With a new era bringing in sweeping changes across the A-League and the dark clouds of the on-going pandemic still swirling over head, the future of many a free agent this off-season is masked in uncertainty.
For veteran striker Roy O’Donovan, this feeling is all too familiar.
During a 15-plus year senior career, the Republic of Ireland youth international has endured his far share of ups and downs; a series of moves and managerial changes, compounded by niggling injuries, preventing him from settling down and finding consistency.
But growing up in working class Cork, “a place where you have to fight your corner”, set up O’Donovan for whatever life as a footballer could throw at him.
Catching the eye for his home town club Cork City, during the glory days of the League of Ireland, a young O’Donovan earned his first move overseas, joining up with fellow Cork native Roy Keane at Sunderland.
Working under the fiery Premier League legend, albeit briefly, taught him a lot.
“He was a great player, he was only freshly out of his playing career at the very highest level success wise but it was great to work from him.
“There are some habits and principles that I got from him that I still keep to this day, being a good pro, giving 100% every day and it has to matter when you step out on the pitch, no matter what team you’re representing, it has to mean something to you. The day it doesn’t mean something is the day you shouldn’t be playing.”
Despite making a handful of appearances in the Premier League, a change in management brought a change of fortunes for the Irishman; beginning the long-running series of loans that would come to dominate much of his career.
“When Steve Bruce took over from Roy, I wasn’t in the picture. I wasn’t his signing, so it was difficult. I could have sat down and stayed at Sunderland, I didn’t have to go anywhere. I wanted to play.
“I was probably to eager to go and impress at the time, and I took a couple of loan moves that I probably wasn’t in the right headspace for, wasn’t ideal timing, but family wise, my wife has always been very good. Its not ideal to be saying one day you’re wanting to settle down, then the next day that you’re moving around, and dragging her around from wherever we were living at the time and say we’re packing up the car to go to Scotland for three or four months.
“The human aspect isn’t ideal but it is a short career, and you need to make the most of it. Both performance wise and financial wise.”
A number of injuries fed in to this vicious circle, a need to move on, to put together a run of games, to find some consistency…
“I’d been through so many injuries. My career was meant to kick on at times… I went on loan to Blackpool in the Championship and it was going quite well, but I got appendicitis. I went to Coventry and when I was just about getting a gig in the team, I broke my foot, by the time I came back I went on loan to Hibs. Then at 28, getting a move to Northampton to work with Aidy Boothroyd who I’d worked with previously at Coventry, we were doing really well and got to a play off and I was scoring goals. The next season I couldn’t get myself fit and I ended up having double hernia surgery and then had an ankle problem…”
Finding himself struggling in England’s fourth tier in his late 20s, O’Donovan admits is not how he envisioned his career playing out.
Despite initially unconvinced, he opted to switch Northampton for Singapore. He didn’t know it at the time, but it would prove to be a life changing move.
“It got to the stage that I was getting so many set backs and injuries that when I got the chance to go and play for Brunei as their marquee player, it was kind of off rhythm with the season in the UK, I was thinking if I go here from February to October, by the time October comes I’d have played 30-odd games and scored plenty of goals and be back in the shop window. But when I did go away, I never really wanted to come back.
“I saw a different side to football, a different way to living life and it opened up the door, ultimately, for me to coming to Australia and making a life for myself over here.
“When I was younger, I definitely saw going to England as the be all end all. I realised in my mid to late twenties that it probably wasn’t.”
The A-League totally re-invigorated O’Donovan.
“I think I timed my move over here correctly and for the last six or seven years, I’ve been playing as a number 9, which is always my favoured position, scoring goals and playing for some really good clubs and got to live in a part of the world where the sun is always shining and I get to have a good football/life balance.
“The quality of football and the professionalism was outstanding, but also, the lifestyle. You get to live near the beach, raise a family, there’s plenty of opportunity here in Australia. I’m glad I came when I did.”
Last season, the now Australian citizen made a return for a second spell with the Newcastle Jets.
Having previously played in a Grand Final in the Red and Navy of Newcastle, he would be faced with an all together different prospect, embarking on an incredibly difficult season, even by Jets standards.
“It was very difficult last year. Obviously we lost our head coach, we lost our coaching staff, we lost five or six of our really good players, our international players. You’re talking the Dimi Petratos, the Wes Hoolahans, your creativity, Bobby Burns, Joe Ledley… We lost a lot of quality that we didn’t replace, that we didn’t have the finances to replace. The club looked within for their players, so we had a lot of young guys getting their go that had never played at this level before, either from the youth team or the state league and it was a baptism of fire for them.
“And Deansy came in as the manager, who has been around the club for a long time, but you know, he’d never been a head coach as such before, so it was a difficult moment for everybody.
“But as a senior player, I thought we done really well regarding keeping everything together. We had great unity, we had a really strong dressing room, and for us to not finish bottom was a little bit of a miracle with the finances that were available to the football club.
“The teams that were around us, the likes of Victory and all that, had a lot bigger budgets, they had five foreign players, which we had none, as I’m an Australian now, so to be competing at that level without that firepower shows you how strong that group and that dressing room was. I hope they don’t have to go through a spell like that again, because the supporters in all fairness deserve more.”
At the end of that tumultuous season, O’Donovan was amongst a number of experienced heads, including defensive stalwarts Nigel Boogaard and Nikolai Topor-Stanley, who departed the McDonald Jones Stadium.
Recently undertaking some media training with James Dodd’s Tactical Switch agency, many thought the free agent might be looking towards life after football.
“When you’re transitioning out, in a year or two, you’re looking at the coaching side of things, the media side of things as opportunities to stay in football. I love football, I’m passionate about football, I love talking about football, I’m obviously very well versed in all different levels having played at most of them, so that would be something that I would enjoy and be good at but I still think there’s plenty of playing still in me just yet.
There’s nothing concrete yet, I’m just being proactive, looking at my future opportunities.”
Despite rumoured interest from overseas and in the NPL, O’Donovan has his gaze firmly set on continuing his A-League adventure.
“Ideally I’d like to stay in the A-League. My goalscoring record is up there with anybody and that hasn’t changed. I was still moving around well last year and scoring goals in difficult moment for Newcastle Jets. I felt I played my part in achieving some bit of pride out of the season.
“I’ve plenty to offer. Being a good goalscorer, you need good service, but I want to stay a professional footballer form as long as I can. It’s all I know, I’ve no fear of coming out of the game eventually, but I’m certainly not there yet.
“I’m in a good place mentally, I just need to find the next opportunity and challenge.”