IT’S somehow appropriate that we are sitting in the medical room at Morton’s training base in Port Glasgow, for the chat with Garry O’Connor has more to do with his physical and mental well-being than his football, more to do with drugs and the damage done than goals and glory.
He is talking about the guy who ran into bother in Edinburgh a few years back, the guy who was caught in possession of cocaine, who then tried to give a false name to police, who then ran away when he failed to spell the false name correctly. He is talking about the other drugs charges and the other controversies, the other moments when his life went off the rails.
“That was just a guy who wasn’t thinking right at all, who completely had his blinkers on, who was just going along with the crowd, not bothered about football at all,” he says of his conviction. “I thought I was a footballer and I’d always have football no matter what I did, but you don’t. The kind of money I was on, I was thinking this will never end. Until you open your eyes and get well you don’t know what you’re like. People like me need to see experts. And I have.
“Drugs? Completely gone. I’ll not go down that road again. It’s hurt me so much, hurt my family so much, it would kill me if I ever went back to that again. People are going to take convincing, but I’m not going to convince everybody, I know that. I’ve said this before and, aye, it hasn’t happened. But there comes a point in your life when you have to change. It’s taken me 30 years to get to this point, mind. But then again, some people never get there.”
Earlier on this miserable Friday, O’Connor trained with his new team-mates at the Parklea playing fields in Port Glasgow. The rain bucketed down for most of the session. The players finished up like drowned rats. Dispirited drowned rats at that. Bottom of the league and, before yesterday, winless in 19 games stretching all the way back to August, this is an outfit that needs some divine intervention. What it’s got is a new manager in Kenny Shiels and a new striker in O’Connor, a player who has been out of the game, but not out of the headlines, for 13 months.
O’Connor knows what the reaction is going to be to his redemption song. People won’t believe him. They won’t take on trust his comments about being clean again, about being focused only on family and football, about having woken up to the shambles that his life had become. And he understands the cynicism. He says he’s a different person now than he was six months ago but that he’s going to have to prove it over time before the doubters begin to buy it.
He’s got one hangover from last year, a thunderously bad 12 months on the back of an equally turbulent 12 months before that. Back in June he was stopped by police while driving, they say, under the influence of drink or drugs. He has pleaded not guilty. The case comes to court in the months ahead.
“When I had my first chat with Kenny [Shiels] about coming to play for Morton, he was asking me how I was mentally as well as physically. He wanted to know everything. He was asking about what things were like at home with my wife and kids and that was understandable. He was asking because he cares. He said it was a waste me sitting in the house doing nothing and he’s right. I’ve missed football massively. I’ve had a year of moping and getting on the nerves of my missus, a year of trying to get my head right and facing up to the mistakes I’ve made in my life.
“Listen, not that long ago I would have denied stuff or I would have blamed others for what happened to me, but it’s me who’s put my family through this s***. There’s nobody else who’s done it. Nobody else made those decisions. I’ve spoken to a psychologist and over the last six months I’ve started to feel great again. I’ve never felt so positive. I’ve learned that people do make mistakes in life, I’m not the only one. Bad choices in life don’t necessarily make you a bad person. I’ve made a lot of bad choices and they’ve been very public and I’ve had to deal with them.
“Lots of different things came to a head, but me and my wife were having bad times probably around February and March last year and I said to myself ‘What the f*** are you doing? You’re putting your wife and kids through all this s***’. And it comes to a point where you really need to go and speak to someone and get help.”
He’s got three kids, only one of them old enough to remember him banging in the goals for Hibs a few seasons back. The middle one, his daughter, says things like ‘Dad, did you used to be a footballer?’ and he smiles at that. Aye, used to be. Would like to be again. His daughter says, ‘Were you working today, dad?’ and he says, ‘Yeah, playing football’. And she goes, ‘Really?’ It’s kind of funny, but there’s a serious message behind it all. He wants his kids to be proud of him and though Morton is a hell of a place to start over again, that’s the reality of his situation.
When he talks about “clearing his name” he’s not railing against his misdemeanours with drugs and claiming innocence. He now accepts his guilt after initially denying it. No, clearing his name amounts to cleaning up his act and getting people to believe in him again and that process starts close to home. A year ago he wouldn’t have trusted himself. Now he does.
“If I can cut out all the nonsense then people might start trusting me again and I’ll get my name back. I’m only 30 and I’ve got a good three or four years in me. Look, I need to be fitter but that’s only going to come with playing games. I can get into double figures in the second half of the season, I’m sure I can. But we’ll see. I’ve shown Kenny that I’m hungry to play and that my life has changed and I intend to keep it that way. I mean, the people I used to hang around with, I don’t any more. I’ve not got any mates. No, I’ve maybe got one good mate and he’s an older guy but that’s really it. All my mates are drinkers and doing stuff and if I want to succeed in life, never mind in football, I have to distance myself from that. I came to a point with that. Move forward or move back into trouble. Stay with the people I was staying with or move on.
“It came down to a decision, do I want to be like these or do I want to get back into football and make my family proud of me.
“When you’ve got everything and you’re playing in the Premiership or the Championship or you’re playing for Hibs then all these people surround you, but in the last year when I’ve had no club they wouldn’t be around, they wouldn’t be at your door asking you to go out. That stuck in my head as well. These people, they’re not my true friends, just hangers on. Come February-March, these people were not interested because they couldn’t get anything from me. My mum and dad were saying it for years.”
The travails of O’Connor would take a while to document, but here’s a snapshot. He moves from Hibs to Lokomotiv Moscow for close to £2 million in 2006, signs a long-term contract but bails out after a season. He scores the winner in the Russian Cup final. Things are going fine, but then his wife falls pregnant and family takes over. She’s unsettled and wants to go home – or closer to home. They end up at Birmingham after a transfer in excess of £2.5m.
He has his moments there, but not many. Scores the equaliser at the Emirates in a Premiership game. Then he has his injuries. His hips nag away at him. A surgeon tells him he has to operate and that there is less than a 50-50 chance of him playing again. In the midst of all of this, he fails a drugs test. The club hushes it up but Channel 4’s Dispatches programme reveals that O’Connor tested positive for cocaine. He never admits it, until now. “It’s true, I failed a test, got a three-month ban and a £200,000 fine. Came out of my salary. The first three or four years at Birmingham were great, but my demons got the better of me.”
Barnsley was next, but only briefly. Then Hibs for a season and a reminder that there is a player in there. He stays for one season, gets into a mess of trouble off the pitch and then to cap it all, he moves to Siberia to play for FC Tom Tomsk.
“I went over there for a medical and passed it, but they wanted me to lose 12kg in the space of 12 days so I had to kill my body. All I ate was a tin of tuna for my breakfast, tin of tuna for my lunch and a tin of tuna for my dinner. And water. And saunas. And training three times a day. I had no energy. By the time I got over there I made my weight by about 6kg. The physio says ‘You didn’t need to lose this much, you only needed to lose a little bit’. Disaster.
“I got there and there was a transfer embargo, so I couldn’t play for six weeks. I made my debut and got sent off. Never a red card [laughs]. Suspended for two games. The president of the club decides he wants a different striker, but the manager says he wants me. A mess. I wasn’t getting paid and my head went. Come January I said, I ain’t going back there.”
Instead, he came back here and landed himself in more trouble. Shiels says that O’Connor is a “prisoner of his own mind” and there’s no doubting of the truth of that. “I am and I’ve been needing all the help I can get.”
It’s a mutual thing, of course. Shiels is in a hole himself. He doesn’t have a goalscorer at Morton and without one he has no hope. O’Connor at his best brings optimism. But it all goes back to that one big question: is he serious about having changed or is he just kidding himself? He knows that there is only one way to answer that.
“As a team we need to stop the rot,” he says of Morton. And he applies that same thought to himself as an individual. He couldn’t be more contrite. Mea culpa follows mea culpa. What he needs now is for goal to follow goal.