Friday 20 April 2018

Wandering O'Donovan finding his way in whole new football world

Roy O’Donovan celebrates after scoring against Adelaide United in last month’s
A-League clash. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Roy O’Donovan celebrates after scoring against Adelaide United in last month’s A-League clash. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Daniel O'Donnell

The proliferation of sports channels and the growth of social media is seriously undermining the notion that a footballer who travels risks being out of sight and out of mind.

Flicking through the stations on a recent Saturday morning, a familiar figure popped up on the screen, sprinting away in celebration after dispatching a header.

Roy O'Donovan was the goalscorer. The game was live from Australia, the Hyundai A-League meeting of Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets which was bringing the curtain down on O'Donovan's season.

Despite his best efforts, the Mariners fell to a 4-2 defeat in a derby, a feeling they have experienced all too often in a season where they finished bottom. An average concession of three goals per game explains why.

O'Donovan endured a season of mixed fortunes, with an eight-match ban for a headbutt seriously curtailing his contribution to a 28-game campaign. That's the only cloud that has lingered since his relocation Down Under.

Central Coast Mariners are based in Gosford in New South Wales, some 75km north of Sydney, and the 30-year-old lives in nearby seaside town Terragil.

"We live 150 metres from the beach," he explained last Wednesday, taking a break from parenting duties after his wife Ellen gave birth to their first son, Alfie, just last month.


"After training you get to enjoy a bit of your life," he enthuses. "It's different to resting inside, away from the rain and watching box-sets."

In his former existence, that was a typical afternoon. The list of clubs O'Donovan has played for since leaving Cork for Roy Keane's Sunderland in 2007 demonstrates that he reached a point in the road where he fancied a change - Dundee United (loan), Blackpool (loan), Southend (loan), Hartlepool (loan), Coventry, Hibernian (loan), Northampton, Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota (DPMM) Football Club, Mitra Kukar and Central Coast.

Clearly, Northampton was a turning point. "I wouldn't have gone to League Two if it wasn't for the manager Aidy Boothroyd," he explains.

"In my second season there, he got the sack, I was injured and I was watching from the sidelines and the whole structure of what was being done changed. There was no football being played."

This side of the lower leagues didn't appeal to O'Donovan. "Kick it as high and as far you can into their half," he says. "Managers aren't allowed to have a football philosophy because their job is on the line. A lot of the teams I played for, going long ball and having a fight was your plan A, B and C. I found myself playing off a target man or being stuck as a right winger or a late sub."

As a speedy operator who enjoys playing through the middle, it was frustrating.

"I wouldn't have enjoyed playing at that level for a long period of time," he admits.

At the start of 2014, a travel opportunity opened up in Brunei with DPMM FC who play in Singapore's top flight.

Ex-Blackburn manager Steve Kean was in charge and he would link up with his former Cork team-mate Joe Gamble. The money was an attraction and so too was the fresh scenery.

It's opened his eyes to the opportunities that are out there in an expanding football market, particularly for a player in his age bracket.

"Outside the Premier League and top half of the Championship, money isn't filtering down," he argues. "Squads are getting smaller and younger. Contracts are shorter. There are players with good CVs out of work as clubs can get young players out of a Premier League academy for nothing."

Wanderlust can pose difficulties. Brunei went well but he only stayed for a short time in Indonesia with Mitra Kukar, where the league closed down shortly after his arrival due to a corruption investigation. O'Donovan had struggled to settle there anyway with the language barrier an issue and, while the package was attractive, living in a hotel was not.

Australia emerged as the perfect escape route. "Coming here, I substituted money for ambition and lifestyle," he explains. "It's a great place to raise children."

The contingent of Irishmen abroad is steadily growing. Robbie Keane blazed a trail in the US and Kevin Doyle has followed. Ex-League of Ireland players Richie Ryan, Eamon Zayed, James Chambers and Derek Foran are making a full-time living in the levels below the MLS. Darren O'Dea has played in Canada, Ukraine and India. It's a bit harder for defenders as the newer football countries tend to prioritise attacking additions, as Richard Dunne observed last week.

O'Donovan admits that is very much the case in Australia where the authorities want goals to put the sport on the map against its popular rivals. Andy Keogh is making hay with Perth Glory.

"I don't think it's an inferior standard to England," stresses O'Donovan. "It's just a different type of football."


He reckons the FAI could learn a lot from the Australian model, a franchised system which placed the emphasis on facilities and a marketable package. Niall Quinn has made similar noises.

For now he has no plans to come back. He still retains ambitions of representing his country but accepts it's unlikely to happen when Premier League players are available.

That is one dilemma which the traveller faces - there is a UK-centred mindset which is slow to take the embryonic leagues seriously. That will take time.

"People get bogged down by England and think it's the be-all-and-end-all, but I don't think so," O'Donovan argues. "They have to broaden their horizons. Moving away is the best thing I've ever done."

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