“Of all the young kids coming thorough at that time he was the least gifted of them all….” – not the most encouraging assessment you’re every likely to hear… “…but he had sheer determination to succeed…” – salvaged by these final few words. This was Steve Bruce’s assessment of Gary Neville when he broke through into the Man Utd side of the early 90s “…once he had the chance to get into the first team, he grasped it and never looked back. I don’t think anybody displaced him for the next ten, twelve, thirteen years.” That’s some achievement, given he was playing for the most successful side of our generation. You’re probably thinking ‘why is this clown banging on about Man Utd on a Stoke City blog?’. Quite simply, because it’s the best example of application over ability from the past 20 years. Gary Neville went onto play over 600 games for Salford’s finest and racked up almost 100 caps for his country. There have been more gifted players than him during that time but none as successful as Neville, and none equal to his longevity. It isn’t always the most talented players that become the most successful and without application, it can often count for little. Using an example closer to home; how many players did Rory Delap see off during his time at the club? The media would have you believe he was all arms and towels but he retained his place for so long as he was simply the best player we had in midfield, and that was in part due to his enthusiasm, work rate and tenacity. Before Delap we had a midfield player very much from the same mould, a player who would go onto etch his name into Stoke City folklore for years to come.
James O’Connor signed for the club as a trainee in 1996, after being spotted by scouts in his hometown of Dublin at the age of 17. His progress through the ranks was swift and in 1998 he was awarded the Academy Player of the Year accolade. Not content with that, he quickly progressed into the first team and his breakthrough came in December 1998, at the age of 19. His debut performance came as a 78th minute substitute for Graham Kavanagh in a 2-0 win over Blackpool in the Autoglass Trophy. A handful of first team games would follow that Season before he became a regular in the side from 1999 onward. For the next couple of years the centre midfield berths would be occupied by JOC and Graham Kavanagh, the two perfectly complementing each other and a great partnership soon developed. O’Connor was the midfield destroyer, carrying out all the dirty work and defensive elements of the game, which in turn allowed Kavanagh to get forward in the search for goals. His attitude, work-rate and professionalism were first-rate. He was the player tasked with breaking up opposition attacks, and spurring us forward when we were in possession. Never one to leave anything on the pitch come the full time whistle, a career was forged out of harrying and hustling opposition players from the first minute, to the last. You could never question his commitment and though he was arguably the more defensive of the pairing, he also chipped in with his share of goals too (22 goals coming from 211 appearances). And who can forget that unique posture of his? Similar to Jordan Henderson, his gait was very unique. You’d often see him prowling around the pitch like he had a roll of carpet under each arm…
The 1999/2000 campaign was his most successful to date. JOC was a mainstay in the side that claimed the Autoglass Trophy, climaxing in the 2-1 win over Bristol City at Wembley. That year also saw him awarded the honour of Player of the Season, a worthy reward for his performances on the pitch. The season ended in disappointment for the club though as we lost to Gillingham in the play-offs, before falling at the exact same stage 12 months later, this time at the hands of Walsall. In the vein of the man himself though, we weren’t to be defeated and we arrived at the play-offs once again the following year, with our opponents this time round being Cardiff City. The stage was set for an extraordinary night in South Wales….
With time running out, it appeared we’d fallen at the last hurdle for the third Season running. Ninety minutes were up and the 0-0 scoreline wasn’t good enough for us, having lost the first leg 2-1. That soul destroying feeling began to set in; the sick feeling rooted firmly in the pit of your stomach. We’d come up short again. Earnshaw departed the field, slapping his head like a complete tool in the process; a defiant victory salute to his adoring audience. The home fans were advised over the Tannoy to stay off the pitch at the full-time whistle, allowing the Cardiff players to enjoy their lap of honour. As our sheep-caring adversaries prepared to get out the bunting and book the open top bus, Clive Clarke picked up the ball and went on a lung busting, mazy run down the left flank. With just seconds remaining he sent a ball deep into the opposition box. Bjarni Guðjónsson clipped it back across goal and James O’Connor was on hand to sweep the ball into the bottom corner of the net. Cue pandemonium amongst the Stokies in the stands, and the thousands that were watching via the big screen beam-back at The Britannia Stadium. We forced the tie into extra time and there was still time left for one final twist in the tale. In the 115th minute we won a free kick on the edge of Cardiff’s box. O’Connor stepped up and showed bags of composure and unquestionable vision to bend it around the wall and picking out Soulemane Oulare’s backside, resulting in the most beautiful goal you’re ever likely to witness. The Stoke fans were in dreamland and the lads went on to see the game out, securing our place at The Millennium Stadium. In the final we comfortably saw off Brentford and our place back in the first division was complete. The rest, as they say, is history.
We’ve come a long way over the past few years. Many fans talk about the Leicester game and promotion to the Premier League. Others look to our consolidation in the top flight, the Wembley visits and the European adventure as their personal highlights. The road to recovery started before all of that though, on that infamous night at Ninian Park. O’Connor refused to accept we were beaten and dragged us over the line with a sheer determination to succeed; engraving his name in the SCFC history books in the process.
(The above article featured in Issue 6 of Duck Magazine. Get yours now at http://www.duckmagazine.bigcartel.com/)