Limerick FC defender remembers European glory

Limerick FC defender Brian O'Callaghan
Brian O’Callaghan has won a European U-16 Cup with Ireland and an FAI Cup with Cork City but he’d now love to win an FAI Cup medal with Limerick.

Brian O’Callaghan has won a European U-16 Cup with Ireland and an FAI Cup with Cork City but he’d now love to win an FAI Cup medal with Limerick.

THE bigger they are, the harder the fall. It was the summer of 1998 and Brian O’Callaghan and the Irish U-16 soccer side was taking the UEFA European Championships by storm.

Brian Kerr’s squad topped their group, which included tournament hosts Scotland, Finland and a hotly fancied Spanish side, which included Real Madrid’s international netminder Iker Casillas.

After a routine 2-0 quarter-final win over Denmark, the Irish set up a last four clash with Portugal.

Limerick teenager O’Callaghan, who played his schoolboy football with Granville, before spending a season with Pike Rovers, took it all in their stride. He had been a right winger until he hit his teens and a coach at Granville suggested he switch to defence.

“Irish international John O’Shea, of Sunderland, is probably the biggest name to come through from that Irish U-16 squad,” Brian O’Callaghan explained.

“Andy Reid was also involved at that time. A lot of players went on to have decent careers cross channel, Graham Barrett, Joe Murphy in goals, Jim Goodwin, and the likes.”

“For those finals, with Brian Kerr and Noel O’Reilly, who sadly is gone from us now, instilled a great spirit in us. We didn’t fear anyone.

“We played all the top nations, Spain in the group stages, Portugal in the semi-finals and Italy in the final. There were some big scalps there, but we never went out fearing anyone.

“When we played Spain in the group stages, we didn’t see much of the ball from what I remember, but we managed to win 1-0.

“I came on as a substitute in the semi-final when we played Portugal. I had John O’Shea playing centre back and Jim Goodwin. I was up against stiff opposition when it came to getting game time.

“We won 2-0 against Portugal in the semi-final and then beat Italy 2-1 in the final. It was an amazing experience.

“I was always mindful of trying to make it at senior level (with Ireland). I got up to play at U-21 level, but I had a couple of injuries and setbacks.

“Different managers in England didn’t fancy me at different times and I didn’t really get enough game time at the right time. That is the way football is.

“A short time after we won the European U-16 championships, the U-18s went over to Cyprus and won the European Championships at that level.

“It was a great time for schoolboy football in Ireland and great to be part of it. I have some great memories of it. O’Callaghan moved cross-channel to play with Barnsley shortly after the European finals in Scotland.

“I was with Barnsley for six years,” Brian O’Callaghan explained.

“I went there when I was 17, after the European Championships. I played nearly 100 games for them over four years in the first team. I have great memories of that time.

“The Barnsley youth team manager came over to watch a friendly we played against Scotland. He came to watch someone else, but that player had already signed with a club. He was impressed with me.

“I only played a half of football, but I was signed. I had the option of trials with other clubs, but I felt Barnsley was a good club for me to go.

“They were in the Premier League the year I agreed to sign. They had one year and got relegated and were in the Championship when I was there.

“I suppose Ashley Ward, who got a big move to then Premier Division Blackburn, Craig Hignett, who also moved to Blackburn, were the best known players I played with.”

Former Limerick CBS star, O’Callaghan made 96 first-team appearances for Barnsley, a club which had been playing Premiership football in the 1997/’98 season. After the Tykes he played non-League football with Worksop.

He briefly played in Iceland with Kevlafik, and with Notts County, before moving to Cork City in 2006, winning an FAI Cup medal with the Leesiders the following year.

“They were great times with Cork City,” O’Callaghan said.

“I made my debut for Cork away in the Champions League at Red Star Belgrade. That is the highlight of playing football in Ireland, the chance to play in Europe and those big European trips abroad.

“I later played for Halifax who went into administration and signed for Limerick in 2009.”

Limerick FCs current mid-table position seemed like light years away given the instability at the club when O’Callaghan joined just four years ago.

O’Callaghan recalled: “When I came back to Limerick, I could never envisage the club being where it is today. In ‘09, the club was only a couple of days from being closed up altogether. There was crisis meeting after crisis meeting trying to get some investors in.

“Luckily for the club, the city and senior football, Pat O’Sullivan went along to one of those meetings by chance. He has done a very good job there. We owe him a lot.”

O’Callaghan endured a frustrating 2012 from a playing point of view as he struggled to gain game time under then Blues manager Pat Scully.

Thirty two-year-old O’Callaghan admitted: “I was nowhere near a first choice starter under Pat Scully.

“It was very frustrating. Two years ago I was out for 10 months after wrecking my knee. I worked extremely hard to get myself back to full fitness.

“But then last season, not to be given a chance to play, I didn’t play one League match last year, I only played the friendly matches with Liverpool reserves and Man City, it was an extremely frustrating time.

“There were often times when I wondered ‘what’s the point in this’ when I wasn’t getting a chance.

“I felt I was better than players who were playing. I just kept my head down and things have turned around for me big time. That is the was football is. It’s a matter of opinions. One manager likes you and another doesn’t.

“When Stuart Taylor came in, it was a fresh start for everyone.

“I thought if I do well, I have a chance of playing a lot more this season and thankfully it has worked out. Hopefully it will continue.

“Hopefully, I can do well for the manager because he has given me a chance many people wouldn’t have seen happening 12 months ago, even six months ago.

“Technically, the Premier Division is better. The pace the ball moves at is higher. The first five yards are in my head at my age. I have to use my experience. It is about doing a lot of talking and keeping things organised, keep a good shape.”

This weekend O’Callaghan and his Limerick team mates travel to Dublin to face non-League Glenville in the second round of the FAI Ford Cup.

O’Callaghan would dearly love to win a second FAI Cup medal with his home town club to the one he claimed with Cork City in 2007.