Ballybrown to Bradford: O’Connor’s detour into professionalism

Bradford City’s Paudie O’Connor sat down with Limerick Voice to discuss life in England, the cut-throat nature of professional football, Junior B hurling and a potential Irish call up in years to come.

HAVING started a degree in Materials and Architectural Technology three years ago at the University of Limerick, Bradford City’s Paudie O’Connor admits that he thought he had “missed the boat” to play in England and had prepared himself for a life of working and playing part-time in the League of Ireland with Limerick FC.

However, in December 2016, alternative routes began to appear along his career path as several teams from across the water began to show interest in the Ballybrown man. He trained with Leicester City, who were at the time the reigning Premier League champions.

After three weeks of what O’Connor describes as “a real eye-opener” with Leicester, he trained for a week with Leeds United before penning a two-and-a-half-year deal with the Yorkshire outfit.

“It was kind of a case of parking the college for the foreseeable because it wasn’t going to come around too often, a chance to come over,” he recalled, thinking about his decision to make the move abroad.

The Limerick man was named Leeds’ U23 captain and made his professional debut for the club towards the back end of the 2017/8 season, before famed Argentinian Marcelo Bielsa was announced as their head coach in the summer of 2018.

Initially confident of being in and around the first team, O’Connor was advised to go out on loan. It was while on loan that he was to be acquainted with the harsh realities and unsure future that come with professional football.

Having initially agreed a 12-month loan deal with League One side Blackpool, O’Connor played for the Tangarines 20 times before Christmas, managing to find the net at the Emirates Stadium in a Carabao Cup tie with Arsenal along the way.

The central defender ended up leaving Blackpool and spent the second half of the campaign on loan at Bradford City, where he wore the captain’s armband towards the end of the season.

Being on loan wasn’t something that was well suited to O’Connor and he said that when you’re on loan, “you’re not treated as well as the boys that are there because you’re not really an asset to the club.”

“It’s obviously a dog eat dog way of life over here. You’re never really sure of where you’re going to be in six or 12 months down the line, but that’s what makes it enjoyable,” he continued.

Acknowledging that he wasn’t going to get the chances he would have liked under Bielsa at Leeds, O’Connor turned down the chance to go back out on loan during the summer and instead joined Bradford on a permanent basis where he has established himself as a mainstay in the first team.

O’Connor still lives in a suburb of Leeds with plenty of green fields and farms which are a welcome sight for the Ballybrown man.

To further remind him of home, the former underage hurler organised a shipment of hurleys last summer and he says that he has brought them out on the training ground on a number of occasions.

Thus far, O’Connor has managed to evade the requests of his local Junior B team management whenever he returns home.

“I was only below at the pitch a couple of months ago to watch the lads and I was getting the curly finger to throw on a pair of boots, but I’ve stayed away from it. You know what that levels like, you would get the legs chopped off you,” he joked.

On the football pitch, O’Connor is hoping to get as many games under his belt and continue developing as a player, with a future Irish call up in his sights, albeit “on the backburner”.

“As a centre-half, maybe at 24-26 you’re looking at your peak, so hopefully we can climb up the divisions before then and I can give it a right good go,” O’Connor said on a potential national team call up.

With the current state of affairs at Limerick FC, O’Connor’s story serves as a beacon of hope for the county’s football fans and budding young footballers alike.

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