James O'Connor on three years at Walsall, Wembley and leaving the club
From a difficult conversation with his manager to missing out on Wembley glory, James O’Connor had a turbulent start to his first season with Walsall.
After suffering a potentially career-threatening injury while on-loan at Bristol City from Derby, the defender had not kicked a football for 10 months when he joined Walsall in time for the 2014/15 season.
Despite getting back his love for the game during that first season, where he made 35 appearances in all, he was struggling to play full-back in the opening months of the season.
“I was struggling to play two games in a week and found myself in and out of the team up until Christmas, which was difficult as I’d dropped a division as well,” O’Connor told the Express & Star.
“I went to see Dean (Smith) and Rich (O’Kelly) and put my cards on the table. I told them I was struggling a bit but that if I played consistently as a centre-back that I could still do a good job.
“It was quite a brave conversation to have with your manager and it could have gone the other way, but they listened to me and I feel I was one of our strongest players that season.
“It said a lot about me but a lot about Dean as well, that I was able to approach him like that.
“The guy was morally fantastic and still is, he’s very honest, down to earth, humble and approachable – that’s a great strength in him as a manager.”
Although his season had been a personal success, O’Connor was surprisingly left out of the starting XI for the EFL Trophy final against Bristol City at Wembley in 2015.
“I was absolutely distraught. I’d had a tough time up until Christmas and in the build-up to the Wembley game I’d found a bit of form at centre-back,” he added. “I’d done really well and I didn’t agree with the decision at the time, it was tough to take.
“I found out the night before the game and I had a lot of people going down to watch. I played in two finals earlier in my career and won man of the match in both of them, so it took me by surprise. But I owed it to my team-mates, myself and the club to act in the right way and I did – we moved on from it.
“Dean was the one manager that could drop me for a game at Wembley and still get on with him and have respect for him.”
With a mid-table finish in League One and a Trophy final loss in his first season, the 2015/16 campaign was even more successful – but ended in disappointment.
Fighting for promotion from the first whistle, Walsall were in dominant form, even despite Smith moving to Brentford during the season.
In the end the Saddlers missed out on automatic promotion by a point before losing 6-1 on aggregate to Barnsley in the play-off semi-final.
“We had good young lads mixed with good senior pros, everyone came together at the right time working under a manager who let us express ourselves,” O’Connor said.
“I really think we would have ran away with the league that year, but unfortunately for us when you’re successful at that level teams above come for your prized assets and that was Dean and Rich.
“It was a mixed bag after that and we just came short of automatic promotion and that was such a big disappointment, we did everything we possibly could to try and get there.
“For the quality of players we had we should have done better in the play-offs, we were blown out of the water in the first leg, maybe we got a little bit carried away.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a regret. I was appreciating my football more than when I was younger and at a club like Walsall, to get promotion to the Championship would have meant the world to me.”
O’Connor’s last season, in 2016/17, was another mid-table finish after several of the high-profile stars from the previous campaign were snapped up by other clubs.
Then, in the summer of 2017, O’Connor was unceremoniously and unexpectedly released by the club, with manager Jon Whitney insisting he was not part of his plans.
“I think I always handled it with a bit of dignity when I left and ultimately when a manager makes a decision, you have to go with it,” he said. “At the time I was more shocked than anything because I came off the back of 40 games the season before and I still did well.
“I felt like a big part of the team and club, so it took me by surprise.
“We went away for pre-season camp and I was injured so couldn’t take part, but the manager asked me to still go as I was vice-captain - so I did and supported all the boys.
“I got on with the trip as normal and came back to a call asking me to come in, it was the next day or the day after.
“I actually thought it might be about discussing some kind of coaching and then I was told that I wasn’t in the plans and the rest is history.
“From a personal point of view I was gutted, my family were close with the club and I loved it, but looking back now I was probably at the right stage in my career to realise that my games should be less frequent.
“I was ready to do that but the club and manager went a different way and I just had to move on.
“Despite that, I loved every minute of my time at Walsall, it’s a fantastic club.”