Friday 23 March 2018

Low-flying O'Cearuill just happy to be back on track

Joe O'Cearuill has some harsh things to say about his stint in the League of Ireland, writes Seán Ryan

W ITH clubs like Leyton Orient, Watford, Arsenal, Brighton and Hove Albion and St Patrick's Athletic, and international appearances for the Republic of Ireland at U21 and senior level on his CV, it is a fair question to ask what Joe O'Cearuill is doing lining out with Forest Green Rovers this afternoon in the third round of the FA Cup away to Notts County.

No disrespect to Forest Green Rovers, but O'Cearuill, still only 22, should be playing at a higher level than the Blue Square Conference, especially with international caps to his credit.

Every footballer has a 'what if' moment in his career, and O'Cearuill traces his back to a day when he was selected on the bench for Arsenal, who were playing Liverpool in the Carling Cup. Selection for the first team squad can do wonders for the bank balance, and it also helps to inflate the ego.

"I had been on the bench in a previous round against West Brom, so I was looking forward to the Liverpool game, but it was cancelled due to fog, and I then went on loan to Brighton," he recalled. "That was probably a mistake, because while I was there the Liverpool game was re-fixed and, with injuries, I would have had a great chance of playing."

However, his time at Highbury did bring him to the attention of Irish U21 manager Don Givens. "I played for Arsenal against the U21s at the training ground and Givens was impressed, so he called me up for the 21s and I did well. Next thing, Steve Staunton called me up for a tour to the USA. That was a massive highlight, and also a huge surprise that I was included. Obviously Staunton saw something in me when there were a lot of other players he could have taken."

O'Cearuill has fond memories of that tour, but they don't extend to the flight. "I'm scared of flying," he admitted, "so I asked the doc for a few pills and slept the whole flight, sitting next to [Kevin] Kilbane. But it was a good tour. We had loads of good players and played in front of good crowds.

"I came on as a sub against Ecuador and played the whole game against Bolivia at right-back. It's not my favourite position because I can't express myself as I like. Centre-back is my position. I'm not an attacking full-back, but you wouldn't see many wingers get past me. At centre-back you have to read the play, and that's one of my strengths and I'm quick as well so I can get there before the centre-forward."

So far, of the nine games he has played for Forest Green, all but one have been at centre-back.

How is he on set-pieces, does he go forward? "Yes, and I have gone so close to scoring on recent occasions that hopefully on Sunday this will be the time for me to score and get my name in the headlines."

A year ago, he was let go by St Patrick's Athletic after a season which he doesn't recall with any fondness. "I wasn't happy living in Ireland," he admitted. "I didn't get on with the other players, I had no social life, so it wasn't the best of times for me. Also I got injured and that didn't make it easy.

"I wasn't entirely happy with the standard of the League of Ireland. Bohemians were good, Cork were okay and Derry as well, but the rest were not the best. When Brian Kerr left the club I didn't fancy it any more. He was very encouraging to me, he had a lot of experience and signed a lot of good players, but we underachieved with what we had.

"I was looking forward to playing in the UEFA Cup and I played well in the game away to Elfsborg. That was good for my confidence, but it's hard to motivate yourself against the lesser teams away from home, with their poor stadiums and small crowds. The League wasn't run properly and that wasn't encouraging for me as a young player trying to make his way in the game."

The injury which put a halt to O'Cearuill's run in the first team happened in a Setanta Cup tie against Linfield, which Pat's won 2-0. "I went into a tackle and we both met the ball at the same time and my ankle went all the way back and swelled up straight away. I couldn't walk for three weeks, and it was three and a half months later before I came back. That's a long time out, and I had to stay in Ireland for treatment. Besides, as I'm not keen on flying, I limited my time on flights.

"Overall, I was homesick and missed my family and girlfriend, and didn't play to my potential. I'm disappointed with that. However, I did learn a lot from living on my own."

In the past, whenever O'Cearuill was let go or had a bust-up -- as happened at his first club, Leyton Orient -- he didn't have to wait long before another club signed him. After Pat's, it was different.

"I was out of the game for nine months. I took a break at first and went on holidays with a few mates. Then I got back training with an ex-pro, Jamie Lawrence. But I fell out with my agent and that affected me getting a club for pre-season. I had to get a new agent a month or two into the season and start again.

"I have learned a lot from my time out of football. It's not a nice feeling especially when you see your friends doing well -- Keith Fahey, Nicklas Bendtner and Jay Simpson, who lives around the corner from me. You are disappointed because you should be at a similar level."

In the end, O'Cearuill played a few games with lowly non-League teams, before he was rescued by Dave Hockaday, an old friend from his Watford days. Now manager of Forest Green Rovers, Hockaday needed a centre-back, spotted O'Cearuill's name on the available list, signed him on a Friday, and played him on the Saturday against Mansfield in the first round of the FA Cup.

"This is a fresh start for me. I've started low before, and I'm happy to be back on track. It's not a problem for me to step up again. I'm playing well, have played about nine games, and we won most of them. We lost one and in that game I had to come off injured at half-time.

"There's a different style of play at this level, it's more physical and, as a result, I've been going to the gym. My intelligence is good, but physically I needed to get bigger and stronger to be able to compete, and it's making me a much better footballer. Notts County have two big lads up front but I think we could do all right there. If we work harder than them we can come out on top. It's a case of just go out and smash them really."

With the transfer window open, O'Cearuill could be forgiven if he is thinking of today's game as a shop window for his talents. However, he has a more realistic take on things than that.

"It wouldn't bother me if I stayed here till the end of the season. I just enjoy playing and training every day with a smile on my face. I'm playing close to the way I used to play and, hopefully, with a run of games you never know what might happen.

"When you've been at a high level before you want to get back to that level, but you can't expect to be there, you have to earn it."

Who knows? The renaissance of Joe O'Cearuill may start in earnest at Meadow Lane this afternoon.

Sunday Independent

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