THROUGHOUT all the recent talk on the future of the game there was a common lament as people bemoaned the absence of kids enjoying impromptu kickabouts with their mates.
The nostalgic picture of dozens of neighbourhood youngsters, with jumpers for goalposts, had been replaced with mournful images of abandoned playing fields. These days there are more dreams of World Cup success being honed on consoles rather than on pitches.
But not everyone has abandoned old practices. Michael O’Halloran has ambition that extends beyond steering Messi to a hat-trick on FIFA 16.
Heading away from training every day, the St Johnstone attacker has usually borrowed a ball and is thinking about what skills he needs to fine tune. As people pass the park near his home, it is usually him and his younger brother, Dominic, who are adding movement and joy to an otherwise empty landscape.
“I have a few balls now and for me you have got to practise all the time,” says the 24-year-old, whose pace, cutting edge and newly added consistency have forced observers to sit up and take notice this term. “You can’t get enough of it so I go home and I practise different things, left foot crossing, right foot crossing, lots of different things that help me in my game and that’s just the way I like to do things. There’s a local park, with astroturf, and I just go and practise various things there. Things like finishing and other stuff, but crossing is the main one.
“For me, I see things about the best players in the world doing it. Guys like Ronaldo. I’m not putting myself in that bracket, but you hear about them going out and doing all this extra practice, so why shouldn’t I be out there doing the same and trying to always better myself? I have always kind of done that, done my own thing. I do it with my brother and it’s fun. Sometimes it’s half an hour, sometimes an hour, it varies but I don’t mind if it is raining. Although there have been a few nights recently when it has been wild!
“It is fun and I want to do it,” he says. But he is also guided by his dad, also Michael, who was a coach with the Celtic youth academy and has always been a guiding force for his kids. “He helps me with various different things and tells me what he thinks I need to work on, but I know that it will help me on a Saturday and help me as a player and it’s a good habit isn’t it?”
It has helped both sons, with Dominic “doing okay” at Cumbernauld United according to his big brother. “He thinks he’s better than me but I don’t know about that,” says the St Johnstone Scottish Cup winner. It has also aided the elder sibling develop to such a level where he is being touted for a full Scotland call up.
The cliched response is that he is simply focusing on doing his job for St Johnstone, the rest will take care of itself. But “if that happens to come along then it would be a dream”, he concedes.
“I think it is every young boy’s ambition when you are playing in the street or with your local team, you always want to play with the national team. I don’t think that ever really goes away, probably not even when you are an old man. So I have got to aim towards that and I am striving to get better every week and you never know what is in the future. That is why you practise, to better yourself.”
Brought to McDiarmid Park from Bolton Wanderers by manager Tommy Wright in January 2014, he has raised his game this term, moving from intermittent star to a consistent contributor. It doesn’t come as a consequence of a pre-season epiphany or a talking to from the gaffer. When it comes to O’Halloran, there wasn’t the need.
“Maybe the expectation was there but he didn’t need to say anything to me, I knew myself. Every season you want to do better and that was my aim. Luckily I’m doing not too bad at the moment and I’m enjoying it. It was maybe just a wee bit of consistency. I would have a good game but then I would be quiet in other games and it’s just about producing it week in, week out now. I don’t know, maybe that just comes with playing a lot of games and building up a lot of experience and for me I think that was the main thing and now I have built up a bit of momentum and I’m enjoying my football.”
But having seen Stevie May touted for caps when he was in Perth, the eventual call-up only came when he headed down south. O’Halloran, who signed for Bolton when he was 16, would like the chance to try his hand in the English Premier League one day, but he doesn’t buy into the theory that he needs to rush that move if he wants to catch Gordon Strachan’s eye.
“I think if you are doing well then you will get recognition. I don’t think [playing for St Johnstone] will stop you. If you are performing week in week out then you stand a good chance. I am just going to keep my head down and concentrate on doing well for St Johnstone at the minute.”
His understated response is in keeping with the ethos of a club that simply gets on with things, quietly and consistently, and have reaped the rewards to such an extent that they are considered as more than merely a top-six team. Nestled in behind Celtic, Hearts and Aberdeen, publicly they are cautious about revealing the true extent of their ambitions, but privately they know what they are capable of.
They will set their sights on closing the gap on those above them and try to stretch clear of the teams who are in behind them. They also have another semi-final to look forward to.
For O’Halloran, the belief in his manager and his team-mates is absolute and the self-confidence is strong but not what could be considered arrogantly audacious. He hasn’t ruled out a return south but whatever he goes on to do, whether at St Johnstone, in England or with the national team, he will be content if it counts as progress.
“I think you have to be a bit ambitious. I am enjoying myself just now but I would want to go and further my career at some point. But I don’t know about a point to prove.
“I came through the youth system down at Bolton and when I asked to leave I felt I had to go and play football. A new manager had come in and we didn’t see eye to eye [Dougie Freedman took over from Owen Coyle] but in my opinion I was good enough to play down there.”