Where Are They Now?

Wednesday 13 February 2008

“When I was on the ground staff,” says former midfielder Brian ‘Pat’ O’Connell. “After we played teams like the Arsenal, we were told to go into their dressing room and pick up all the bandages and tie-ups and things that they’d left laying around. Then we’d wash them so our players could re-use them! That’s how things were when I first went down there.”

O’Connell joined after being spotted playing for West London Schoolboys. A local lad from Woodlawn Road, Fulham had always been his club. “I never missed a game,” he remembers. “I never went to Chelsea, although there were loads who went to both – Fulham one week, Chelsea the next - but it was just Fulham for me. To end up being paid for doing something I loved was the greatest gift in the world for me. I think that’s where things have changed – back then we would have paid to play football.”

Which brings us back to how differently things were done in those days. “I went down for a trial one evening,” he recalls. “There were no floodlights of course, just one light on a post. Tony Macedo, who was also there for a trial, went in goal and I hit a few balls at him. And that was it, we were both signed up for the ground staff!

“We had hardly any balls for training, and the ones we did have were rubbish – out of shape and lumpy. The theory was that if you didn’t see a ball all week you’d be hungry for it on the Saturday!”

A talented and creative player who played left-wing, left-midfield and left-back during his time at Fulham, O’Connell made 170 appearances in a white shirt – all but one in the top-flight. “I had a great time,” he says. “No one had it better than us. It was the most enjoyable of places to be, and there were some great lads there. I think when I moved on to Crystal Palace it suffered in comparison.”

Within a year of joining Palace he was to move to Canada to join Bobby Robson, newly appointed as manager of the Vancouver Royals. However, behind-the-scenes machinations saw Robson’s tenure cut short, and his place taken by Hungarian star Ferenc Puskas and his own team of coaches.

“That was a real quirk of fate working with the Hungarians,” says O’Connell. “When they came over and beat England 6-3, they trained at Fulham, when I was on the ground staff. And I remember watching this little fat man, Ferenc Puskas, who stayed behind after training, and he must have hit 50 penalties without a goalkeeper – and every one hit exactly the same spot on the same stanchion behind the goal – it was amazing! What he could with a ball was out of this world.

“So when he took over at Vancouver it was like meeting a hero. He was one of the greatest footballers there has ever been. The Hungarians really opened my eyes to the way you should play and prepare. In training we were never without a ball at our feet, never. It was such a contrast to England.”

From Canada it was back home and the completion of his coaching badges at Lilleshall. “I was offered a couple of coaching jobs – Bobby Robson talked to me about joining him at Fulham and Ipswich,” he recalls. “But I was very wary about going into football full-time. The money wasn’t fantastic back then, and of course it’s the most insecure profession in the world, so I took the Knowledge on the basis that I would always have something to fall back on.”

He was working at Spencer Park School by then, teaching football, tennis and badminton five afternoons a week, something he combined with playing for Brentwood, Dover and then Wimbledon, where he also began coaching the Youth Team. His last stop was player/manager at Epsom and Ewell, where, in 1975, he took his side to, and played in, the FA Vase at Wembley, just weeks before Fulham made it there for their own Cup Final. He was to stay at Epsom and Ewell for nine years, all the while continuing with the cabbying, before finally calling it a day. Nowadays he’s retired, living in Box Hill, and making the most of the opportunity to enjoy his garden and his grandchildren.

And finally, we get the low-down on why he was known as Pat throughout his career, when in fact we discover, to our surprise, that his real name is Brian.

“It came from Taffy O’Callaghan, one of the trainers down there,” he laughs. “Because I was O’Connell he called me Pat and it stayed with me ever since. If the phone ever rang and they asked for Brian I knew it wasn’t anything to do with football!”