Former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder James O'Connor on managing Zlatan, life in the US and why he couldn't celebrate doing the double over Sheffield United
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Having arranged to have his car delivered to the home of city rivals Sheffield United that morning, the Owls midfielder left the smiling faces and the pumping stereos of the away changing room in his rearview mirror and made a panicked beeline to Warrington Hospital.
A few hours later, he was holding his first child.
The match was a lunchtime kick-off and having beaten the Blades at Hillsborough months earlier offered Wednesday the opportunity to complete their first league double over their city rivals in 95 years.
Along with a handful of teammates who lived further afield, he’d stayed at a hotel in Sheffield the night before. Rooming with Steve Watson, O’Connor took a call from a doctor who told him his wife would be fine and to stay where he was. He started, played 90 minutes and thanks to goals from Tommy Spurr and Marcus Tudgay, a historic double was secured.
Speaking from his locked-down home in Louisville, Kentucky, the Irishman recalls the 24 hours as some of the happiest of his life.
“I got the phone call and my wife was getting ready to get taken to the hospital. I stayed Friday night and played Saturday but then it was a mad panic getting straight across town and back to see my boy.
“He wasn't born until the Sunday morning at around 3am that he eventually came. Having had that whole experience around such an important game, having that joy of winning and doing the double over them, then meeting my son. It was an emotional time!”
O’Connor brought up that famous derby double within two minutes of conversation, before The Star had chance to ask.
Having played in fierce derbies for Burnley against Blackburn and Stoke against Port Vale, he thought he had seen passion. But he admits he had no idea just how intense the Steel City derby was until he found himself quite literally at the centre of it.
“It was just huge,” he said. “From the outside looking in you think 'oh that looks like a big game' and you might watch it on the TV, but when you're actually in the city, you see how big it actually is.
“It's hard to fully describe the passion of both sets of supporters have for their clubs. It's a fantastic derby and the intensity that comes from it is unbelievable. The atmosphere is electric, fantastic memories.
“When you look at the crowds that go to that game, there's a huge intensity to it. It's a huge, huge game for the city. You look at the attendance figures and it's always a sell-out.
“The build-up to the week, whoever you're playing the week before, you whistle blows and then that's gone, the whole city is locked on to the derby. The radio shows, the phone-ins, that build-up is huge. You can’t help but take notice of it.”
Fast forward eight years on from O’Connor’s Sheffield Wednesday departure and his life has changed almost as much as the dynamic between the two Sheffield clubs.
The now 40-year-old is overseeing the development of USL Championship side Louisville City. The club is experienced rapid growth in the form of a new academy, new stadium and training facilities and will have a women’s franchise in next season’s NWSL.
It represents a fresh challenge and a step out of the public gaze for O’Connor after a management stint at MLS Orlando City, where he coached former Manchester United star Nani, and oversaw the ‘MLS All-Stars’ clash against Atletico Madrid in August last year that involved the likes of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“It's been a whirlwind,” he said. “I've come back into this role to help the growth of the club. It's grown in so many different entities, we've launched a new academy, we've got the women's programme and the training ground which is going to be fantastic.
“The All-Star game was an incredible experience and everything around it was great. All these world-class players, it was a phenomenal experience.”
He set about achieving his coaching badges at an early age, completing several of them while at Wednesday, and was recommended for the Pro-License by Howard Wilkinson.
O’Connor looks back on his four years at Hillsborough with huge fondness and says he learned a huge amount from not only the coaches he worked under but the players around him – in good times and bad.
Asked about Darren Purse’s description of the changing room as one split down the middle during the relegation season of 2009/10, O’Connor said: “That relegation was hard to swallow.
“Even now when it comes up now it hurts me. There was a lot of stuff going on in the background. Players were troubled with talk about takeovers and other things. It was a turbulent time. But you look at every experience and you ask yourself 'why?' We had some talented players.
“Now I've gone into coaching and seen the other side of it, that experience taught me to put a lot of value in the character of players and the dressing room. I put a lot of time into that now.
“We had very talented players but they didn't quite have the mentality. It played a key role in that relegation.
“It’s a wonderful club. I’d love to see them back in the Premier League. Of all the clubs trying to get there, you look at the history and the passion from all the supporters, it’s incredible.
“Hopefully one day they can get back into the Premier League.”