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Fergie time, ruthless Italians and Shedside abuse - Derry City's Conor McCormack has sampled it all

SSE Airtricity League Premier Division

Fergie time, ruthless Italians and Shedside abuse - Dundalk footballer Conor McCormack has sampled it all

Conor McCormack signed for Manchester United as a 14-year-old, was gobsmacked upon meeting Sir Alex Ferguson and trained with Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)

Conor McCormack shared digs with Darron Gibson, Federico Macheda and Robbie Brady, lived in a house previously vacated by Darren Fletcher and Gerard Pique, and anchored a midfield partnership of Danny Drinkwater and Corry Evans.

He signed for Manchester United as a 14-year-old, was gobsmacked upon meeting Sir Alex Ferguson, trained with Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in The Reds Devils’ first-team, marked German great Toni Kroos in an underage international and was named Ireland’s U17 player of the year.

The Greenore man opted to leave the club he supported as a boy, declined offers from sides including Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion, signed for Serie B Triestina Calcio and was on the bench for a Coppa Italia last 16 clash with AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.

By his 21st birthday, he had already endured a whirlwind career.

Nine years on and Derry City’s captain has won every domestic honour at least twice, played in Europe at each of his four League of Ireland clubs and been handed the skipper’s armband at both Cork City and The Candystripes. Few current Airtricity League players can boast such an honours’ list.

He went to United as “a very determined lad” and that inner-desire hasn’t diminished. Derry are the only club he is yet to sample success with and this reality had much to do with the midfielder’s opting to return to The Brandywell for a second spell last winter. Financially more lucrative offers were tabled, but Declan Devine’s side, and what they represent, tugged on his heartstrings.

“In both Derry and Cork, you do get noticed and a lot of young lads are striving to be you and to be a player for their local town or city,” McCormack tells The Democrat.

“There’s a lot of passion that comes with that and you do feel it when you’re playing. It means so much more to clubs like them and it’s great to play for teams like that. ”

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A bright spark with Bellurgan United and Cooley Kickhams in his youth, before dropping the latter in favour of the game he loved, local scout Wally Murphy first alerted Man United to the tenacious type’s credentials.

McCormack would play and perform for Dundalk Schoolboys at the Foyle and Kennedy Cups, dominating matches with his clever positioning and dogged resilience, traits which he continues to showcase on a weekly basis.

By now a regular at United’s academy in Lisburn, he signed a deal with the Manchester giants in October 2004, although the entire process was kept firmly under wraps, even from his peers at Bush Post Primary.

“I didn’t tell anyone for probably over a year,” McCormack adds. “I think it was only close family who knew about it.

“It was announced about six months before I went over full-time that I’d signed; I kept it close to my chest and kept my feet on the ground. I didn’t want it to affect other things, I didn’t think I was a Big Time Charlie, I knew it was only the start of a long career where I was going to have to work really hard.”

He left for England’s north-west in 2006 and linked up with another Dundalk hopeful, Kyle Moran, while there. But the landscape had changed and it took time to adjust. This was no longer a temporary dawdle across the pond, as was the case in years prior when stints would last a matter of days. It was now real-life, his parents and siblings not even on the same land mass.

But this was the dream, what he’d aspired to and he seized his opportunity. It may not have worked out in terms of reaching the top, yet United gave him a personal and professional grounding that he may not have got elsewhere.

“I can have no regrets that I went to Man United and not to a smaller team where there was a better chance of progressing into the first-team,” he says.

“As soon as they came calling I knew I wanted to be there. I had a lot better offers elsewhere, financially, but I always wanted to play for Man United. At least I can always say that I did that.

“Just before I signed, at 14 or 15, the club invited the whole family over to a game, against Middlesbrough I think. It was about an hour before kick-off and I was told that the boss (Alex Ferguson) wanted to see me.

“He brought me and the family in, spoke to me, welcoming me and giving me a bit of advice to work hard. We got pictures taken before that game; I was absolutely delighted with it, awestruck.

“For years after you’d pass him in the corridor at times and he’d ask you how you were getting on. Sometimes if we were playing early on a Saturday and the first-team weren’t on to the Sunday or Monday, he’d come over and sit on the bench for our U18 games.

“He’d come in at half-time sometimes and give us a bit of advice and encouragement. Before Youth Cup games he’d give us team talks on the days leading up to it and tell us how important it was. It did become normal life, but you did have to pinch yourself at times.

“When I was leaving, he came over and told me never to give up and I’d make a good career out of it.”

Through his two years at Carrington, where he worked under Wilf McGuinness’ son, Paul, he alternated from the deep-lying central post to right-back, the latter becoming his more regular slot as time passed.

Yet once the club recruited the Brazilian Da Silvas, Rafael and Fabio, in 2008, it became clear that getting an opportunity to stake a claim was unlikely. He could have stayed and trained for the final season of his deal, but the Peninsula fella is the active type.

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The 29-year-old doesn’t regard his transfer to Triestina as a poor choice either. A bolt from the blue, he declined advances to remain in Britain in favour of a three-year arrangement which involved uprooting to Italy’s north-east.

“I don’t think I made the wrong decision,” McCormack adds, reflecting. “I think it’s helped me to where I am now and it’s helped me to develop as a player.

“They’re a ruthless type, the Italians. Once you were speaking English they thought you were English and they didn’t really want to know you. But as soon as you make an effort, to speak their language and get into their culture, they love you.”

Not that he had to be fluent in the language to discover if his teammates were unhappy with how he was playing.

His progress was steady and during his second term he was a regular part of the first-team on a matchday, albeit without making an appearance. That season they went on a prolonged Cup run and even took the lead against Totti and co in Rome, before losing 3-1.

Typical of Italian football, he went through five managers during two-and-a-half years at the club and towards the end boardroom politics manifested itself on the field of play.

“The managers kept chopping and changing and bringing in their own players. But the President couldn’t get rid of the players that were there and so I’d say we had a squad of about 40 first-team players at one stage. It was just mental.

“In pre-season the third year I could tell that I wasn’t going to get a look in. We started off poorly and the President decided not to pay us for a couple of months. They seem to get away with this kind of thing over there. I think I was missing three or four months’ wages at one stage coming up to Christmas.”

He needed out and so having negotiated an escape six months early, on the basis of receiving just the money he was owed, McCormack was home. He’d organised to train with champions Shamrock Rovers to maintain fitness before having another go in England.

Trials were organised all over the place until Hoops manager Michael O’Neill approached him after a pre-season session at Carton House, offering him a contract, which he accepted. And so he became a pivotal cog at the heart of Rovers’ midfield, playing his part as the Tallaght men became the first Irish club side to reach the group stages of a European competition.

Injury hampered his involvement across the programme, though, and while picking up a league winners’ medal and playing in the Europa League thrice, he opted for surgery on a knee injury in a bid to be ready for the following campaign.

It was to be an off-season of change at Rovers and things quickly went off the rails.

“Michael O’Neill was tipped to get the Hibernian job at that stage,” he recalls. “My contract was up and so was his, and he actually approached me to say he was more than likely going to Scotland and not to sign anything because he wanted to take me with him.

“Jim Magilton was in with us at the time as assistant and it was looking like he was going to get the Northern Ireland job. But, whatever happened, Pat Fenlon managed to get the Hibs job and Michael O’Neill got the Northern job. So the move to Hibs broke down.

“Stephen Kenny (O’Neill’s replacement) brought his own players in on top of the league winning team and I just thought we had too many players, too many starting XI players. I just don’t think it worked.

“He had a winning team at the time, but got rid of Dan Murray, the captain, that year and brought in great players, but it just didn’t work for him, for us or for myself.

“I wasn’t really getting in. I came back late because of the injury and was playing mostly at right-back, whereas I played my best football in the middle. It just didn’t work and unfortunately for Stephen he lost his job after seven or eight months.”

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Kenny attempted to lure McCormack to Dundalk ahead of the 2014 season, but the blond enforcer opted for Liam Buckley’s St. Patrick’s Athletic instead. There he won the FAI Cup, yet playing opportunities were limited by the summer of the following year, leading to a transfer to Derry City, where he would spend 18 months before John Caulfield and Cork City came calling.

It was at Turner’s Cross where he meaningfully encountered Seáni Maguire.

“Before going down there I didn’t realise how good he was. From playing against him, he never really scored against Derry. Ryan McBride, Lord rest him, used to wonder why people were talking so highly about him, ‘I’ve always had him in my back pocket’.

“But when I went down I realised within the first couple of training sessions… ‘Jesus, this fella is a lot better than I thought’. He just went from strength to strength that year. Everything he was hitting was going into the back of the net.”

City won the double, with McCormack integral, and he would lead the side for much of the next two seasons, until last October.

For much of his career, Dundalk, his hometown club and the one he used to follow as a boy, have been arch-enemies. And don’t the Oriel Park faithful only let him know…

“It must be just the local thing,” he quips, when asked about the torrential abuse he normally receives. “My cousins and uncles would all still support Dundalk and go to their games. I’m from just out the road and playing against them, being so competitive against them, there does be a bit of a bite, an extra bite.

“I wouldn’t go around mouthing about or shouting, but you do get abuse on the pitch. You only have to laugh at it and take it with a bit of salt; you get used to it.

“If I was ever walking about Dundalk, supporters do come over and say ‘hello’ or ‘yis were lucky the last time’... There’s always a bit of friendly banter.”

Would he ever sign for the club?

“Never say never.”

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