Garry O'Connor: I was going to lose my wife, kids, everything

On a sparkling late '¨summer's day in North Berwick, the cafe plays the Beatles' In My Life. 'There are places I remember,' sings John Lennon, which is the cue for the heavily-tattooed footballer to indulge in some reminiscing.
The tattoos tell the story of Garry O'Connor's life. Picture Toby WilliamsThe tattoos tell the story of Garry O'Connor's life. Picture Toby Williams
The tattoos tell the story of Garry O'Connor's life. Picture Toby Williams

It’s a Friday, which at Hibernian used to be “Toni+Guy day”, says Garry O’Connor. Every eve-of-matchday without fail, the players would turn up at the Edinburgh crimpers with cards reading: “This entitles the bearer to a free haircut.” Sometimes O’Connor would be sat next to Derek Riordan and on one occasion Scott Brown was there at the same time. “All of us went every Friday; we had to look our best for the game,” he laughs. “I don’t know what Deeks was thinking about when he got that daft white wispy tail thing but I always reckoned Scotty looked better when he had hair. I don’t like the skinhead look he’s got now.”

Visit the hairdresser almost as often as Princess Diana and you better play well. But this lot did. Along with Kevin Thomson, Stephen Whittaker, Ian Murray, Gary Caldwell and the rest, these were Tony Mowbray’s Hibees, a fine young side with the gallus skills to match their extravagant plumages who reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup three years running.

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But on the eve of the 2006 semi against Hearts, O’Connor, the hulking striker from Port Seton whose idea 
of downtime was a game of bowls, 
was sold to Lokomotiv Moscow for 
£1.6 million. It was a gobsmacking move for the lad and one which would have shuddering repercussions. “I had the world and then I very nearly lost everything,” he says.

We’ll come to all of that later, the booze and the drugs, the trashed 
Ferrari and the £2,000 tracksuit, but first, how did it feel as a Hibs fan to finally see them smash the hoodoo and lift the cup?

“It was brilliant. I had tickets for Hampden but didn’t go, I’m afraid. I was there to see them lose the League Cup final and just had a bad feeling. So I watched the game in the house with the family and thought they were magnificent. Was I envious? To finally win the Scottish Cup for Hibs – of course I was! These guys are legends now. What must it be like to be David Gray, scorer of the winning goal? That couldn’t have happened to a better guy. For me to be part of that would have been 
absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, while I’m 33 now, I actually feel more like 43.”

O’Connor is player-manager of 
Selkirk in the Lowland League but hasn’t featured in any of their games thus far this season and won’t be ready to bagatelle any more centre-backs in pursuit of another goal until he’s had an operation on a troublesome back.

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“I like being a manager but miss not playing,” he says. “The last goal I scored was against Edinburgh Uni. David Robertson, who won the Scottish Cup with Dundee United, played with us last season. He hit a shot which came off my bum. I just swivelled and their defenders didn’t have a clue. I tucked the ball into the far corner with my right foot. My last-ever? If it is to be then I’ll just have to deal with that.”

Gray, according to O’Connor, 
will now become a role model for young players at Hibs, illustrating 
the benefits of good habits and hard work. But our man believes that down in the Borders he can be an anti-role model. “We’ve got a young squad and I’m trying to give these guys what I hope will be the benefit of my experience. I wouldn’t like them making the same mistakes as me and I want to help them become better people off the park.”

In North Berwick today, in our rendezvous with its yummy mummies, sun-blasted ageing hippy chicks and what looks like a Women’s Guild executive coffee morning in the corner, O’Connor couldn’t be more conspicuous if he tried. With his black Mercedes 4x4 stationed outside, he’s sporting skimpy denim shorts as befitting the balmy weather but there’s no chance those arms are going to get tanned because they’re covered in ink. The tattoos tell the story of his life. They bear the names of his wife Lisa, who he will thank many times for standing by him, his three children Josh, 12, Millie, eight, and three-year-old Cruz. “And that,” he says, pointing to a gruesome scene on his right arm, “is Saturn stomping on the devil’s head. That’s what I’m trying to do to my demons.”

So far he thinks he’s doing a pretty good job and, though he might appear incongruous in the town that’s become a haven for fund managers who whizz up to the capital on the train, he loves his life in North Berwick. It’s a simple life after the “craziness” he encountered, but also caused, in Moscow, Birmingham, Barnsley and Siberia. Now teetotal – he didn’t even sink a beer in honour of Hibs’ great cup triumph – he finds pleasure in the simple things, like walking round North Berwick Law. “These past two years have been the happiest time for me. I’ve got my wife, I’ve got the kids, that’s all I need,” he says.

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But he almost blew the lot. A reported £4 million went on fast cars, the best champagne and other indulgences of a footballer swamped by too much, too soon. There were scrapes with the law and altercations with Elvis impersonators. “It got to the stage where I was going to lose Lisa, the kids, everything. I looked in the mirror and said: ‘What the f**k are you doing? Get a f****n’ grip of yourself.’”

Now, as well as mentoring the players at Selkirk, O’Connor has to show son Josh the error of his old man’s ways. The boy plays for Hibs under-13s and is showing good promise. “We’ve had that discussion,” he says, meaning drugs, though he never quite mentions them by name. “They’re always going to be around,” he adds, meaning that he’ll never manage to shake off the fact he took cocaine. “Like a parrot sitting on my shoulder, just gnawing away,” he says of the stigma.

“Josh is a really good kid and he’ll definitely not make the same mistakes as me. He knows what Dad did. I’ve been 100 per cent honest about that. So he’s asked me: ‘What was it like driving a Bentley? Did you really crash a Ferrari?’ I told him: ‘Well, my mate crashed the Ferrari and, aye, the Bentley was nice.’”

Does he miss the Ferrari? “No.” Does he miss the Dolce & Gabbana trackie or anything about his blingy life? He laughs: “Not at all. When money pours into your bank account like that you can do what you want. You can buy what you want, fly where you want and your bank manager can arrange you a £50,000 overdraft just like that. That was the lifestyle, that was the madness…”

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O’Connor signed for Hibs while still 15 after scoring a million goals, more or less, on the public parks of Edinburgh. Playing with Riordan for the famous boys’ clubs Hutchison Vale and Salvesen, they regularly hit double figures in games. His dad Lawrence was a Partick Thistle prospect who, after failing to make the grade, got himself a good job with Scottish & Newcastle. O’Connor didn’t have a trade, if one had been required in his case, and urges his Selkirk youngsters to have that contingency.

He’s a big fan of boys’ clubs and would rather kids played there than joined club academies. He broke through at Easter Road before Riordan “not because I had more talent, just raw physique”. He was some unit even then and manager Alex McLeish reckoned he could cope with a man’s game. “Aye and at training I’d have [John] Yogi Hughes coming down the back of my legs saying: ‘You’re not getting past me, big man.’”

He chuckles at mention of his strike partner, not any kind of unit, a skelf of a boy back then, quick and deadly. “I tried to sign Deeks for Selkirk but he wasn’t interested. He said: ‘It’s alright for a big muckle guy in that league, Gaz, but they’ll kick me to f**k.’ ‘They won’t,’ I said, ‘you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the standard.’ I think Deeks still reckons he could be playing for Hibs.”

Capped for Scotland by Berti Vogts, O’Connor then proceeded to spout the kind of quotes which were destined to come back and bite one of the most effective backsides in Scottish football in the early noughties. His sights were set on playing for Manchester United. Rangers’ interest in him was “great to hear”, he said. Then: “Who’s to say I won’t end up at Real Madrid?” Then: “I want to end my career with 
£10 million in the bank.”

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The last quote would have been echoed by many footballers in his position, although perhaps silently. “Folk probably thought that was arrogance – maybe it was,” he says now. The tabloids dubbed him Garry O’Cocky but soon he was Garry O’Kohhop, the name on his shirt as the first Briton to play in the money-drenched Russian League. The sudden and dramatic flight to Moscow wasn’t his idea. “I was willing to hold on at Hibs, to see what that good young team could have done, and urged the chairman [Rod Petrie] to try and pay the lads a little bit more to keep the side together. But he and Tony [Mowbray] told me I wasn’t going to get another offer like this and for the club it was unturndownable.”

O’Connor’s wages rocketed from £2,000 a week to £16,000. The fee helped Hibs build their smart training complex and the player also handed his signing-on fee to the club. “It went into youth development, which I was glad about. I didn’t need it, given what I was going to be earning, but I could do with it now!”

An O’Connor strike won Lokomotiv the Russian Cup. His apartment was in a block where former president Yuri Andropov had resided. “It’s superb,” he said at the time. “I was given a choice of three and the one I went for has chandeliers and a jacuzzi.” But he struggled to settle in Moscow, Lisa having an even tougher time, especially after she fell pregnant with Millie.

McLeish showed faith in his former protege twice over, first taking him to Birmingham City and later offering him a second chance with the national side after O’Connor had gone AWOL before a game in Ukraine having rushed back to Moscow to be with Lisa. Those chandeliers, and the fact their apartment was on the route Vladimir Putin’s motorcade travelled each day to the Kremlin, didn’t hold much glamour when you were suffering from morning sickness on top of homesickness.

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O’Connor rates McLeish and Mowbray the best managers of his career and remembers the latter sitting his Hibs charges down to watch Any Given Sunday, the American football movie
starring Al Pacino. “The inspiring speeches about fighting every inch for the team really got in the heads of the boys.”

At Selkirk, who’ve made a poor start and currently sit bottom of the 
Lowland, O’Connor says he’s trying to utilise the best bits of Mowbray. He, too, has a coltish team who he wants to be brave and pass the ball. Again, he emphasises how doing the wrong things as a player might help him do the right ones as a boss. “I can see when players are feeling down or they’ve had a bit of a bevvy. I can spot the telltale signs because I’ve been there myself.”

It was when he wasn’t playing – injuries plagued him during his career and all told nine operations were required – that what O’Connor calls the “dark days” would take him over. “When I wasn’t in squads I got down. I got depressed and maybe there was a bit of [a] mental health [issue]. I went and got the buzz elsewhere. That started with drink and then I’d find myself hanging around with the wrong people,” he says, still not quite able to mention his recreational drug of choice.

His excesses, he repeats, will always be referenced. “You can’t rectify anything,” he says, and starts comparing his sins to that of a long-term prisoner, only to stop. Possibly he’s just remembered that his sentence was a stint of community service weeding pensioners’ gardens. It’s a hint of the bombastic pronouncements which used to be an O’Connor speciality, along with the relentless goalscoring. One seems to have disappeared and the other sadly may soon go the same way.

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Well, you can rectify. You can’t change the past but you can learn from it and that’s what O’Connor appears to be doing. He’s got a start in management and is willing to work hard at it. “Nothing is going to be handed me on a plate anymore,” he says. Right now, though, he has a much more important task – revving up that much more modest motor to collect his youngest from nursery.