Kevin O’Connor’s career in the red and white stripes is well documented; what more can be said about the utility man who graced the Griffin Park turf for 16 years?
The 36-year-old has never spoken in depth about the 2008/09 title-winning term. It was a season of milestones: his first (and only) red card, his 300th start, and his first piece of silverware.
But perhaps most poignantly of all, it was the season in which Kevin led his boyhood club out from the doldrums; The Bees had so ignominiously fallen to the fourth division at the culmination of the 2006/07 campaign.
Here, Kevin sheds light on a memorable chapter in The Bees’ recent history.
“WE DESERVED TO GET RELEGATED”
It requires no more than a second of deliberation for Kevin to label the 2007 relegation as his least fond memory as a player.
He recounts to BEES: “Without a shadow of a doubt that was the worst time here, because you felt like you were letting people down and that people could effectively lose their jobs. Especially for myself, having been at the Club so long, to be part of a team that was relegated and, not only that, relegated with three games to go, was embarrassing. It was a really tough time.
“I remember it well. 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 we learned why he left.
“Some players moved on, 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 on in games and 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. We deserved to get relegated.”
GROUNDS FOR OPTIMISM
Having initially struggled in the fourth tier under Terry Butcher – who Kevin describes as “an amazing person” - it was Andy Scott who took over the reins on a caretaker basis.
Kevin then signed a five-year deal in the summer of 2008. Younger Brentford fans may be intrigued to know that Kevin and Andy had been team-mates during the 1999/00 and 2000/01 seasons, lining up alongside each other on 12 occasions. Kevin reveals that the transition was relatively smooth following Scott’s appointment.
He continues: “I was young when I played in the same Brentford side as Andy, but I was always okay 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 and things were really good during that first six or seven months after he took over – I was playing well and the team were playing well and I have to give credit to Scotty and Terry Bullivant because they got us winning games.
“Somehow, we all started playing better; they got us playing a certain way, which got us results and brought the qualities out of the players we had. That was a real skill of Andy’s. 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, 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. I had to try and 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. I thought I’d played well towards the end of the season, so to then come in during pre-season and suddenly not be in the team was a tough spell. I had to bide my time and hang in there.”
A PRODUCTIVE PARTNERSHIP
Named captain for 2008/09 after the departure of John Mackie, Kevin started the first three games of the league campaign.
He was then sent off for a mistimed 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.
“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 him whatsoever. My only thing was that I wanted the opportunity to start in the team that season and I didn’t get it.”
As he gradually edged his way back into contention, Kevin formed a strong midfield connection with Marcus Bean. The Jamaican international enjoyed the most goal-laden spell of his career alongside Kevin, having been given the freedom to attack in the knowledge that 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 was the holding midfielder, so to speak - 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 a few goals and I’d look to 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.”
Kev receives a red card against Dagenham & Redbridge
A HAPPY CHRISTMAS
With just three defeats in the opening 23 games, the likelihood of the Club being in the mix for promotion to League One was growing stronger.
Successive 2-0 victories over AFC Bournemouth and Exeter City in the days after Christmas saw Brentford trail leaders Wycombe Wanderers by five points at the turn of the year, a fact that evokes a fond memory for Kevin. But which other games does he recall ten years down the line?
He said: “Our bonuses were set for a date near Christmas – if we were in the top six, we’d get a bonus.
“We went to Exeter who were up there with us and won 2-0. Everyone was really happy because we’d secured a few hundred quid for Christmas for ourselves and our families.
“At that stage is just felt like we had to keep the momentum going. We had a good squad and worked extremely hard for each other - we’d give anyone a good game.
“We played Shrewsbury away and then Rochdale away around February time – two sides who were in the Play-Offs with us. We went to Shrewsbury and won 3-1 – we were 3-0 up at half-time – and then went to Rochdale and won 2-1.
“I remember coming off the pitch in both of those games thinking, ‘We are going to do this’. The games where we just out-performed the teams around us were the ones that made me think we could achieve promotion.
“Jordan Rhodes scored a hat-trick against Shrewsbury. Looking back on it now, he’s got to be one of the best players from that season, for me. When he played his first game at Macclesfield I wasn’t so sure how good he was, then in the coming games he was brilliant.
“He scored some really, really important goals for us, including at Accrington in injury-time when we were losing 1-0, which put us top. It was horrible, freezing and the pitch was just a bog.”
Bees fans at St James Park, Exeter
An incredible milestone was hit in 2008/09.
One-club men are a rare species in modern football, but Kevin is one of those few men who spent their entire professional playing career in one place. It’s even more of a rarity to see a player continuing to revel in success behind the scenes three years after retirement.
On 7 February 2009, the former Republic of Ireland Under-21 international pulled on the red and white stripes to make his 300th start for The Bees against Chester.
Being the modest individual he is, it’s an achievement he continues to play down.
“What I remember, I think, was that the pitch was almost waterlogged and not many games took place, but they made sure ours’ took place,” he explains. “We were 3-0 up at half-time and he [Andy Scott] took me off after about an hour to save my legs. Charlie MacDonald was taken off too, having scored a hat-trick.
“That was nice [reaching 300 games] but to me it’s just a number. 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.”
A SPELL ON THE SIDELINES
In spite of all the targets met and challenges overcome, it can’t be said that the 2008/09 season was a perfect one for Kevin as he missed the final ten games of the season with a knee ligament injury.
“Against Barnet at home I fell and my knee just bent underneath me. I felt something straight away,” he said.
“That was a tough one because with ten 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 quite a significant injury. 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 - my knee just needed more time to recover.
“It was really frustrating. It 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 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. We got the job done in the end - it quite possibly could have been easier if we’d all stayed fit but that’s football.”
“A PARTY ATMOSPHERE”
Kevin wasn’t part of the team that sealed the title win at Darlington. Not only was he not part of the squad, he was also denied the chance to travel to County Durham.
He takes a regretful gulp.
“No, I didn’t go. We travelled to the Dagenham game and we lost, so I think Scotty changed his mind and didn’t want everyone to travel up to Darlington. The injured players didn’t t make the trip 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. It was an amazing atmosphere; we’d already won the league and then won 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. When 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 game, I would say, just because of that milestone and having a fairly big role in the game.
“But they are the best days; you know you have already won it and there’s no pressure to get a result, so you can just go out, play the game and enjoy your day.”