies to finding his niche.

Over the past three months, he's been meeting sporting and personal contacts to get a handle on their industries and figure out whether it might be for him.

The networking site LinkedIn has proved a useful tool, and he penned a piece that was shared heavily on that medium which explained his transition from the football world to the real one.

It started off with his mixed emotions sitting down to watch the season opener between Bohs and Shamrock Rovers on RTÉ, the first time he realised that he actually missed it.

He still keeps in contact with friends around the league and, once the games began, envy struck.

"I had been a professional player in the League of Ireland since 2009 but now I was a spectator," he wrote in the piece.

"Leaving a professional sports environment can cause you to question who you are outside of the field.

"Football gave my life purpose, drive and meaning. Yet leaving football is a decision which I have made by choice. I am ready for a new ambitious working environment, a new motivation, a new focus and goal."

The outlook is positive, yet he admits to days where the absence of clear direction led to feelings of vulnerability.

And the absence of the training structure that has been a part of his life since his teenage years with Belvedere has meant an unfamiliar abundance of time around the house. He reckons his dog is officially sick of the sight of him.

But the early rounds of interviews and meet-and-greets have boosted the morale.

"I genuinely think if you feel vulnerable, it can be a strength because it makes you realise you need to make steps to help yourself," he says.

"And one thing I've learned from talking to companies and applying for roles is that having a background in sports can be used so effectively.

"I've gone for interviews and they were fascinated with my background in sport and the strengths and skills differentiates me from other candidates.

Leadership

"The standard ones are discipline, leadership and work ethic. They're all huge. But I think the one that stands out is resilience.

"To be a professional footballer in the League of Ireland, that's the one strength that players need to have and do have. A lot of them get rejected at the end of every season and have to go and start again and earn themselves a new contract.

"That resilience is something that companies on the outside really value, but I don't think players know how they can tap into that.

"They need to think about where they are going, and be proactive while they play.

"There's a tunnel-vision syndrome and that's understandable because when you become a young professional player, that's all you want to concentrate on.

"But they need to engage with things like the union (PFAI) and realise they can get an education grant for courses or get career guidance or just take steps so they are ready for the life after football."

He stresses that he hasn't retired. This is a career break with a twist, in that it basically involves seeking a different career.

His younger brother Eoin cannot get head his head around his choice when he could still be playing, but even a last-minute call from a Premier Division side seeking a defender was not enough to prompt a U-turn.

In due course, he might be open to a part-time solution, but he wants to consider decisions carefully rather than rushing into the first available job.

For all that he has concerns about the viability of full-time football for middle-tier players, O'Connor does feel it's the right way for the development of the league.

He also understands that modest contract offers are a sensible by-product of the craziness of the boom years that sent clubs to the brink.

The current set-up is giving youngsters a full-time football lifestyle and the better ones can aspire to lucrative moves overseas.

But they are the minority. O'Connor thinks back to his UCD days and can list off reams of players in his generation that have stepped off the stage already.

It's a young man's league all right, but not because of the pace of the game.

Instead, it's the pace of real life that is bound to catch up on everyone eventually.

Irish Independent

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