Brendan O’Callaghan had a dream. It was to play for Dundalk, and he did. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Brendan O’Callaghan had a dream. One which developed during his childhood days living in Pearse Park, under the Oriel Park floodlights, a couple of doors down from Barry Kehoe. It was to play for Dundalk, and he did.
The Blackrock man had two stints in the senior squad, having progressed through the youth and B teams, but for differing reasons he was unable to quite nail down his place. Yet there is little grounds for regret, particularly given his decade-plus in the League of Ireland yielded two First Division winners’ medals.
There was a distinguished Summer League career as well, league and various cup victories coming on top of a pair of intermediate championship gongs with Sean O’Mahony’s.
A Louth minor and U21, he holds the unique distinction of having lined out for Clan na Gael, Dundalk Gaels and O’Mahony’s, surely making him the answer to a tricky quiz question.
But soccer was his game and Dundalk his life from a young age. His parents “didn’t know whether the ball was pumped or stuffed” until he began starring for St. Dominic’s underage, playing U11 at seven under David Muckian and Noel Mulholland, and Seán McCabe and Francie Callan as he moved through the ranks.
A call would come from “the great Tommy Connolly” to join-up with The Lilywhites’ youth outfit, the year was 1981.
“Tommy was just great for local lads and the time and effort he put in was tremendous,” O’Callaghan tells The Democrat of his former supremo.
“I haven’t enough words to express my admiration for him. I was 15 years of age and he took me to a tournament in France; I’d never been out of the country in my life, so to get to France to play football for Dundalk, it was unbelievable.
“He took us training, the old-type of training, in Ravensdale forest, up the back of the wall, up and down the stand at Oriel - some places I’d never been to before in my life.
“And all I ever wanted to do was play for Dundalk. It had nothing to do with money or anything else, it was just to play for Dundalk; to basically play football. Going up to play with the youth team, it was a dream for me; I was delighted by it.
“I used to sell programmes outside the ground as a young fella and then get in to see the matches for free; get a cup of tea or Bovril at half-time.
“Oriel has been in my life since I was a child. I do be telling my kids about the Linfield match and the Glasgow Celtic match, the Liverpool matches, and trying to explain to them... Even though they go up now, they do think I’m adding bits on all the time. It played a major role in my childhood up until I started playing.”
And it still does. O’Callaghan remains a season ticket holder.
“Tommy Connolly rang me up in ’91: ‘Dundalk want you back’.”
Despite impressing in his teenage days at Oriel, senior team chances were few and far between. O’Callaghan had made a few appearances by 1986, when he opted to join John Murphy at Monaghan United.
He’d already, by that stage, been through the rigmarole. Himself and “good friend” Joey Cunningham were Leinster Youths teammates and progressed to trials with the Irish international team under the care of former Dundalk boss Liam Tuohy.
“I really, really did well,” O’Callaghan recalls. “Ken DeMange and Martin Russell were the blue-eyed boys, at Liverpool and Manchester United, but the two of us, Joey and I, did very well and Liam Tuohy came over to me and took my name.
“Leinster Youths were playing at Oriel Park and Tommy Connolly phoned me up and says, ‘Liam Tuohy is coming down to see you’. But, for some reason, it was the worst game of football I think I ever had. I got cramp, everything. The whole lot fell. There was talk of teams here, there and everywhere looking at me, but that’s as far as it ever went.”
On to Monaghan, in Division One, he scored a few goals before the end of the campaign and was looking forward to the next term, only for Murphy to move on, leaving the striker with lightning-quick feet in limbo.
Bellurgan United had O’Callaghan for a few games subsequently, before Johnny Byrne took him to Shelbourne. Though his time at Harrold’s Cross ended abruptly.
“Johnny lost his job not long after and Pat Byrne took over, and I never heard anything more from Shels,” he adds. “Monaghan rang me up, Danny Doran was after taking over, and he asked me to go back, so I did.
“I’d a successful time there. We weren’t doing great, but I was doing well - I think I was third or fourth in the goalscoring charts - and happy enough. But halfway through the season Danny called me in and said: ‘You’re leaving the club’. I says, ‘okay, right, but I’m happy enough here’.
“He says, ‘Drogheda want to sign you’. Obviously a deal was struck with Drogheda and Monaghan would have been happy with the few pound.”
It was at United Park where he tasted First Division success and promotion for the first time. He even managed to bag a goal in a League Cup defeat by Dundalk at Oriel Park, a match better remembered for the appearance of Peter Barnes, the former England international, for The Boynesiders.
“I’d two seasons with Drogheda and I absolutely loved them, playing against full-strength English teams who were over for friendlies, Aston Villa, Manchester United, etc. But Tommy Connolly rang me up in ’91: ‘Dundalk want you back’. I absolutely jumped at the chance; there was no hesitation because I always wanted to go back to my hometown team. I felt really good in myself going back.”
Determined to seize his opportunity under Turlough O’Connor, he hit pre-season training hard and felt in great shape, until an unfortunate incident resulted in a medial knee ligament injury which left him treatment table bound for much of the year.
He got back towards the end of the campaign, scoring a few goals, and was mentally ready to make up for lost time the following season, the second year of his deal.
Then came another call from Connolly - not one he’d have hoped for.
“Tommy came back to me and said: ‘I think Turlough is signing another centre-forward. I don’t think you’re part of his plans’. I wanted to stay, though, and was prepared to hang-on after getting over the injury, but as things change and you get older... I got a phonecall from Cobh Ramblers.”
He rejected the Cork crew firstly, despite the terms on offer being quite attractive. Newly married and working for Coke in Drogheda, a transfer to the deepest south didn’t seem plausible. But another conversation a few weeks later turned his head and he decided to put pen to paper with The Rams, who were in the second tier.
Training with Dundalk during the week, his matchday routine would involve either taking a train from Heuston Station or flying from Dublin Airport with Stephen Henderson. It’s a bonkers scenario when compared to how players and teams operate now.
“It wouldn’t happen now that you could train with Dundalk and play with somebody else. Tommy let me train and I played for two years with Cobh.”
Promotion in year one led to top-flight meetings with Dundalk in the 1993/’94 season and so having prepared with The Lilywhites all week, travelling to and from Cobh with them, he pitted their downfall over 90 minutes. Talk about having a mole in the camp!
Jim McLaughlin offered the striker a return to Drogheda, which he took, though he could see his League of Ireland tenure petering out as the games gradually progressed towards Friday night kick-offs.
The transition wasn’t conducive to O’Callaghan’s day-job and so he retired from senior football just past his 30th birthday. Although much of his playing success was still to come.
“Stephen Staunton’s last club game in this country - people don’t know this - was for Pearse Celtic.”
O’Callaghan only ever played Summer League for Pearse Celtic. It was a time where the Blackrock lads featured for Rock, the Quaysiders for Quay, Peninsula men with Bellurgan and so on. It was the closest soccer came to the parish rule.
And so, every off-season the forward left League of Ireland duty to play in a majorly competitive division involving the best Dundalk had to offer. It was great; healthy, even. No elitism or snobbery. Just pure love of the game and an acknowledgement that players were exactly that, not commodities.
“We played League of Ireland football, but everyone played in the Summer League too; there were no restrictions at the beginning. Tommy Mac played, Barry Kehoe, Willie Crawley, Ciarán Wiseman, Denis Cunningham, Tom McNulty… all the lads I grew up with, they all played both.
“The restrictions came in after a while and I’m not saying it ruined Summer League, because there’s good men involved still, the likes of Robbie Rafferty, Brendan Scollon and Gussie Hearty - Gerry Gover and Larry O’Rourke as well - but it ruined the quality by bringing in the restrictions.
“The standard was so high and the likes of Ciarán Wiseman, Willie Crawley, Colm McConville, Fintan Lynch, the Smiths, I reckon had they been training full-time, five days’ a week, I’m not saying they’d have been on the level of the Dundalk players at the minute, because they’re exceptional, but they could have been top League of Ireland players. And yet they were playing in the Summer League. That was the standard.
“Actually, Stephen Staunton’s last club game in this country - people don’t know this - was for Pearse Celtic. He never actually played for Dundalk. Stephen and his brother, David, would have played with Pearse.”
O’Callaghan won league, Clancy and McConville Cup titles with Pearse and in one particular year, 1992, he claimed glory in the latter, featured for Cobh in the League of Ireland and lifted the Seamus Flood Cup with Sean O’Mahony’s.
He began playing GAA for Clans, before the railway line divided up the territory between the Ecco Road men and Gaels, for whom he was now obliged to represent. And he did, Danny Culligan and Tony McDonnell presiding over many of his juvenile years at The Ramparts club, leading to his selection as a half-back on a star-studded Wee County minor side.
“Our minor team, I can’t understand quite how we didn’t win the minor championship with the team we had,” O’Callaghan says, looking back. “The two O’Hanlons (Seamus and Kevin), Stefan White, Gerry Curran… Good, good players and a lot of them went on to play for Louth seniors. I remember going down to Westmeath and they beat us by a point. Danny Nugent, Danny Culligan, Pádraig Hamill and Pat D’arcy, I think, were over the team.”
Almost forced into choosing “one or the other”, he was always going to pursue the soccer route, until a call a few years later led to his inclusion on a Louth U21 team well-beaten by Meath, who had Bernard Flynn up front, in the Leinster Championship.
Albeit not his preferred game, Gaelic football was still something O’Callaghan wanted to play and O’Mahony’s afforded him the opportunity.
“In those days, we’d a lot of soccer players. At the time it was said that we couldn’t win a league match but we were always favourites for the championship. We used to be able to get a team out for the championship and I think teams feared drawing us.
“It’d depend on what day we could get the ‘soccer heads’ together and we always tried to get a team for the championship. Especially in ’92, that’s how that one panned out. Since then, they’re a great GAA club and all focussed on GAA.”
His youngest son, Liam, plays for Rock Celtic, having worked under his father during years of schoolboys involvement. The combination wasn’t by design. Brendan stood watching a session one day in which the assigned coaches were submerged by kids.
“Will you take that half for a few minutes?” he was asked. The period would extend to a decade, however, in which time he became au fait with the inner-workings of juvenile football.
He’s against the introduction of “elite” teams at U13 and U15 level especially, the League of Ireland versions, and regrets the lack of local involvement within the confines of Oriel Park. One day, he hopes to see a lad Dundalk born and bred back in a successful first-team. Getting the chance that he once did.