Sammon among the sharks

Daniel Keenan talks to Wigan’s Conor Sammon about how he went from playing in UCD to the heights of the English Premier League

There may be only about 150 miles between UCD and the DW Stadium in Wigan but they are a lifetime apart for Conor Sammon. From class on Mondays studying for a diploma course in UCD while working a job in Bank of Ireland and playing with the college soccer team, to England’s Premier League, it has been a rollercoaster five years for the Malahide native.

Sammon moved from UCD to Derry City, to Kilmarnock in the SPL, then to Wigan in England, but still retains a strong North Dublin accent, one which he doesn’t believe he’ll ever lose. His path to England’s best football league started early. He “was constantly kicking a ball around from a very young age,” playing for various underage teams before arriving at UCD.

“Eddie Wallace had managed me at the Leinster underage team, and I had a link [to UCD AFC] through that. Lots of us were going to the trials and different things, and weighing up our future options after we left school, and UCD was obviously the top place to go. With the soccer scholarship that was available, you had a chance academically to do some studies, and also to play first team football. It was semi-professional, in the Eircom League, which was a huge attraction, one that I was delighted to get at the time.”

“I can remember making my UCD debut against Cork City. I’ve got fantastic memories of playing there. Loads of good memories playing under Pete Mann, Eddie Wallace, lots of good times at the Belfield Bowl. I can remember scoring some good goals there!”

If his path to UCD was the well-travelled one of impressive underage performances and provincial representation, then his path to the Scottish Premier League is down the road less travelled. Recent players to make the switch from Ireland’s top tier to foreign leagues have needed a string of hugely impressive performances to secure moves, as is evidenced by Seamus Coleman’s move to Everton and James McClean’s transfer to Sunderland. Sammon had impressed enough in the League of Ireland to secure a move to Derry in 2008, but struggled to hold down a first team place at the northern club. It was the man who signed him, Derry City’s then-manager John Robertson, who would have a big influence on his career.

“I caught John’s eye when UCD beat Derry City, the quarter final of the cup I think, and I managed to score that day at the Brandywell. I signed in the off-season, and by the time it came back for us to go into pre-season training with Derry, John had left the club, so I never had a chance to actually play under him.”

It was a recommendation from Robertson to Jim Jefferies, Kilmarnock’s manager at the time, which saw Sammon offered a trial with the SPL club having only made sixteen appearances. Two days later he was training with Kilmarnock, and a week after that he signed a professional contract with the club.

Sammon admits to being frustrated during his first two seasons at the club, which saw him dropped in and out of the team, and scoring inconsistently, but his third season saw him score eighteen goals in twenty-seven games: “Mixu Paatelainen came in as manager; it was a fresh start for all the players at the club, and I felt that I was in my strongest physical condition, as fit as I’d ever been. He took a big risk by playing me, and I feel that all those things came together to help me improve as a player and score lots of goals.”

With big performances in Scotland’s top tier came the inevitable interest from English clubs. Sammon turned down a move to Scunthorpe and tried not to read into any rumours of other clubs that he was linked with. “It was a crazy period,” he says, “When you’re scoring goals as a striker, it catches the eye of lots of teams.” On the deadline day of the 2011 January transfer window, Wigan came in with a formal inquiry.

“I had trained at Kilmarnock that morning, I was on my way home along the motorway, and my agent Damon Collins phoned me and said that Wigan had been in touch, and the manager wanted to talk to me. Again, it happened extremely quickly. Basically I went home to my flat, then travelled down that day to meet the manager, and it was finalised that day. It’s crazy how things can change in football. One day you wake up and you’re playing in the SPL, you go to bed that night, and suddenly you’re playing in the Premier League. The stuff of dreams really.”

Wigan managed to avoid the drop last season, but have since found themselves in the drop zone once again. Even though Sammon is enjoying life in the Premier League and the roll he occupies at Wigan, he is frustrated with the club’s place at the foot of the league.

“It is frustrating with our league position. I think we have a great chance of staying up. The league is so tight, with five or six teams who are going to be fighting out, and we definitely have the players to cause an upset, because everyone’s already written us off as the team to go down.”

“I’m looking to keep training hard and get into the starting XI for some big games coming up. From my time at Kilmarnock, in the last season when I was scoring lots of goals, I was playing as a lone frontman with two attacking midfielders playing off me. It was a roll I revelled in. There was a lot of space in behind defences and that’s what my game is all about, trying to play on the last man.”

The move to the Premier League comes with many changes, on and off the field. Sammon has netted in the Premier League, scoring in Wigan’s 3-2 victory over West Ham at the end of last season, a goal which was vital for Wigan to retain their Premier League status, but the improved defending of the Premier League has staggered his goal scoring somewhat.

“It’s been harder [to score] this season when chances are fewer, with the defences being of a better level. I’d probably say Vincent Kompany is the best player I’ve ever played against. Very strong, very quick, good on the ball.”

Growing up, Sammon was a Manchester United supporter, but the initial shock of travelling to illustrious stadiums such as Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge has since worn off: “When I first joined, they were the games that stood out. You were thinking ‘I’d love to play at Old Trafford.’ My debut was at the Etihad Stadium at Man City; you’re used to watching Match of the Day and seeing these players, then suddenly you find yourself going on to the park and playing against them. Initially I was amazed by the surroundings but that soon goes away and you just want to prove yourself as a player.”

The off-field lifestyle of Premiership footballers often comes under the spotlight, with frequent pictures and stories of players out on late nights, but Sammon doesn’t really engage with this side of football, and is not hungry for media attention.

“I’m sure there’s a small minority of footballers that live that sort of party lifestyle, but not that I’ve seen. There’s so much written that you can get carried away. When I first started playing I used to always be interested in hearing what people were saying about me. But as I’ve got older I’ve started to look past things like that. The way the media works is that they’re just constantly looking to write something controversial.”

The Premiership is a league where most players have been groomed to be professional footballers from a young age. Coming up in academies is a sheltered life, and one which can realistically lead to only one possibility; playing professional football at some level. Sammon was brought through the amateur and semi-professional ranks, so the change in his life is more pronounced.

“It’s definitely different from the days when I was at UCD, when I was working fulltime in Bank of Ireland, then you’d leave your nine to five job and you’d be rushing out to Belfield to train,” he says. One can see how his life has changed so much when he talks through his routine since turning professional: “We usually go in to training for 10.15, start training at 11.00 and finish at maybe 1.00. By that time we’d come in and have a bit of lunch, and then you’re free to go home or do some gym work.”

Match days have their own routine. Alan Shearer famously had a plate of chicken and beans before games, and Sammon takes the same approach: “I do tend to eat a lot of food before a game. I think some of the lads would be laughing at me with the amount of food that I’d eat. I haven’t tried the baked beans – maybe I should try that one!”

Sammon’s career has now branched across three different leagues, and if Wigan can stay afloat in the Premier League this season, then he is more than capable of continuing to swim with the big fish.