Galway football is sprinkled with unsung heroes, who kept the game alive in various pockets of the city and county. In town, though, for decades a familiar sight was Michael O’Connor cycling or walking along the streets with budding players getting ready for training or a match.
The times were different, but similarities exist and the basic principles of the game endure. Close control and commitment were the fundamentals O’Connor sought. To this day O’Connor will attend West United matches, following a first team managed by William Grant, who lives across the road in St John’s Terrace.
Ultimately, that is what O’Connor maintains is the main change. There was a spell when all of West’s players lived close to the heart of where the famous club represents. Now in Galway there is talk and road signs about the West End, but to the majority around St John’s Terrace, Henry Street, and surrounding area it is still simply the West. Nothing else. That is what the green and white team represents.
“So many of them lived within 15 minutes walk of me - Shantalla, maybe one or two from the Claddagh and the West,” O’Connor says about how West’s underage system developed. “The way it is today - even with the junior team - there is nobody from the West except those looking after the team, the Grants. William is doing great, he took over from Rodney, who did very well with them.
“It was different with the lads I got hold off. They were always kicking ball on the street or any bare patch. Now, and I go down to watch the underage a good few times on the Saturday mornings, they have loads of girls, they are training them great, but it is just one couple of hours on a Saturday morning.
“These kids when they go home they mightn't see a ball again because you cannot play on the street anymore. We used to go training any place, back in the Jes or down the park, then you'd be kicking ball on the street. So these children can't really learn how to fall, when we played football on the street we didn't want to fall.”
That crafty type of footballer was perfectly illustrated when Tommy Keane emerged as a sporting wizard. Keane’s genius will always be discussed and appreciated in Galway. Bournemouth signed Keane as a youngster, but O’Connor recalls Keane expressing a willingness to play for West as a boy. That passion for the green and white jersey stayed with Keane, the skilful hero for a generation, who returned to West following his exploits nationally.
“Tommy Keane was a pleasure to know, he was as kind,” O’Connor recalls. “I said he would be wasted if he came down with me, that we had no good players [at that age]. 'No I want to play with West' he said. That little argument went on for a week or two, but finally anyway Paddy Grant got on to me and I said send him down.
“Straightaway two other lads from Corrib Rangers were down, I knew that would happen. Six or seven of us were on the committee at that time, we half promised each other we wouldn't go taking players underage from the clubs.”
The juvenile committee formed by forward thinking individuals in the town mattered deeply. Ultimately it culminated in several locals forging successful and admirable careers in the League of Ireland.
“I was on the juvenile committee with Sonny McHugh, Mick Killeen, Bernard Shapiro, Br Justin, Billy Carr, Mike Corbett, and Joe Keating,” he says.
“They were all great, we would suit each other to play matches. If a referee didn't turn up we would agree to ref it one of us or get somebody else to ref it rather than the match not to go ahead. It was a great committee, Br Justin stepped up greatly with the way he had his players.
“The likes of Bernard Shapiro, Sonny McHugh, Br Justin, they did great work, Mike Corbett and Mick Killeen. We all worked together on it.”
O’Connor quietly helped people and players flourish. Eamonn Deacy’s contribution to the lives of people in Galway and his beloved West will always be appreciated with O’Connor often trying to get the Republic of Ireland international involved in a coaching or managerial capacity. Deacy, though, was reluctant.
The prospect of leaving a player out of a starting XI the chief reason why Deacy did not want to take a team. He knew the pain that caused.
The sheer love of the game is what kept O’Connor going. “We had Stephen Lally and Noel Mernagh, they were very good, Mike O'Toole was there, Davy Walsh was close enough,” O’Connor remarks.
“We had a few good players, the likes of Damien Tummon for Corrib Rangers, they had a few. Corrib Shamrocks had the best players up to U17, but when Br Justin went, they stopped playing and didn't play with anyone else. I don't know did they win too much and didn't enjoy it or something. Even looking at Chick Deacy and Tommy Keane, they loved playing.”
Kind and encouraging words from O’Connor inspired West teams. Enjoyment had to be part of the sporting process. Rules and regulations were everywhere else in teenagers' lives meaning football had to be an outlet.
“Young players you can give out to them in a certain way, but you don't put them down. When you give out to them you can be coaxing them in a way.
“A player who missed a few goals I would always go over talking to him, I might say to them I was glad I hadn't to take that penalty myself I'd never have scored it either.
“I tried to always do that. I think you have to give underage players confidence. Anyone can make a mistake. If it sticks with them you will find that they will avoid training, they won't come down. The one thing I always tried to do was not to upset any players.”
That did not happen as the respect between O’Connor and footballers was mutual. O’Connor still watches West train and play. “I enjoyed it all my life, I still enjoy going down to them, I got as much comfort out of it.”
**Listen to the full interview with Michael O'Connor on this week's 'Cian on Sport' podcast available on Soundcloud, Spotify, and Apple podcasts.