History Boys | Kevin O’Connor

Kevin O’Connor is a Brentford legend. What more can be said about the utility man – who graced the Griffin Park turf for 16 years – that hasn’t already been said?

Well, until now, the 36-year-old has never given an in-depth view into the 2008/09 title-winning season from his own perspective. It was a season of milestones for him: the first (and only) red card, the 300th start, the first silverware.

But perhaps most poignantly of all, it was the season in which Kevin helped to lead his boyhood club out from the doldrums. Out from League Two where the Bees had so ignominiously fallen to at the culmination of the 2006/07 season.

It requires no more than a second of deliberation for him to label the 2007 relegation his least-fond memory as a player.

He recounts to BEES: “Without a shadow of a doubt that is the worst time here, because you feel like you are letting people down, people could effectively lose their jobs. Especially for myself where I’ve been here for so long, to be part of the team that gets relegated and, not only that, relegated with three games to go. Embarrassing isn’t the word. It was a real tough time.

“I remember it because we’d just come off the back of two decent seasons under Martin Allen, then he left, which was a little bit surprising, but later you learn why he left.

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“Some players left, the squad wasn’t as strong and we struggled – we really struggled. Even at the start of the season, I think we were top or second after six games but we were hanging in games and the luck was riding with us. I just knew it was going to be a long, hard season and unfortunately, we weren’t good enough as a squad both individually and collectively and we deserved to get relegated.”

Having initially struggled under Terry Butcher – who Kevin describes as ‘an amazing person’ – in English football’s fourth tier, it was his assistant Andy Scott who took over the reins on a caretaker basis, before he signed a five-year deal in the summer of 2008 – his first senior management role.

Younger Brentford fans may be intrigued to know that Kevin and Andy had, in fact, been team-mates during the 1999/00 and 2000/01 seasons and had even played lined up alongside one another on 12 occasions. And though there is always a significant probability that decisions might not be received well, particularly by players who were once equal with their current superior, Kevin reveals the transition was relatively smooth on the whole.

He continues: “I was young when I played in the same Brentford side as Andy but I was always OK with him when he was one of the senior players.

“Then when he took over he was good with me. He spoke honestly and openly with me and that first six or seven months when he took over, things were really good – I was playing well and the team were playing well and I have to credit Scotty and Terry Bullivant because they got us winning games.

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“Somehow, we all started playing better; they got us playing a certain way, which got us results and brought the qualities out in the players we had. That was a real skill of Andy’s and he did that really well. That season we finished really strongly and nearly made the League Two play-offs from being right down the league, which raised spirits again and people could then look forward.

“The next season started and I was out of the team, though, but I wouldn’t say that was his fault. He brought players in and played them in front of me, which I had to accept and try to work my way back into the team. It took a while but I managed to do that in the end.

“That was a challenging time, going from doing so well as a team and I thought I played well individually towards the end of the season, to then come in during pre-season and suddenly not be in the team, that was a tough spell for me but I bided my time and hung in there, really.”

Named captain for 2008/09 after the departure of John Mackie, Kevin started the first three games of the domestic campaign, before he was sent off for a mis-timed lunge on future team-mate Ben Strevens against Dagenham and Redbridge, just 14 minutes after replacing Craig Pead. He was subsequently used sporadically by Andy Scott and failed to nail down a starting spot until November 2008, losing the captaincy to Adam Newton.

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“Newts was experienced in that role, having been captain at Luton and other places, so it was nothing new to him,” he continues. “He was a good pro; someone you could chat to, listen to and have good debates with. He was great and I had no issues with that whatsoever. My only thing was that I wanted the opportunity to start in the team that season and I didn’t get it.”

But as he gradually edged his way back into contention, Kevin formed a strong midfield connection with Marcus Bean, who enjoyed the most goal-laden spell of his career having been given freedom to attack with the full knowledge the man who stayed back was one of the hardest workers the club has ever seen.

“It [the partnership] was brilliant. Beany would be the one who’d get forward and I’d be the holding midfielder, so to speak, but we complimented each other really well. We worked extremely hard and put our bodies on the line; he’d get in the box and score and few goals and I’d hopefully stop them at the other end, so I think it worked really well.

“I very much enjoyed playing in there because I was always in the mix, always involved in games and I could influence them more from that position.”

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With just three defeats in the opening 23 games, by the time the midway point of the season came around, the likelihood of the club being in the mix for promotion to League One was growing stronger.

Successive 2-0 victories over Bournemouth and Exeter in the days after Christmas saw Brentford trail leaders Wycombe by five points at the turn of the year, a fact that evokes a fond memory from Kevin. But which other games does he recall 10 years down the line?

He said: “Our bonuses were set at a certain date near Christmas – if we were in the top six, we’d get a certain bonus. Nothing amazing but something that would always help the boys for Christmas.

“I remember we went to Exeter and won 2-0. They were up and around it with us but we went there, won 2-0 and everyone was really happy because we’d secured a few hundred quid for Christmas for themselves and their families.

“At that stage is just felt like we just had to keep the momentum going. We had a good squad, good players, worked extremely hard for each other and we’d give anyone a good game.

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“We played Shrewsbury away and then Rochdale away I think, roughly, in February time. They were both in the play-offs with us; we went to Shrewsbury and won 3-1 – 3-0 up at half-time – and went to Rochdale and won 2-1.

“We dominated both games and I remember coming off the pitch in both of those games thinking, “We are going to do this”. The games where you just out-perform the teams around you, they were the ones that made me think we could achieve promotion that season.

“Jordan Rhodes scored a hat-trick against Shrewsbury and looking back now and what he’s done since, he’s got to be one of the best players from that season, for me. When he played his first game away at Macclesfield I wasn’t so sure how good he was and then in the coming games, he was brilliant.

“He scored some really, really important goals for us, including Accrington away in injury-time when we were losing 1-0, which put us top on the Tuesday night. Horrible, freezing and the pitch was just a bog.”

It was also a season where an incredible milestone was hit. One-club men are a rare species in modern football, but Kevin is one of those few players who can boast having spent their entire professional playing career at one club. It’s even more of a rarity to see such a player continuing to revel in success behind the scenes three years after retirement. And on 7 February 2009, the former Ireland U21 international pulled on the red and white to make his 300th start for the Bees.

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Being the modest individual he is, it’s something he plays down to this day.

“What I remember, I think, was the pitch was almost waterlogged and not many games took place that, but they made sure ours took place,” he explains. “We were 3-0 up at half-time and he took me off after about an hour to save my legs, and Charlie MacDonald was taken off too, having scored a hat-trick.

“That was nice but to me it is just a number. It was nice, but it was more important that we won, especially when other teams didn’t play, so they’d see our result and think “Bloody hell!” They then had to go and win to keep up with us.”

But in spite of all the targets that were achieved and challenges that were overcome, it can’t be said that the 2008/09 season was a perfect one for Kevin, on a personal level, as he missed the final 10 games of the season with a knee ligament injury.

“I played against Barnet at home, I fell and my knee just bent underneath me. I felt something straight away,” he concedes.

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“That was a tough one because with 10 games to go I got this injury and never played again that season. It was tough, but again we won that game 1-0. We didn’t play very well that night at Griffin Park and the next morning my knee was unbelievably sore – I knew it was something quite important that I’d injured. I was pushing to try and get back for the last few games but I couldn’t make it.

“I remember training for two or three days in the build-up to Dagenham away [on 21 April 2009]. I didn’t make the squad for that and rightly so because I hadn’t trained enough. If I’d come through that I might’ve been in the squad for the next week but I broke down in training again and the knee just needed more time to recover.

“It was really frustrating. I was a nightmare watching the games from the stands because I’d be kicking every ball, especially with the importance of the games as well. I missed some big ones but the lads did fantastically to get us over the line so I can’t complain too much.

“They [the injuries throughout the squad] didn’t affect the mentality, it was luck bad luck and just made things harder than they needed to be. All credit to Scotty who brought in some other players on loan, including Billy Clarke who scored some important goals for us and we just got the job done in the end. It quite possibly could have been easier if we’d all stayed fit but that’s football.”

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That meant Kevin wasn’t part of the team that sealed the title win away at Darlington. But not only was he not named in the starting lineup, nor the squad, he was also denied the chance to travel to County Durham.

He takes a regretful gulp.

“No, I didn’t go. Because we travelled to the Dagenham game, it didn’t work out and we lost, I think Scotty changed his thoughts and didn’t want everyone to travel up to Darlington. The injuries didn’t travel so I watched it on Soccer Saturday. “

Yet on the balmy afternoon of Saturday 2 May 2009, Kevin, alongside Alan Bennett, lifted the League Two trophy aloft in front of a crowd of over 10,000.

“That was very surreal,” he admits. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of those days, really. It was an amazing atmosphere and to know we’d already won the league and then to win that game as well. Newts scored a really good goal and it was just a party atmosphere. The reason you play football is for days like that, you actually manage to achieve something, people are pleased with you and you have a medal around your neck.

“I managed to make my 500th appearance on the final day of the 2013/14 season against Stevenage so that probably just eclipses the Luton one, I would say, just because of that milestone and having a fairly big role in that game.

“But they are the best days, where you know you have already won it, you’ve got no pressure, you can just go out, play it and enjoy your day.”

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