Conor McCormack Interview

Published in Hoops Scene Issue 12 (Shamrock Rovers v FC Copenhagen – 2 August 2011)

Last week’s Champions League game for Shamrock Rovers took place in the Parken Stadium north of a certain Danish brewing company who also sponsor FC Copenhagen. The Danish champions were probably playing the best side in League of Ireland football. While Rovers don’t do away wins in the European Cup losing 1-0, they did put in a fine performance on a night that certainly did call for every Hoop fan to be proud of their team.

Rovers player Conor McCormack can be also proud of his own performance as the 21 year old looked like a Champions League veteran in both last week’s game and in the previous away match against Flora Tallinn. Rovers manager Michael O’Neill gave McCormack a crucial role in front of the back four which provided a solid defensive base. McCormack was a second half substitute in the home leg against Flora Tallinn and has cemented a starting line up since then. “It was a great atmosphere,” said McCormack of the 1-0 win in Tallaght against Flora. “No one really knew what to expect with it being our first time in the Champions League.”

In Europe, avoiding conceding a crucial away goal is a high priority for the home team and against Flora the Hoops were very close to conceding that away goal after giving away a penalty in the first half. However Alan Mannus got down to make a vital penalty save. “They were lucky enough I think to get the break and get the penalty,” said McCormack, “but thankfully Big Al saved it. Justice was done as we went straight upfield to score and rightly so.” Mannus has subsequently moved on from Rovers to SPL side St. Johnstone. “He is massive loss and he is a big character,” said McCormack of the goalkeeping situation. “Ryan Thompson is here now and I’m confident he can step up.”

Tonight Copenhagen will be looking for an away goal to effectively end the tie. However, Flora when they came to Tallaght played a similar game to many of the domestic visitors to the Dublin 24 venue this season. They sat back and soaked up the Rovers pressure hoping to run the clock down and hit the Hoops on the break. Rovers have had some good practice in trying to break down teams playing that style and have mixed the team formation playing 4-3-3 on a number of occasions including against the Estonian visitors. “Like most European teams when they come away from home, they want to keep it tight and play five across the middle,” said the Carlingford native. “Sometimes it is a wee bit hard to break down. We had the majority of the ball but we deserved to win as we were the better side. It is a great experience to play in the Champions League and a great thing to have under your belt. In the second leg in Tallinn, McCormack felt Rovers deserved to progress. “We did well. We knew it was going to be tough. It is a different climate and a different culture of football. We did our homework on them to get the 0-0 draw that brings us through.”

Of course, Conor McCormack has plenty of continental European football experience having joined Shamrock Rovers this season following a spell with Italian Serie B team, Triestina. His time in Italy came after beginning his career at another big European club, Manchester United. “I went on trial when I was just coming up on 15,” recalled McCormack of his time with United. “I was lucky enough that they signed me up. I was on a scholarship but I was told I wasn’t going to get a professional contract that year. I could have stayed on for another year but I wanted to get a professional contract and play football.” McCormack had the opportunity to stay at United and had offers from elsewhere in England and in Scotland. However, he felt he would look for opportunities elsewhere. “I thought it would be better to leave United and try to get a chance elsewhere. There was word about going to Italy and my agent wondered would I be interested? It came out of the blue. I went and took the trial. I said I would go over for a week and see how I liked it. They liked me so I signed a three year deal. There are not many Irish players playing in Europe and I thought that might suit me a wee bit better. ”

Ultimately it was a frustrating time in Italy for the former Ireland youth international as he got limited playing time. “There were only a handful of matches for the first team, some friendlies and the odd cup game,” said McCormack who was player of the year in 2008 for his Ireland u17 team. “In the two and half years I was over there, it was way below what I expected. There were different managers coming in with six different managers in my two and a half years there. I kept getting pushed back and I thought I should have got a chance myself. Different managers came in with different ideas and different players. Every two months there would be a change in the manager and directors so it kind of went pear shaped. I wasn’t happy and the wages weren’t coming. I decided I had to get out of there come January so I ended up cancelling my contract and coming back here. And luckily enough the gaffer [Michael O’Neill] got me here and signed me up so I was happy with that.”

It was that European experience that meant Michael O’Neill had no hesitation in bringing McCormack into the starting line in the Champions League. Speaking on the touchline after the game in Tallinn, O’Neill was quick to compliment his player. “I thought he was fantastic,” said his manager. “He was always in the right place at the right time to pick the game up for us. He’s very disciplined, probably more disciplined than any player we have. He had two and a half years in Italy learning the game and that system. It paid dividends because he looked comfortable.”

McCormack himself recongised that his own European experience was an important factor in O’Neill putting him in the starting line up. “He said that I could do a job and I think that I did and I’m happy with that. Coming over here, European football is a lot different than the Irish football or the English game. I might have had a wee bit more experience than the rest of the lads including the climate which I would have been used to in the two and a half years over there. He said he had faith in me and he wanted to put me in there.”

In Europe last season, the Hoops came up against Italian giants Juventus in the Europa League. “This time last year I was in a pizzeria watching them!” said McCormack about the Juve game. The players involved in that game will have their own opinion on Italian football but McCormack is well placed to compare the League of Ireland with Italian football having spent time playing in both countries. “It is a lot more tactical and technical over there,” explains the 21 year old. “The game itself is slower and you can get on the ball a lot more. There is not an awful lot of pressure on you. The speed of the game is a lot slower. Over here, in England and in Scotland, the football is a lot different, it is a lot quicker and more intense. The climate has a big part in the game as you are playing in 30 degrees of heat you can’t go flying around the pitch the whole time!”

With the Hoops battling to retain their title at the top of the league, with his first taste of Champions League football and a Setanta Sports Cup winners medal in his pocket, McCormack must be pretty pleased with how the season has progressed for him. “It is great. Looking back on last year, I was in and out of the team and not really getting a game over there. I’ve come here and the gaffer has had faith in me, he’s played me and I’ve come on leaps and bounds. I think I’ve improved as a player and I’m happy with the way things are going at the minute and that I’ve achieved a bit of success and hopefully there is more to come.”

While Serie A has some strong following amongst many Rovers fans, there is less interest in Serie B. So McCormack was certainly an unknown prospect for most Hoops fans. They were unsure of how much game time he would get but as soon as he got some early in the season, it was clear how much potential this 21 year old has. Was the player himself worried about getting in team and what position he would line up in? “Well I knew it was going to be tough with the quality that is in the team. The gaffer has brought in most of the best players from last season around the league into the team and put them together. I knew it would be a tricky task but I’ve got a few games under my belt and I just have to keep pushing forward and try to cement a place in the team. I will keep thinking positive and do better. I prefer to play my football probably as a defensive midfielder but I don’t mind where I play really. I will give 110% and try and do my best. I don’t mind really where I play, I just want to get playing and then I’m happy. I do enjoy playing in a sweeping role in midfield in front of the back four.”

Across all the competitions, McCormack has made over twenty appearances for the Hoops. He was handed his competitive debut for Rovers in the Setanta Sports Cup and he started in all the games in that competition including the win in the final over Dundalk. His performance in the first leg of the semi final away to Sligo Rovers is the game when it was clear to see that Michael O’Neill had acquired a real gem in McCormack. With the game live on Setanta TV, the Hoops lined out with an offensive 4-3-3 system and proceeded to play Sligo Rovers off the park. Central to the win on the night was McCormack who started in his preferred defensive midfield role. “It was my first real game in midfield,” recalled McCormack about the 2-0 win in the Showgrounds. “The gaffer told me before the match to watch out for Joey Ndo and to try and stop him. All the lads were telling me how he is a great player in the league as I wouldn’t really know much about him having not been here or seen many games. All the lads were saying how good and skillful he is and that he’ll try and nutmeg you but I just decided to put that to the back of my mind. I went about playing my own game, to stop the opposition, get on the ball and do a job for the team. I think I did that and stopped one of their best players and we went on to win the match. So that was a big point to the game and I’m delighted as we went on to win the competition.”

It was a similar performance that McCormack put in against Flora that helped the Hoops bring Copenhagen to Tallaght tonight. McCormack is under no illusion as to the difficult task the Hoops will face against a team that made the last 16 of the Champions League last season and hold a 1-0 lead after the first leg. “It is going to be a tough ask,” said McCormack about playing a team that emerged from the Champions League group stage in the same group as Barcelona. “They drew at Stamford Bridge last season. We will go out there and have nothing to lose. They are going to be a tough side. But we will go out and give everything. We will go out an enjoy it and take in the experience.”

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