In his first game in Edinburgh for more than two years, Garry O’Connor, one of the most talented Scottish strikers of his generation, provided the 141 paying customers at Meadowbank Stadium with further cause to lament his remarkable fall from grace.
As the stocky Selkirk striker made the long, lonely walk of shame towards the dressing-room at the west end of the ground after being sent off in the last minute of last night’s 3-0 Lowland League defeat by Edinburgh City, the bright lights of the English Premier League, the wads of cash from Russia, and the joie de vivre of ripping up the SPL in his first spell at Hibs could hardly have seemed further away.
O’Connor’s career has been on a downward spiral for some time now, arguably since he turned out for Birmingham City in the English top flight less than four years ago, but certainly since he left Hibs in the wake of the 5-1 Scottish Cup final mauling by Hearts just over two years ago.
Until last night, the 31-year-old’s renaissance bid had been going pretty well, with six goals in five starts, allied to the loss of a stone and a half in weight, since his eyebrow-raising foray into the non-league ranks this summer. It was clear from chatting with Selkirk officials before last night’s match that the move has been a fruitful one. And despite his last-minute rush of blood, when he appeared to be shown a second yellow card – although it could easily have been deemed a straight red – for kicking out at City’s Ian McFarland, O’Connor showed enough hunger to suggest he is genuine about wanting to seize what is surely his final chance.
“It was just frustration from Gaz at the end,” lamented his manager Stevie Forrest. “You see that sort of thing so many times. The disappointing thing is that after five or six wonderful matches, the red card is going to make all the headlines, which is crap because he’s done brilliantly for us. That’s the first time he’s failed to score for us. He’s done incredibly well.”
Ten years ago today, a 21-year-old O’Connor was igniting Easter Road with a double for Tony Mowbray’s Hibs team in a 4-4 draw with Dundee. Riding the crest of a wave, the talented East Lothian youngster couldn’t have envisaged that a decade down the line he’d be back in EH7 trying desperately to revive his career in the Lowland League. To put his current plight into context, Kenny Miller, the last striker before him to leave Hibs for a seven-figure fee, finished top scorer in the SPL and was still Scotland’s first-choice forward when he was O’Connor’s current age. The sorry sight of the once-highly-regarded striker operating in such a humbling environment would have provided a stark warning for Sam Nicholson, the teenage Hearts winger who was in attendance to watch his friend Sean Guiney playing for Selkirk.
While O’Connor was clearly one of the less mobile players on the pitch, he was never found wanting in terms of effort and there were occasional flashes of the old quality, such as an early 20-yard strike which flew just past the post.
The Selkirk players, despite last night’s defeat, are certainly enjoying having such an illustrious team-mate. Phil Addison, O’Connor’s 21-year-old strike partner, was a youngster at Hibs and recalls watching him as a ball boy in his first spell and then playing alongside him in bounce games in his second spell. He said: “I definitely reckon he can get back to a decent level. His attitude’s been really good, he tries his hardest in every training session and in matches. It’s given all the other boys a massive lift playing with him. You can tell he’s been there and done it, and obviously he’s trying to get back into it and get back to a higher league. He blends in fine, he’s just one of the lads. He’s good fun.”
He wasn’t in the mood for any fun last night, though, as he slunk out of Meadowbank just before 10pm in shorts and figure-hugging t-shirt, clutching his designer shower bag. None of the curious interlopers who swelled the attendance at the decrepit old Commonwealth Stadium wanted to see O’Connor endure such ignominy on his return to the Capital. Not even McFarland, the Hearts-supporting City midfielder who was on the receiving end of the big forward’s frustration. “I tackled him and he just gave me a wee kick,” he said. “He was just a bit angry and he lashed out in the heat of the moment. There was no needle between us – that was the first altercation we had. There’s no hard feelings, though.
“There was loads of extra hype and the game felt a bit different because he was playing. I travelled to the game with Mark Osborne, who’s a Hibs fan, and he was absolutely buzzing for it. His touch was brilliant and you saw his quality when he almost put one in the top corner in the first five minutes. It can only be good for the Lowland League to get players like that in, so hopefully he can come back after his suspension and keep banging in the goals.”