Martin O'Connor Interview.

Martin O'Connor was born on December 10th, 1967 in Walsall. He attended TP Riley school and was in the school team at various ages groups from 11 years of age. He was taken on by Aston Villa on schoolboy forms however he admits it wasn't the best of times, "I was taken on by Villa, but I was young and lacked confidence in my ability and I was released. After that my football became more of a hobby than anything else. I was a bit disillusioned, however a friend said that a team in the Bloxwich Combination called Afro were short on numbers and did I fancy a game or two for them. I did, but it was a bit of an eye-opener for me as one early game was a match against Featherstone Prison who had a couple of my mates playing for them. I was invited down to Bloxwich Town to train and play for them. I was then invited to go to Bromsgrove Town who were then managed by Bobby Hope. Again my head wasn't quite right I would be planning with my mates on Friday nights were we where going out to on the weekend etc.. I'd got a day job working as a guard and learning to be a driver for the railway so I didn't really have it in me to be a professional footballer at that time. My head wasn't really right at all."

None the less his performances were beginning to get noticed, "The likes of Cambridge United, Notts County, Derby, Harry Redknapp's Bournemouth were all interested as well as Steve Coppell at Crystal Palace and I decided on them. That was difficult for me at first, being away from home and adjusting to pro life." There was a reported transfer fee of £25,000 to secure his services. He wasn't getting much of a look in and was grateful of the chance to go out on loan somewhere.

" John Duncan at Chesterfield was interested but so was Kenny Hibbitt at Walsall so I went there. I enjoyed my spell and was getting regular football." Martin made his Saddlers debut in the old Division 4 on March 27th 1993 in a 1-1 draw v. Shrewsbury at Bescot. He played out the remaining 10 league games to help secure his new team mates a place in the Play Off Semi Finals against Crewe. Things didn't go well for Walsall however who lost 1-5 at Gresty Road and 2-4 in the return leg at Bescot . Tony Naylor was the main tormentor as Saddlers crashed out 9-3 on aggregate. There was some consolation for Martin who scored a 25 yarder at Bescot, his first for Saddlers.

Martin returned to Crystal Palace and things at first seemed a little hopeful, "I had a good pre-season back at Palace and was named in a couple of first team squads, v. Everton being one of them. I was now eager to show what I could do and found football challenging." Hibbitt sent for his services again in 1993-4 and his second debut came at Doncaster Rovers on February 19th, 1994 in a game Walsall lost 0-4. The player came on a 3 month loan deal this time around and to the season's end played in 15 games and scored from the spot in a 1-2 defeat at Chester. During this period he was signed on a permanent deal with the transfer between the two clubs being £40,000 of which the Saddlers Club paid half of that fee to ensure the deal went ahead. Martin reflected "I thought this is where I start now, I got my head down to be a true pro."

1994-5 was a brilliant season for player and club. Martin played in 49 games and notched 12 goals and played a big part in helping the team to promotion under Chris Nicholl but Martin paid tribute to the man who was at the helm for the first few weeks of that season, "I thought the squad was good enough to go up. Kenny Hibbitt had laid down some good foundations and there were some very good players there. Kyle Lightbourne and Kevin Wilson were terrific up front. We stayed over for a couple of nights after the Scarborough game which helped and we had a fantastic night at Gigg Lane despite me being injured towards the end of the game and our promotion was fully deserved."

1995-6 was another consistent season playing in 50 games in all competitions and scoring another 10 goals. 2 of those goals came in a 3-0 home win against Chesterfield, one of which was a penalty, in a game that is remembered by some not so much for his contribution to that win but a bizarre incident just before half time. Following an injury , two St John's men came on to cart him off however the one slipped on the dodgy surface and poor Martin came crashing down to the deck! He politely refused further assistance and merely hobbled off! It became fairly obvious material for Question Of Sport's 'What happened next' and various YouTube funniest moment compilations. As for the man himself he quipped, "My knee had locked but as I fell off the stretcher it unlocked, so it did me a bit of a favour. I did get a well written letter from them about it."

The summer of 1996 saw Martin depart to Barry Fry's Peterborough United along with Scott Houghton in a double deal. It was a bit of a drawn out affair that went to a tribunal. Walsall wanted £500,000 for 'Skip' and £300,000 for Scotty but old cunning Fry offered far less. The tribunal, which took two and a half hours to reach their verdict, came up with the vastly reduced figures of £350,000 and £60,000 respectively, which understandably upset owner Jeff Bonser. However Martin did offer another version to the events of that summer.

" The club only gave out their version of events. What they didn't make public was that they wanted to sell me to Blues at the end of the season. It was complicated as Blues offered cash and a couple of players. Baz (Barry Fry) wanted to sign me for Blues and Derby County were also very interested." Martin as we all know signed for Peterborough United .Leading up to that deal, Paul Marston wrote an exclusive in the Evening Mail saying that the player would soon be on his way to London Road. Manager Chris Nicholl was so annoyed with the piece that he went gunning for the well respected journalist and roared , " If you F'ck up Martin O'Connor I will punch your face in!" The two, who played golf together and were great friends, would laugh it off in later years. Big Chris would say to him " I was only joking." To which Paul replied, "Well why was I running then!"

Martin's spell for Peterborough United was short. He was only there from the July to November in 1996. He played 18 games scoring 3 goals when a transfer to Birmingham City was completed for a fee of £500,000. However there was a realisation on his very first morning at his new club. Peterborough had just installed a new manager /chairman - Barry Fry!, " As soon as I got there on my first day Baz told me he was going to sell me! They were in such a bad state financially they put every player up for sale." There was a phone call from Birmingham City. Recently installed manager Trevor Francis wanted to sign him. " Baz wanted half a million up front and some players and Trev agreed." At Blues he played 220 games and notched 19 goals. During his time there he appeared in the 2000-1 FL Cup Final where his team lost in the penalty shoot out to Liverpool "I'd never been nervous in going into any game up to then in my career but for that one At the Millennium I was absolutely bricking it. We were up against the likes of Gerrard, Fowler and Carragher etc. " Blues lost in a penalty shoot out with the score 1-1 on 90 minutes.

"When Trev left (2001) and Steve Bruce took over we didn't really see eye to eye and I was never afraid to say what I thought. When my time was almost up there, other clubs were after me including Nottingham Forest but Paul Taylor sold Walsall to me and I agreed to return. It was like coming home to me. Colin Lee was manager and we were bottom of the Championship. But we had a great run ( only one defeat in the last ten of the season) and I remember a great win at Sheffield United."

Walsall fans were delighted to see 'Skip' return to Bescot for a further spell that season on February 7th, 2002, after he was freed by Birmingham City. He played 12 times in that season with another 38 appearances under his belt in 2002-3 before he was freed . Things changed a bit however in his final last season with Saddlers, "Colin wanted me to take coaching responsibilities and focus more on that but I wanted to focus more on playing. " In total he made 185 appearances and scored 30 goals and will always be held in high regard by Saddlers fans who saw him play in all his spells with us.

Then came a two year spell with Shrewsbury Town for whom he appeared 65 times finding the net twice before a move to Kidderminster Harriers where he had the one season ending his fine playing career He got involved with coaching at both these clubs. From November 2006 there was a year's stint at Halesowen Town as their manager.

On January 20th, 2009, Martin was named as Chris Hutchings assistant as the two former Saddlers captains set about guiding Walsall FC following the sacking of Jimmy Mullen. The pair had 98 games in charge until January 2011 when they lost their jobs. Martin spoke of this period in his career, "Results wise in our first season we did okay not so good in our second year obviously. Its all about recruitment and the right players were not brought in. I'd give Hutch my opinion and I wanted him to introduce young talent like Jamie Paterson and Will Grigg sooner as I thought they were ready but he said no. One thing we did though was to install Dean Smith as Youth Coach and look how he progressed at the club."

Martin set up his own coaching academy which is called the Martin O'Connor Education and Football Academy which provides professional football coaching with tailored education to suit player's needs.

Then in 2018-19 and with manager Dean Keates struggling and badly needing some experienced help, he received an SOS from his former team mate, "Dean wanted me to join him full time in the January but with my academy business and all that entails I could not fully commit, it could only be on a part time basis. After he lost his job Jeff Bonser offered me to see the season out for him. I told him I wanted to run it past Dean first out of my loyalty to him but Dean was supportive of me taking it on so I took on the challenge."

"Again it was partly down to recruitment - you have to get the right players in. There were daily antics by the players I wasn't pleased with. Some were faking injuries, some were ringing in on matchdays with 'illnesses.' I was so incensed with the 'performance' at Accrington Stanley I had them in for three hours on the Sunday going over things, watching the video and I absolutely nailed .Cooky. His attitude was appalling. Fans who had travelled and paid good money deserved better than that."

"Mistakes that are made can be sorted on the training field but players not wanting to play is totally unprofessional. For the Peterborough game though I could tell they all had their heads on in the morning and they actually played well and got their win. For the Wycombe game I had to play a back four of full backs as some were 'ill' on the morning of the game. Although I had to name those who were 'ill' on the bench."

I was aware that Leigh Pomlett was going to replace Jeff Bonser and also aware that he had already got his new manager."

When asked if he would ever consider being a manager one day, even manager of Walsall FC he replied, "I am not actively looking or searching for being a manager anywhere. I've got my own academy business and I'm scout for Bristol City which I enjoy doing. But you never say never!"

He was skipper at every club he played for but said, "The 'Skip' thing...I never set out to be or even wanted to be captain. But I was always loud and forthright with my views in the dressing room and on the pitch and it was just handed to me." He was also asked what club he supported as a boy. " No club in particular. I'm not a Blue Nose as such, its all about memories and how Blues fans see me. I always want them to do well likewise Walsall of course. I may have started late, playing my first FL games at 24 but I played right up to the age of 38."

Bringing things right up to date, he commented on the support given by ISSA, the terrific fan base and the sponsors who have made the feeding of the NHS staff possible with the mobile van....

" Its unbelievable I wish every club would take the hint and follow suit."

Martin knows if ever he has time on his hands when normal service resumes and he could join us pre-match at the Railway Club there will be a couple of pints waiting for him at the bar. What a great career and a great servant to Walsall FC. He's one of our own.

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