Preston defender Kevin O'Connor ready for new experience of festive football
For most players lining up in the Championship on Saturday it will be the start of an all too familiar part of the season.
The festive period is real staple of the English football calendar and one that certainly captures the imagine on the terraces.
For their part, PNE will play four games in nine days between hosting Nottingham Forest this weekend and Middlesbrough coming to Deepdale on New Year’s Day.
The home dressing room will be full of players used to the mental and physical fatigue involved as they try and squeeze family time around a hectic schedule that will this year involve training on Christmas Day.
Not Kevin O’Connor though.
The summer signing from Cork City has never played at this time of year before, the League of Ireland season running from March to November.
“It’ll be my first Christmas in England,” said the 22-year-old.
“It takes a bit of adjusting to but it’s just part and parcel of it. We were finished by now in Ireland.
“We’ve so many games coming up you don’t really get time to think about it so I’m not thinking about it too much.
“Even Sean Maguire’s been here before but for me it’s something new to adjust to. It’ll be different to what I’ve been doing over the last few years.”
Off the field it sounds like there will be something of an Irish gathering, O’Connor and Maguire joining the ever-increasing contingent from the country at Deepdale in the summer.
“There are a few lads around,” said the left-back. There’s Alan Browne and others – we’ll do something I’m sure. We’ll get a bit of a food but it’ll be like a normal day in some ways because we’ll be in training.
“My family probably won’t be coming over until after Christmas, probably in the New Year some time. It’s not too bad.”
PNE head into the festive period with real momentum, having bounced back from four straight defeats by going on a six-game unbeaten run since the last international break.
Last weekend’s 1-0 win over Sheffield United made it three victories on the spin for Alex Neil’s men who are just two points shy of the play-off places.
“We’re going into every game confident,” O’Connor said.
“We’ve been picking up results, it started at Bristol City which was a massive three points for us and we’ve kicked on from there.
“It’s a crucial period, there are so many games, you don’t have time to reflect on the one that’s just gone because there’s another one in two or three days.
“We just want to keep in touch with the play-offs because I think we’re good enough to do that.
“We hit a blip earlier in the year and everyone was saying we could drop back down but we’re winning games again now and we’re within two points.
“It’s crazy how quickly it can turnaround.
“You get three wins on the bounce and you shoot up five, six or seven places, that’s how competitive the league is.
“Obviously the win on Saturday kept us in touch because the teams around us won as well. It’s got us in a great position.”
After having to wait his turn on his arrival in English football, O’Connor is slowly but surely establishing himself after his big move to the Championship.
Having started against Ipswich and Bolton he has come off the bench in the last three games and more than played his part in the good run. “Our defence has been hit by injuries a lot but you just have to be ready when you’re called upon and thankfully the manager’s shown a bit of faith in me lately and I’ve just been trying to repay it,” he said.
“I’m settling in. It’s a great group of lads, you couldn’t ask for a better dressing room to settle into. You quickly feel like you’ve been here for years because everyone’s so close.
“Everyone just wants to win for the other 10 lads on the field with you.
“I’m happy, I just want to keep playing and keep getting minutes under my belt and hopefully show how good I can be.”
What the former Republic of Ireland Under-21s international brings is a different option at left-back.
Six players have been used in what has been something of a problem position this season with O’Connor the most attack-minded of them, his left foot also offering quality from set-pieces.
“I want to play my own game,” he said.
“It’s only my second or third year playing at left-back so it’s still different for me.
“I still want to go forward rather than go backwards but that’s the way it is.
“I do enjoy getting forwards but I have to do my defensive duties as well.
“It’s all a learning curve for me, it’s a great experience.”
Having come on for Darnell Fisher after just half-an-hour against the Blades last time out, O’Connor could get his latest Championship start against Forest, with the former Rotherham man unlikely to recover from a hip injury in time.
“You want to play these big clubs and these big names,” the former Waterford United man said.
“Forest are a massive club and they’re coming to us and we just want to show how good we are.
“We believe in ourselves and we think on our day we’re a match for anyone in this league.
“We just want to prove that again on Saturday. We showed it against Sheffield United and we want to show we can do it week in, week out.”
Down the line North End’s cause will undoubtedly be helped by the return of good friend Maguire, the striker sidelined by a serious hamstring injury, having made a flying start to life with PNE.
“He’s okay, he’s in rehab now,” O’Connor said of his former Cork team-mate.
“It’s been a tough period for him but the way the dressing room is has really helped him out.
“He’ll be back no bother and he’ll be back stronger than he was before.”