ROY O’Donovan left school and the comfort of his family home in Cork at age 15 to join Coventry City.
Everything is in the pot for good things to happen this year.Roy O'Donovan
The Irish striker has been in a hurry ever since.
Fleet of foot, fleet of mind. Attributes that have taken the fiercely driven frontman to the heights of the English Premier League, and more recently parts of the world he never imagined.
Newcastle is the latest stopover in a football odyssey that has taken him throughout the United Kingdom, to Brunei and, finally Australia.
After a two-year introduction to the A-League at the Central Coast Mariners – a period in which he scored 21 goals and enhanced his reputation as a goal-poacher – the feisty No.9 wants silverware. And a win against his former club on their home turf would be the perfect start.
O’Donovan will be public enemy No.1 when the Jets stride onto Central Coast Stadium on Saturday.
The 32-year-old will smile, maybe wave to the fans, but the eyes will tell the true story. They always have. A steely determined look, a portal to a win-at-all-costs attitude.
“For any player – any sportsman worth their salt – you want to make a statement,” O’Donovan said. “Put your flag in the sand so to speak. Gosford, round one: what better place to do it. I know I will get abused down there but that gives you that little bit of fire. I haven’t played in the A-League finals yet, I haven’t won any silverware in Australia. There are lads in our dressingroom who have been to the play-offs, they have won finals, but they want more. They are ambitious and hungry. Everything is in the pot for good things to happen. Our first game is the most important game, it sets the tone.”
The son of a taxi driver, O’Donovan was raised on the working-class north side of Cork, an area rich in football history. Roy Keane, the firebrand former Manchester United skipper, grew up five minutes up the road.
“My dad was sports mad, that is what got me into football,” O’Donovan said. “In the mid-90s, I was eight or nine and Man United were coming into it. My dad loved Denis Irwin and Roy Keane, who were playing and both from Cork. As a kid, that was all I wanted to do. I watched the Premier League and at 15 there was an opportunity to leave school and go and play for Coventry. I thought it was Hollywood. You go there as an academy player and it is a tough life. Training twice a day, which I loved, but you are away from your family in a strange country and you are still only a kid. I wasn’t ready, I was a kid. It was an eye-opener and I learned a lot of valuable lessons.”
He returned to Cork at age 18 with pride dented, but desire as strong as ever. He helped lead Cork City to a League of Ireland title in 2005, winning the golden boot.
“I played for a manager who wanted to play the style of football that suited me,” he said. “We had a really good team and I learnt a lot playing men’s football at that age. It really kicked me on.”
In 79 appearances for his home town, O’Donovan netted 34 goals. His star was rising. Fulham made an offer in July 2007, but soon afterwards he received a call from Keane, who was in charge of Sunderland.
"I had a choice between Fulham and Sunderland but when I spoke to Roy Keane my mind was made up,” O’Donovan said. “He threw me straight in. I played pretty well there. The only frustration I had was that when I played in England they saw me more as an outside right, a winger in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1. While I was capable of playing there, my best asset has been as a poacher and goal scorer. That frustrated me a bit but I played some good football there and it was a great experience and one I treasure.”
O’Donovan made 17 appearances for the Black Cats in the 2007-08 campaign before loan stints at Dundee United, Blackpool, Southend and Hartlepool. He returned to Coventry City in 2010 and bounced around the middle tiers of British football until accepting an offer in 2014 to be the marquee player for the Sultan of Brunei’s team in the Singapore League.
“I had heard of the Sultan of Brunei but didn’t really know where it was,” O’Donovan said. “They told me it was in the middle of Malaysia, it had its own principality and it was the Sultan’s own personal team. Initially I thought, England is where it is at. But I thought it over and decided why not go for nine months, I can always go back to England. Steve Kean was the coach and it was well set up. As soon as I got there I realised that England doesn’t suit my style of football. It is a lot of long ball, it is physical, fight-ball kind of stuff. In Brunei we played a lovely brand of football. It was an experience, a culture shock. Me and my wife had no children at the time so it was easier. I’m glad I took it otherwise I don’t think I’d be playing in the A-League.”
O’Donovan met his wife, Ellen, when he was at Cork City.
“She is from a place 10 minutes up the road from me,” he said. “That is why the accent is so strong, we practice every night.”
They have a son, Alfie, who was born on St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2016.
“He was due the week after but my wife went in early,” he said. “He was going to be born on the 16th but I pushed him back in at about 11.35pm to wait for St Patrick’s day. Since he has been born, my football has gotten better and better. There is more of an energy and a focus on where I am heading.”