O’Connor delighted as Ramblers Return

As Ireland slowly returns to post-Covid normality, Cobh Ramblers’ first team squad are one of many teams finally back training on the parks and pitches across the country. After four months of Zoom calls and isolation sessions, Stuart Ashton’s squad returned to ‘regular’ training last week, if the use of masks, hand sanitiser and temperature checks can be called regular.

It seems a long time since the Rams’ last game, an EA Sports Cup penalty shoot-out first round win over UCC on March 10th. Defender Stephen O’Connor made his first appearance of the season that night in the Mardyke and would have hoped to cement his place in the side after an impressive showing at right back. Just a few days later however Ireland and the rest of the world was entering a lockdown period like none other. Now that we are coming back out the other side, Stephen is understandably delighted to be returning to normal,

“I’m so glad to be back training with the lads and getting back to normality. Like the rest of us, being in lockdown wasn’t the best of situations but sometimes you have to work with what you have. Each week we were given fitness programmes from Stu, Dec and the coaching staff which we had to complete. We didn’t really know when we would be back and it was important to try and stay fit throughout lockdown. Sometimes it was difficult to try and motivate myself but I knew that the work would pay off when we went back. The first few sessions last week were difficult and physically demanding but we’re back in the swing of things now and I’m enjoying being back with everyone.”

Stephen’s football life started off well to the west of Cobh, before he eventually stepped up to the national underage leagues three years ago,

“I first started playing football at the age of five when I joined the academy at Ballincollig AFC. My dad got me into it and it goes without saying that my family were my biggest influences and supporters growing up, right from the start. That has definitely helped me a lot.

I played with Ballincollig until under 14 when I joined Lakewood Athletic, not too far away. I stayed with Lakewood until I joined Ramblers in 2017.  The move to Cobh came about that summer. I was asked to take part in a trial match between the U19s and U17s during the mid-season break. I was 17 at the time and I played a half with either team. I must have impressed because I then began regular training with the U19s and signed with them a few weeks later. Dec Coleman was the manager of the 19s at the time and I’m grateful he gave me that opportunity.”

Within a few weeks of signing O’Connor was helping the Young Rams reach the semi-finals of the Enda McGuill Cup, with Dundalk preventing a second ever final appearance for the club, in a squad that included Dave Hurley, Stephen O’Leary, Gordon Walker and Scott McCarthy.
Having just celebrated his 20th birthday one could be forgiven for thinking Stephen is a new member of the senior set-up. Yet his senior debut arrived over two years ago, at home to Shelbourne after just one year in the U19s. Shortly afterwards he featured against the likes of Sean Maguire and Alan Browne in mid-season friendly with Preston. However for the remainder of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 his development centred around being a senior member of the U19 set-up.
The versatile defender made 11 first team appearances in 2019, the majority of which came at right back. He believes that combination of U19 and senior football has stood to him, now that he is a full member of the squad.
“I was lucky that I got to make the most out of my time at the U19s. I had two and a half seasons there where I was able to progress. It was then brilliant to get a feel for senior level while still playing U19 and now that I am playing senior level I am enjoying myself greatly. The step-up to senior level was huge and it’s definitely a lot more physical. The League of Ireland is a high standard and I knew that coming in. It’s great to be part of a team involved in it.”
When it comes to offering guidance to younger players coming through, Stephen has experience of facing challenges and acknowledges that it’s how you react to these setbacks that makes the difference,
“One of the most important pieces of advice I have is to never give up and to keep working hard. I think it is important for young players to realise that there is plenty of time for them. Personally, I never made a Cork Schoolboys League team growing up but when I was 17 I got my chance to play at League of Ireland level and I took it. It’s important to learn how to bounce back when things don’t go your way and to keep trying. You’ll get you rewards.”
As the conversation turns back towards the season at hand, Stephen is undoubtedly pleased with the continuation of the current league format. He also wants to push on individually in the weeks ahead and leave his mark on a side pushing for promotion,
“All of us believe that the decision to keep the First Division play-offs this year is a very good one. It gives us a better chance of being in with a shout of promotion. We still have to perform though and make this chance count. We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves and we’ll keep the hard work going. For me personally I believe that if I keep working hard and listening to what Stu and the coaches say I can become a better player. I want to become a regular starter in the senior team and progress as a player and a person.”
While continuing to develop on the pitch, away from football Stephen is also looking to develop a career in education. He has taken the route of entering a PLC course first and it’s something that he would recommend to anyone in similar circumstances,
“I’ve just completed a year in Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa doing a Physical Education course with the hope of getting into UCC and becoming a PE teacher in the future. Last year I missed my first choice course of PE Teaching after the Leaving Cert by a few points so I looked into different routes and this has worked out well so far. For me being a PE teacher is the dream job and I’d love for it to happen.”
For now Stephen and the rest of the Ramblers squad are continuing to train, in anticipation of a revised fixture list to be released shortly. Keep an eye on our website and social media channels for full updates on the latest Cobh Ramblers developments!
Interview by Thomas Stafford
Cobh Ramblers FC

Cobh Ramblers Football Club is an Irish football club. The club, founded in 1922 and elected to the League of Ireland in 1985, hails from Cobh, County Cork and play their home matches at St. Colman's Park. The club's colours are claret and blue.