INTERVIEW: Roy O’Donovan – from Sunderland to Newcastle via Brunei

Many English football fans won’t remember Roy O’Donovan. Despite being sold by Cork City as the most expensive League of Ireland player when he joined Sunderland for £500k in 2007, he never scored a goal for the North East club and failed to represent his native Republic of Ireland at senior level.

But now at 31, O’Donovan is flying on the other side of the world and enjoying some of the best years of his eventful career. Despite being a former Sunderland player, the striker has just signed for Newcastle (not that one) —the Australian Newcastle Jets side that is.

While there is an ironic link in name alone to the club he joined in England a decade ago, it’s a more controversial move than would initially meet the eye.

For the past two years, O’Donovan played his football just down the New South Wales coastline for Newcastle’s local rivals, the Central Coast Mariners. In two seasons there, O’Donovan played some of his best football and was the club’s top scorer in both campaigns, although the Mariners were always firmly towards the bottom of the A-League table.

The Jets themselves haven’t had that much luck either. But with the club sold to Chinese investors 12 months ago, O’Donovan believes it was a move he couldn’t turn down.

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“They’re an ambitious club and that’s what I want,” said the 31-year-old striker. “The new owners like to spend a bit of money and they want to compete at the top end of the table. We want to qualify for the Asian Champions League so it’s a great opportunity for me and my family to come here.”

It wasn’t a move by pure chance either. The impact O’Donovan made down the coast with the Mariners was what won him a move to the Jets in time for the 2017-18 A-League season.

“The Chief Executive Officer [Lawrie McKinna] originally founded the Mariners and was Director of Football there when I joined the club, he really pushed to get me there as the club’s No.9 for the coming season.”

He added: “As much as I didn’t really want to go to our nearest rivals, it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.”

Indeed, O’Donovan built up quite a rapport with the Mariners fans during his two years at the club, but he had some rebuilding to do after an off-the-ball incident on New Year’s Eve in 2015.

Amidst a miserable run of 11 games without a win, the Mariners were firmly rooted to the bottom of the A-League table, 12 points behind their nearest opposition Wellington Phoenix.

2-0 up against the Phoenix, O’Donovan reacted to an earlier incident with opponent Manny Muscat by headbutting him, a retaliation which would earn him one of the lengthiest bans in Australian football history.

“I lost my cool,” admits O’Donovan. “I got an elbow off the ball from him and it cut my eye socket open. Originally, I walked away because I knew if I got involved I’d get angry.

“At the same time, the guy that did ran across with a snarky comment and I just saw the red mist. I only got a yellow card in the game but I was public enemy No.1 for a while.”

Muscat would walk away with a two-game ban for his role in the incident. For O’Donovan, an eight-match awaited and in his own words “a lot of rebuilding to do with the supporters.”

Phoenix manager Eddie Merrick — ironically now O’Donovan’s boss in Newcastle — described the altercation as “going back to the dark ages”, but the striker has no regrets about moving to Australia.

O’Donovan explains: “I have a lot of faith in the man upstairs and the opportunity to go to Australia was there for me. I’ve had a couple of good seasons; the lifestyle is fantastic – we live about 150 metres from the beach!”

It was a move a long time in the making. O’Donovan had grown disillusioned with life in England after his last club, Northampton Town, sacked manager Aidy Boothroyd just months after leading the club to the League Two play-off final.

Boothroyd has previously signed O’Donovan at Coventry City and the striker admits he had a “good history” with the former Watford manager and the timing offered the Irishman the chance to pursue a new challenge in Brunei.

“Aidy lost his job and you know what it’s like when a new manager comes in with new ideas. I had injuries around the same time, I was out for a few months with a double hernia and then a chance came up to go to Brunei.”

Brunei DPMM, managed by former Blackburn boss Steve Kean, were playing in the Singapore Super League at the time and had previously offered O’Donovan a contract to move to the club, a chance he initially rejected.

However, after Boothroyd’s sacking, O’Donovan put pen-to-paper on a move that would make him the club’s marquee player, but the change of scenery took some getting used to.

“The culture was a bit of a shock to the system to begin with,” he admits. “It’s Sharia Law over there, very strict Muslim law. You can’t eat or drink in the daylight hours, you can in your own house but in public you have to be respectful.

“But it’s a lovely place to play football, they’re the most placid, calm people you can come across and in football they’re very good technically. Steve used his contacts to get strong lads in from Europe, it took us some time to adapt, we had to train in the evening because of the humidity.”

After a tough end to his time in the United Kingdom, O’Donovan says the move abroad “refreshed” his career and adds he believes more British players should broaden their horizons overseas.

“It’s a very technical style and I’m not sure why more don’t try it because it’s a great chance to expand your career. The previous two and a half seasons I had a lot of changeovers of managers and never really got a run of games. At Northampton, we came so close to promotion but we didn’t really invest and Aidy ended up losing his job.”

O’Donovan’s exploits in Brunei (26 league goals) attracted interest from other teams around Asia who were becoming aware of the Irishman’s eye for a goal.

Just 12 months after moving to Brunei, O’Donovan moved to Mitra Kukar in the newly formed Indonesian Super League, but his spell there would last all of two months.

Due to ongoing issues with the Indonesian Football Association, the ISL was scrapped and O’Donovan left in an unfamiliar part of the world with no club to play for.

“It was all brushed under the carpet at first,” he says. “I put a lot of trust in them and they said it would all be sorted. I spoke to the league and they were confident and saying that lots of marquee players would be coming but it never happened.

“Maybe it was a lucky break for me that it all went wrong, it wasn’t as professional as Brunei and at the time it all fell apart the offer from Australia came in. It’s only two and a half years later now that the league is finding its feet with the likes of Carlton Cole and Michael Essien going there.”

After a spell in Brunei that rejuvenated his career, O’Donovan believes he may have been rushed into the move to Indonesia and wasn’t aware of how unprofessional the setup was going to be when he arrived in the country.”

“I didn’t realise how lucky I was in Brunei, they’re well educated and it’s such a wealthy place. The Crown Prince who owned our club was one of the richest men in the world, it was a lovely, calm place with beautiful surroundings – it was like a holiday with a bit of football thrown in.”

“In Indonesia, we had a decent coach but away from that the organisation was poor. Not a lot of people spoke English, players didn’t train a lot during the week so that was a shock for me coming from England. Even in those two months it was more frustrating and negative that anything that happened in England.”

Follow Rich Laverty on Twitter @RichJLaverty

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