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'He must have seen me looking around because he shouted over ‘Are you alright, gorgeous?’'

Dubliner Warren O’Hora was snapped up by Brighton just seven months after making his first-team debut for Bohemians.

O'Hora with the Brighton shirt.
O'Hora with the Brighton shirt.
Image: Twitter/OfficialBHAFC

EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD Warren O’Hora was one of the real success stories in Irish football last season.

After working his way through the ranks as captain of their U17 and U19 sides, manager Keith Long handed the centre-half the chance to prove himself in the SSE Airtricity League last June.

Making his debut as a late substitute away to St Patrick’s Athletic, O’Hora didn’t look out of place. He would go on to make 11 Premier Division appearances in the second half of the campaign as the Gypsies finished strongly to claim fifth place.

With that in mind, the Cabra native — whose family home is a stone’s throw from Dalymount Park — fully expected to spend the 2018 campaign building on those experiences and, hopefully, cementing a place in the Bohs backline.

Instead, he is embarking on a new life in England after agreeing to sign for Premier League side Brighton & Hove Albion a fortnight ago.

Although the dream move has come relatively late for O’Hora, his rise to prominence was remarkably quick. Agent Patrick Conliffe of Full Contact looked after the deal as well as overseeing Simon Power’s move to Norwich City from UCD and Shane Blaney’s switch from Finn Harps to Doncaster Rovers this month.

He told The42 that there has been a lot of interest in 17, 18 and 19-year-olds from across the water of late.

“UK clubs are looking at Ireland a lot more now,” Conliffe said this week. “When you have guys that age who have only played a few League of Ireland games being signed, you know they think there’s a bit of talent here, and they obviously feel they’re getting value for money as well.”

“Warren played 11 times for Bohemians, Shane made a couple of competitive appearances for Finn Harps, and Simon only played about four or five games for UCD’s first team. Yet they still got good deals with English clubs.”

Having signed a two-and-a-half-year deal with the Seagulls, O’Hora admits owing a great debt to Bohemians and several people at the club. He was brought to the Gypsies by Jimmy Mowlds after a schoolboy career that included spells at local club Dingle United, Ashbourne and St Kevin’s Boys.

Jimmy signed me for Bohs U17s,” O’Hora says. “I was with him with the North Dublin Schoolboy League (NDSL) side for four years before that so I knew what he was about. He started all this and established me as a player. He has been texting me about the move and he’s ecstatic.”

The centre-half was handed the skippers’ armband under both Mowlds and U19s boss Graham Lawlor before being invited to train with the first-team squad. He was named among the substitutes a couple of times but had to wait until their league trip to Richmond Park last June to make his senior bow — coming on for Robert Cornwall to play the final 14 minutes in a 3-2 win.

“I was up and down to the first team,” he recalls. “It helped that I had been there because I knew what to expect from Keith and [coach] Trevor [Croly].

“Training with a men’s team prepares you. I was sitting on the bench when I was younger and Keith didn’t think I was ready. Credit to him because I wasn’t at that stage but all the time I was giving out about not playing.

“Fair play though, he gave me the chance and I took it by storm. I didn’t want to let that starting spot go and I made sure to keep it.”

Warren O’Hora with Jamie Hollywood Tussling with Jamie Hollywood of Drogheda United last season. Source: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

He remembers being understandably nervous jusr after entering the action, but Bohs captain Derek Pender soon put him at ease.

“It’s a funny story,” O’Hora tells. “I was a young lad making my debut, Pat’s always get a good crowd and Richmond Park is a decent stadium. When I came on, there was a throw-in. Derek was taking it and he must have seen me looking around because he shouted over ‘Are you alright, gorgeous?’

“That made me laugh and I settled right in after that. It helped me to calm down.”

The vastly-experienced Pender was one of several players to make the teenager feel welcome. Goalkeeper Shane Supple, who spent four years at Ipswich Town, is always available to offer advice too.

“It was a big help having Derek beside me at full-back and Shane Supple, who is the best keeper in the league in my opinion, behind me.

“During games, Derek would always help and be there to cover me a little bit. All the senior boys were great as soon as I came up so it didn’t feel like I was out of place right from the start.

“Shane really helped me on and off the pitch. If there is any decision that I had to make, I would always ring Shane. If I was unsure about trials, my own performance or if I thought something was wrong even, in my personal life, he is always a phone call away.”

The Phibsborough outfit finished fifth in the Premier Division and it looked as though O’Hora would see more regular game-time this season. A couple of English clubs had other ideas, however.

I had heard of interest for trials but there were no offers,” he explains. “A lot of Bohs fans, my family and friends were asking what was happening with a move.

“My intentions were to stay with Bohs. I’m from Cabra and it’s only a few minutes away from Dalymount so I was living the dream playing for them.

“But the trials came up and I went. In fairness to all the Bohs staff — the likes of Keith, Trevor, Shane and Derek — they all said it was up to me and if I wanted to progress my career by coming over here then I should go for it.

“That’s what I did and I’m happy with the decision. Credit to Keith, he said if I ever need to train in the off-season or anything then I shouldn’t be afraid to drop down.”

Trials at Championship side Norwich City and League One club Shrewsbury Town saw him offered deals by both. However, when Brighton came in with an invitation to visit them in December, O’Hora accepted.

“It was a tough decision to come to Brighton knowing that the other clubs could be a bit aggravated by it. They may have thought it meant I didn’t want to sign for them.

“I just wanted to weigh up all my options and get a feel for all three. I went over to Brighton for two days just before Christmas and I just loved it. I’m thankful to Patrick as well for all his help when I was talking to clubs.

“There’s a strong Irish connection over there. I know a few of the boys so I got onto them and said ‘What’s up? What’s it like?’ I felt a bit like home, I don’t know if that was because of all the Irish boys around but I felt like I could develop more as a player here than I could in any other place.”

Beyond Brighton’s manager, former Ireland full-back Chris Hughton, and current international Shane Duffy, there are a raft of young Irish players in their ranks. 18-year-old Jayson Molumby has featured in the Carabao Cup this season, then there are youth players such as Aaron Connolly, Daniel Mandriou, Dessie Hutchinson and Rian O’Sullivan on the books.

AFC Bournemouth v Brighton and Hove Albion - Carabao Cup - Third Round - Vitality Stadium Brighton and Ireland prospect Jayson Molumby. Source: Steven Paston

Having made the switch recently, O’Hora is staying in temporary digs for a couple of weeks before he gets a permanent place to stay.

“I’ve settled in great. It’s good having the Irish boys around because they’re just a text away to go to the pictures or for food or something like that. It’s grand.”

Unfortunately, O’Hora is nursing a hamstring injury so making an impact on the training pitch will have to wait for a few more days.

“I’m in rehab at the moment but it’s nothing to worry about. I got back running pain-free three days ago so it’s been about trying to get my fitness levels back to where they were.

The plan is get back fully fit so I can train and play, then work my way into the U23s and start pushing towards the first team. If that doesn’t happen, I could maybe go out and gain experience on loan somewhere next season.”

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And what advice would he give to young Irish footballers who are in similar positions to the one he found himself in a year or two ago?

“From my own experience, I’d tell them that they shouldn’t be worrying about any of their friends who might have got moves to big clubs. There’s no point sitting there saying ‘Why haven’t I made it?’.

“So many 15 and 16-year-olds come home after the first year or two. They might not be mature or fully-developed. There’s something to be said for finding a good LOI club and pushing your way through, because men’s football helps you develop hugely.

“An old Bohs team-mate of mine at Bohs, Fuad Sule, went to Barnet and is an example of that. It shows you don’t need to rush to get to England at such a young age.”

Fuad Sule 21-year-old Fuad Sule joined Barnet from Bohs in December. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

With a wealth of experience dealing in the area, Conliffe believes each player’s circumstances are different, but says staying in Ireland to get first-team experience has been rewarded in recent years.

“Since Dundalk did well in the Europa League and the likes of Richie Towell, Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan moved over, there has been a steady flow of established LOI players going over, as well as younger LOI lads.”

He adds: ““You, of course, still have your academy players who are the guys turning 16 and there are a lot of Premier League and Championship clubs still looking to sign them to fill their academy quotas. That’s up to the players and their parents if they want to give it a go at that age but we are all aware of the slim hopes of coming out the other end of a UK academy now.

“Once they get a little bit older and hit around the 18-mark, they’re no longer considered scholars in the UK. We advise a lot of our clients to stay here and try break into a LOI team.

“Like Warren showed, if you can get a run of games playing first-team football in a competitive league, an English club will sit up and take notice straight away.

“For the 15 or 16-year-olds, if Man United come calling it’s hard to say ‘No, I’m going to stay here and try break into the St Pat’s first team for instance and then I’ll get my move’. It’s tough for kids and parents but the reality is most of them are coming home two or three years later. You saw Kevin Toner signing for St Pat’s the other day after making his debut for Aston Villa at 19 not so long ago. The key is making your route to regular first-team football as easy as is possible in such a highly-competitive environment.

“If, God forbid, the LOI clubs can be assisted with improving their facilities and coaching and developing players here with proper full-time academy structures in place and more full-time LOI clubs similar to the likes of the Scandinavian leagues for instance, then Irish clubs would be compensated to a higher degree and command higher fees, which in turn would pump more money into Irish football and have a positive cyclical effect to enable a professional system.

“But if an English club is looking at part-time set-ups or poorly-funded academies here, they say to themselves ‘Why should we pay high fees or training compensation for players coming from part-time academies/clubs?’.

“The reality is that’s how they view the Irish system, unfortunately.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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