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Interviews

The Long Read: Kevin O'Connor

King Kev. Three years on from his appointment as Assistant First Team Coach, we sat down with Kevin O’Connor to find out how he’s finding life on the other side of the white line

22 February 2022

“You’re not going to ask me about Doncaster, are you?!”

With 501 appearances to his name, ‘King’ Kevin O’Connor is Brentford royalty. His playing career - including that infamous moment with Marcello Trotta - has been the topic of much discussion. Kevin’s on-pitch story is a path well trodden. 

Sat across from Kevin in his office, we assure him that the Doncaster game isn’t on the agenda - it’s his coaching career that we’re interested in today.  

Since hanging up his boots in 2015, Kevin has played a vital role at Jersey Road, first with the Development Squad, then as Head Coach of Brentford B and now as part of the First Team set-up.

Kevin has been at the same club for two decades, but no one could ever accuse him of standing still. 

 

You’ve been part of the Club’s journey for more than 20 years. Does your history here add a layer of intensity to the Premier League experience?

Yeah, in a good and bad way. This Club is such a massive part of my life; even my kids are invested and know what’s going on. When we win it’s brilliant and when we lose it hurts, but it hurts everyone here. I’m so proud to be a part of it - really, really proud. We’ve achieved a great deal and still want more – it’s amazing.

We’ve got good, good people here, such good people: Brian [Riemer], Thomas [Frank], Chris [Haslam], Greigy [Neil Greig], Stubbo [Nick Stubbings]. Just five minutes ago I was stood in the medial office talking absolute nonsense and having a laugh – it makes such a difference to have that culture. Of course, there’s disagreements sometimes, but that’s healthy – we have such good people and that transfers to the squad. I’m very proud to be associated with this Club. I always have been, but never more so than now.

 

“This Club is such a massive part of my life; even my kids are invested and know what’s going on. I’m so proud to be a part of it”

 

Longevity can sometimes lead to apathy. How have you maintained high standards and a love for the Club over such a long period of time?

It’s the same Club, it’s always been Brentford Football Club, but I had quite a few managers during my playing days and when a new manager came in, it was effectively a new club in my head. A manager is at the top of the tree, he has his own style of play and his own opinions, so with every managerial change comes a reset. You have to try and impress.

Once I stopped playing, I moved into a new role and a new world. Yes, I’m still in the same surroundings and I think that’s helped me, but I’ve been able to work with lots of different people. Lee Carsley was brilliant with me, he helped me so, so much. Fleming Pedersen then brought different ideas and a different approach. It’s not hard to maintain standards when you’re in new roles, in different offices.

Going from playing to coaching is so different, more different than I ever thought it would be. I love learning, I enjoy it so much. Brian - who I share an office with - and Thomas are so open. They’ve been brilliant with me. I’ve been extremely lucky that my path has led me to the likes of Lee, Fleming and, before that, Mark Warburton, who gave me a year as a coach when I wasn’t really a coach. I was able to watch and learn from him and David Weir. Mark sat me down, I think it was before the Leyton Orient game, and asked me what my plans were for the future. I wasn’t in the team at that stage and I didn’t deserve to be, I knew that. Mark and David helped me so much with that transition from playing to coaching.

 

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Fresh faced: Kevin at Brentford's 2000/01 photocall 

 

Football is rarely a fairytale. Were there any forks in the road along the way? Did you ever consider a different path towards the end of your playing career?

During the season we won League Two, I wasn’t in the team. Andy Scott brought in Marcus Bean, I was on the bench and I could see what was happening. I remember speaking to Scotty after our last pre-season game. I asked him what the plan was and it came up that a loan might be a possibility. In that moment I was like, ‘bloody hell’. My stomach turned a bit. For whatever reason that didn’t happen and I had to bide my time. I played a cup game at Havant and Waterlooville, it was live on the BBC. Before the game I was thinking ‘f*****g hell, if I play here and we get turned over I’ve got no chance!’ We won, I played really well and from there that was it; I stayed in the team and in January Scotty pulled me on the bus on the way back from an away game and said that the Club wanted to offer me a new contract. Things can turn so much in the space of four or five months. That was the closest I ever came to leaving. It was great fun winning the league that year but it was a very tough start.

To answer the second part of that question, when the Club offered me the B Team role, I had a decision to make: should I try and carry on playing somewhere else, or do I stay here and begin coaching? I thought about it long and hard and saw the B Team role as a great opportunity to start coaching in an environment I knew, surrounded by good coaches. With Matthew [Benham] at the helm, along with Phil [Giles] and Ras [Ankersen], I knew this was a good place to be. It was a tough decision, you never want to stop playing, but I made the right call and I’m thankful for that. If I’d left the Club, the opportunity might never have come around again. An extra year or two playing elsewhere would’ve meant starting afresh - it wouldn’t have been the story that it’s been so far.

 

There’s a constant turnover in football – very few players and staff buck the trend. As a long-standing member of the Club, how important is it that you help instil our values and an understanding of the Brentford story?

More with the staff than the players – Peter and Lorna [Falconer] are very good with the players. I try to look after the new members of staff and make sure they feel welcome. I try to get to know them and find some common ground. Thomas is amazing at that as well. To see the true qualities of a person, they need to be made to feel welcome. They need to feel as though they belong. That adds to the team and the environment.

Rob Rowan was fantastic at that. When Mark Warburton left, he promised me a position was going to be found for me and he was good to his word. From that day I trusted him and we had a very good friendship. We used to take the mick out of each other every day.

Denis Wise’s son was on trial here once. It was just after Dennis had been on I’m a Celebrity and I asked Rob if he was trying to get on the show. When I came back in from training, he’d changed my desktop background to a photo of Dennis Wise in the jungle! He was a brilliant guy, such a good guy.

I remember, after my dad died, I took a few days off. I was sat in my flat and Rob called me to ask where I was. When I told him I was at home, he said: “Okay, I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He didn’t live ten minutes away from me, so he’d gambled on me being at home. He turned up in his car with Chris, Stubbo and Paddy Moore [a former Brentford Strength and Conditioning Coach at Brentford], picked me up and took me out for lunch. Proper people do that, proper friends. I miss him, we miss him. He was such a joker, but if he needed to be serious, he’d be serious. I would’ve trusted him with my life.

 

Talk us through the dynamic between you, Brian and Thomas. It seems as though you’re the perfect foil for each other…

Thomas and Brian have known each other for a long time, they’re very close and I’m now very close to the two of them. Brian’s an amazing person. They’re both very, very open and involve me all the time and ask for my opinion. They trust me, and I trust them. It’s definitely a friendship that we have, not just a working relationship. I have strong friendships with so many of the staff here and that’s what makes us different to other clubs. We help each other and we have each other’s backs. 

 

What are your main responsibilities as Assistant First Team Coach?

On the grass, the offensive side of the game is my main focus, but I have a lot of other responsibilities. I have close contact with specific players in the squad. I really enjoy focusing on the individual and building a relationship with the players, helping them to review their clips from games and training sessions.

 

What’s your role on a matchday? We’ve noticed you take a position in the stand now, rather than the dugout…

I try to feed Brian as much information as I can; I’m in the stand and he’s in the dugout and we talk directly throughout the game. It’s a new role for me, so I’m still learning. It’s a work in progress. We started doing this about eight games out from the end of last season. I give Brian loads of information and he takes what he needs. He can relay that information to Thomas and they can make a decision from there.

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Close bond: Kevin and Brian Riemer take stock before a match at Brentford Community Stadium

 

Brentford has become renowned for developing players but, having completed your coaching badges, how do you continue to improve as a coach?

By taking on more responsibilities and pushing myself. For example, we now have culture meetings at Jersey Road that I’ve been asked to lead and I was definitely a bit nervous the first time I had to address 30 or 40 staff. The key is to make sure you’re never comfortable. You have to keep asking questions and learning from the people around you. I’ve improved so much over the last three years, I have no doubts about that. Thomas has fantastic attention for the small details and I take bits from Brian as well. Coaches and managers develop throughout their careers and that comes by experiencing different situations.

 

“The key to development is making sure you’re never comfortable. You have to keep asking questions and learning from the people around you”

 

The Premier League is often labelled the best division in the world by players and pundits alike. What are the main differences between the Premier League and the Championship?

The Premier League is ruthless; if you make a mistake, nine times out of ten the opposition score. In the Championship it’s maybe six times out of ten. The ball moves at a much greater speed and the players are more intelligent. It’s a lot quicker at this level. The [Youri] Tielemans goal that we conceded against Leicester, for example, doesn’t tend to happen in the Championship. He’s done it a few times so it’s not just a one-off.

 

You were the Club’s designated penalty taker for most of your career. Your last kick in professional football was the winning penalty in a shootout victory over Dagenham & Redbridge. You know the pressure involved and the technique required. Is Ivan Toney the best you’ve seen from the spot?

He’s the best I’ve seen in the flesh, yeah. I don’t want to jinx it, but he’s developed a technique where he doesn’t need to look at the ball. He looks at the goalkeeper and, with an open foot, can shoot either way with pace. He’s fantastic and has shown that under the most intense pressure a player can experience against Bournemouth in the Play-Offs and again at Wembley. I had a favourite way to shoot. The problem with that, given the level of analysis nowadays, is that goalkeepers will know exactly where you’ve aimed before.

 

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Cool, calm, collected: Ivan (above) finds the net during our Championship Play-Off Semi-Final victory over AFC Bournemouth earlier this year, while Kevin (below) scores the equalising penalty in our League One Play-Off Semi-Final game at Swindon Town (2013)

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How big a role does mentality play in being an effective penalty taker? You can have the best technique in the world but it’s no good if you’re overcome with nerves in high-pressure situations…

Ivan seems to have a great balance of that. When the whistle goes, he doesn’t just run up and take it. He waits six or seven seconds before he even starts moving. My mindset was different, I wanted to get it over and done with! I’d be edging forward while I was waiting for the whistle to blow. I’d take a deep breath and have my foot through the ball within two seconds. It doesn’t matter if it’s in front of 2,000 or 20,000, all eyes in that moment are on you. The final two games of last season [Bournemouth and Swansea City], if he missed those penalties, the repercussions are enormous. Ivan completely composes himself and that says a lot about his personality - he’s a confident lad. His technique shows his intelligence and I think that’s an underrated part of his game. He’s such an intelligent footballer.

 

“Ivan waits six or seven seconds before he even starts moving. My mindset was different, I wanted to get a penalty over and done with!”

 

Finally, a bit a bombshell to finish… Having dedicated so much of your life to Brentford, could you ever see yourself at another football club?

Through choice, no, but you can’t predict the future. You never know what’s going to happen. I do wonder if I would’ve been a different player at a different club – at another club I might not have been so concerned with every detail. Brentford is my club, if I’d been somewhere else, maybe for just one season, would my mindset have been different? Would I have been able to play more freely if I didn’t have such a concern for the Club in a wider sense? I don’t have any regrets. I love it here, I love my role here and I know how lucky I am to be part of this journey.

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