Back in March 2017 UTS spoke with Martin O’Connor to discuss his controversial move from the club as a player and his frustrating return as Assistant Manager.
Walsall-born Martin O’Connor made a late entry to professional football and was 25 when Crystal Palace signed him from Bromsgrove Rovers in 1992.
He played a handful of games for the Londoners before joining the Saddlers on loan at the end of the 92/93 season, returning on a permanent basis in February 1994.
Making 94 appearances and scoring 21 goals in the following two seasons, his second spell at the club saw him establish his place in the Chris Nicholl team that won promotion in 1994/95 before adjusting comfortably to life in the third tier.
A local lad who added skill, aggression and goals to the midfield, O’Connor had soon become a terrace favourite and a player who clearly had the ability to play at a higher level. So it was understandable that fans were shocked when it was announced he was leaving Walsall for a team who had finished the season 17 points below the Saddlers in the Division 2 standings.
Talking with UTS O’Connor discussed that controversial move, the Premier League starlet he tried to bring to Bescot, and why he advised the club not to sell Troy Deeney…
At a transfer tribunal in July 1996, Peterborough United agreed to pay a then club record fee of £350,000 for O’Connor, who was joined at London Road by popular winger Scott Houghton.
The departure of two of the clubs’ best players to struggling league rivals was understandably unpopular with supporters, a moderate forerunner to the Dann-Fox saga. At the time some suggested a lack of loyalty on O’Connor’s part, others rumoured that money had been a motivating factor - the club did little to dispel the speculation.
But as the former skipper reveals, it was unsatisfactory contract discussions that led him to leave, even after he had rebuffed an approach from local rivals Birmingham City in favour of extending his stay at Walsall.
“At the time I wanted to tell people the truth but I also didn’t want to offend my home town club that put me on the map, so I just took the flack” he said.
“Walsall had made me a derogatory contact offer which I declined, then Birmingham had put in a bid for me but I wanted to stay.
“But Walsall never tried to keep me as they wanted money from the Blues deal. When I turned Birmingham down I thought Walsall would offer me an improved contract, but it never happened.”
Birmingham manager Barry Fry had spearheaded the failed attempt to bring O’Connor to St. Andrews, but, as O’Connor explained, he didn’t wait long to make a fresh approach.
“When Barry Fry got the sack at Blues and took up the reins at Peterborough he came in again. Walsall didn’t offer me a new contract so when Baz put a three year deal on the table I took it and the rest was tribunal” he said.
“Football wise it was a poor move but on the day I signed Baz said he would sell me within my contract if I performed. So I just did what I had done at Walsall - play to win and lead by example.
“I was at Peterborough for four months and in that time Baz turned down one million from Southampton and a bid of £750,000 from an unnamed club.”
Fry was true to his word. In November 1996 O’Connor finally completed a move to Birmingham, beginning a six year association with the Blues during which he captained them to the League Cup final and became a club icon.
Released by Birmingham, O’Connor returned for a third spell at Walsall in time for the 2002/03 season, helping the club to retain First Division status and reach the fifth round of the FA Cup. He retired from playing in 2006 after spells with Shrewsbury and Kidderminster Harriers and began to focus on coaching.
In 2009 O’Connor re-joined the club as Assistant Manager to Chris Hutchings, a two-year stint that he recalls as a largely frustrating one punctuated by a limited transfer budget that prohibited the signing of key targets.
“Our recruitment was poor as we couldn’t afford our first, second or even third choice targets” he said.
“Walsall will never spend money they haven’t got which is fair, but sometimes you can outlay on players knowing you will more than get your money back when selling on.”
“I am a senior scout for Brighton and have been for nearly five years now and their model is the same - only invest in players you know you will make money on or buy at the right price - look how well they have done in the last 3/4 years”.
“I used to go and watch players and my network used to bring up players like Liam Bridcutt at Chelsea. I spoke to (Adrian) Viveash about him and he recommended him too.
“Liam wanted to come but Chris couldn’t get more money out of the club.
“There were quite a few young players I put to Walsall, like Romaine Sawyers and Sam Mantom. But it’s all history now."
O’Connor was similarly disappointed with the club’s outgoing business, believing the sale of striker Troy Deeney on the eve of the 2010/11 season was premature and that his value would have risen considerably had the club held out until the January transfer window.
“I told the club not to sell Troy” he said.
“I knew we would have got a million for him in 6 months’ time!”
Management and development
Following two years of mid-table stability the team started the 2010/11 season poorly and were bottom of League 1 by January, when, amid rising supporter pressure, Hutchings and O’Connor were relieved of their duties.
A man who holds the club close to his heart, O’Connor looks back at the period with great of disappointment; “That is the only regret I have in my career. One day I will be back in management but as a Manager, which suits me better than an Assistant” he said.
“I look back and think if I could have spoken out and said things, instead of supporting Chris.
However O’Connor does have fond memories of his work with upcoming members of the squad; “My biggest plus was a Monday afternoon session I started with the young pro’s like Grigg and Paterson. That went down well and aided their progression to the players they became”.
Today he continues to develop local talent through the Martin O’Connor Education and Football Academy (MOCEFA).
MOCEFA is an Education & Football programme for 16-19 year old males who want to continue their education by earning academic qualifications towards their future employment and careers, whilst enhancing football development.
Many thanks to Martin for talking to us.