CONOR McCormack has always been a fighter.
Snapping at opposition players’ heels, and sometimes his own team-mates when standards aren’t being met, the midfielder has earned the nickname the Honey Badger for his relentless competitive streak.
But looking at the baby-faced, mannerly, articulate 29-year-old stopping for pictures and autographs after Cork City’s recent open training session, you wouldn’t imagine it.
“It’s something that I’ve always had. I’m just a different person on the pitch, I can get hot-headed at times! Sometimes it helps us and sometimes it doesn’t, some players take it different ways, but I’m not going to change that now.”
It’s an attitude borne from experience, however, and while admitting this season has been a disappointment for the Rebel Army, it’s not the first in the two-time league and cup winner’s undulating career which has included, amongst others, unpaid wages in Italy, disputes with current U21 boss Stephen Kenny during his time at Shamrock Rovers, and the loss of former team-mate Ryan McBride.
“I got a phone call and I just couldn’t believe it. I rang the Derry lads and they were in shock, it really took a few weeks for it to settle in. I drove up and back to the funeral from Cork, which was a long aul spin, but I felt I had to do it and see them.
“He was my teammate, my captain, a leader and a good friend, and I can only imagine what the lads that saw him that morning were going through. You don’t realise how hard it can be until it happens, you do look back and think ‘Jesus, anything could happen tomorrow’, and you’ve got to live every day like it’s your last day, as they say.”
Life is something that the Carlingford native has done his best to sample as much as possible, taking the unusual step of joining Serie B side Triestina having been released from Manchester United, off the back of winning the Irish U17 Player of the Year award in 2008, becoming the first Irish player since Robbie Keane’s move to Inter Milan in 2000 to sign for an Italian club.
“I knew I wasn’t getting a look in and Man United, and I felt that I had to move on. Do I stay (in England) and go to the lower leagues, or go to Scotland where I had a few offers?
“I wanted a new experience, and I wanted to get out and explore new things. I always enjoyed watching different (kinds of) football. I went over at 18 which was quite young, and not a lot of young players get into the first team so I was learning my trade and the manager was very good to me. We actually almost got to the Serie B promotion playoff but that wasn’t enough for the club so they sacked him.
“Then I had four managers in a year and a half, and then there was a situation of wages going missing with different managers bringing in their own players. At one stage we had a squad of 40.
“Not many of them spoke English, but it was good, it meant I had to get out of my comfort zone to go talk to people. You could have sat in that room and say nothing to nobody but that’s not who I am, and even now if I bump into an Italian I have no problem speaking away to them; it’s good to get the cobwebs off now and again.
“It’s a different culture of football, a different brand of football, a different life experience. A lot of players would go to England they’re blinkered, eyes set on there, or Scotland or Ireland to an extent. You never know how good you are until you go abroad and try it.”
From there league titles, and European success followed under Michael O’Neill at Shamrock Rovers with McCormack at the centre of it all. That was, before Stephen Kenny took charge.
“I think we could have gone on to bigger and better things, had Michael not left,” said McCormack.
“We had a group of players that were really the best in the league at the time. Then Stephen Kenny came in and tried to stamp his authority, brought in players that really didn’t suit Shamrock Rovers, and tried to change pretty much everything in a winning team.
“I didn’t really see eye to eye with him at the time, he thought I wasn’t experienced, which I’d understand if I was a young lad coming in, but I thought after what I had done for the club, I had proven myself to cement a place in the team.”
Spells with St Patrick’s Athletic, where McCormack helped bring the FAI Cup back to Inchicore for the first time in 53 years, and Derry followed, before an extremely successful time on Leeside, coinciding with John Caulfield’s tenure as manager.
A league title and back-to-back FAI Cup triumphs have marked that City team down in folklore, though it wasn’t enough to save manager John Caulfield’s job a few weeks ago.
“We’ve got to take responsibility for it as players. If you’re putting 100% in and you’re watching other guys put in just 60% in it’s not fair to you or the team. A lot of players (coming to City) fit the mould on paper, and don’t realise the intensity, or the demands from the fans and from the staff.
“You can be the hero one minute and the next you’re the culprit. Cork made the decision to make the change, and you’ve just got to get on with it. I honestly believe the current management team will bring us back to bigger and better times.”