To many people who are not regulars at Easter Road stadium, the story of Garry O’Connor is one of disappointment and is defined by his actions off of the pitch. However, anyone who got to see him represent his boyhood heroes regularly over his two spells with Hibernian would be able to point out a string of highlights on the field. Edinburgh born and bred and a Hibs fan throughout his youth, O’Connor was given his debut in the green and white in April 2001 under then Hibernian manager Alex McLeish after training with the first team squad throughout that season, but it wasn’t until McLeish was replaced the following season by ‘Le God’ Franck Sauzee and then the eventual arrival of Bobby Williamson that O’Connor really began to make his mark in the first team. Bobby Williamson was forced to incorporate more youth products than perhaps he would have liked in his tenure at Hibernian due to budget cuts being made at the time, but this early involvement would prove to be crucial in the development of many of future stars that would grace the Easter Road turf, including Garry O’Connor.
There were never any fears about O’Connor being physically ready for regular first team football due to his unique combination of pace and power and it was these physical attributes, rather than perhaps his footballing ability, that earned him the first of his sixteen Scotland caps at the age of just eighteen. O’Connor formed a lethal strike partnership with fellow Hibs academy product Derek Riordan and this was evident in the 2004/05 season under new manager Tony Mowbray as Hibs claimed a third place finish in the league and the pair scored an impressive forty-two goals between them, with O’Connor contributing nineteen goals in all competitions. O’Connor undoubtedly played his best football for the hibees after the arrival of Tony Mowbray and he saved his most memorable moments in his first spell in the green and white for the Edinburgh derbies. He grabbed crucial goals including a last minute winner in 2003 with a near post drive at the famous five end, a crucial goal at Tynecastle in a 2-1 victory that was vital in securing a return to European football that season and the second goal that sealed victory at a raucous Easter Road as Hibs put an end to Hearts’ unbeaten start to the 2005/06 season. The latter arguably being his most famous goal in a Hibs jersey.
Inevitably, once O’Connor starting adding goals and built upon his devastating physical attributes by maturing as a striker, he was not short of suitors. In march 2006, following a drawn out transfer saga linking him with a move to every corner of Europe, Garry O’Connor joined Lokomotiv Moscow for a fee of 1.7 million pounds. In retrospect, O’Connor never really got the credit he deserved for moving overseas to Russia rather than taking the more traditional route and joining one of the old firm (who were both interested) or taking one of the offers he had from various English sides. There was a real reluctance for British players to widen their footballing horizons and move abroad for a long time but O’Connor made that leap by moving to the Russian premier league and he deserves great credit for that. That being said, the reported £16,000-a-week wage might have factored into his decision.
O’Connor struggled to settle in Russia and left after just one full season in the Russian capital to join former boss Alex McLeish at Birmingham city. However, he left having secured cult hero status with the Lokomotiv Moscow fans after scoring the winning goal in extra-time in the Russian cup final against local rivals FC Moscow a month before his departure. He struggled to maintain a regular place in the Birmingham city side mainly due to injury as they yo-yoed between the premier league and the championship in his four year stay at the club. A short unsuccessful spell with championship side Barnsley followed in 2011 after two previous short loan spells with the Yorkshire club.
In April 2011 his contract with Barnsley was mutually terminated and, as would become a bit of a trend for Hibernian players over the years, in June 2011 he returned to Easter Road on a one-year-deal. He was a rare bright spark in that season as the club embarked on one of its poorest seasons in recent memory thanks to a serious of nameless journeymen being recruited by Colin Calderwood in the summer and then by his replacement Pat Fenlon in January. The shambolic recruitment meant that Hibernian narrowly avoided relegation that season and were beaten in the Scottish cup final by Hearts. Despite all of the negativity and arguing that went on that season, what is inarguable is that Hibernian would not have remained in the league and would not have reached the cup final were it not for the strike partnership of O’Connor and a young, raw Leigh Griffiths. O’Connor started the season on fire and scored seven goals in Hibernian’s first nine league games, including a last-minute winner to give Hibs their first ever win in Inverness. He scored sixteen goals that season in an abysmal Hibs team with a midfield behind him as creative and inspiring as a Terry Butcher half-time team talk.
Hibs retained their place in the league after relegating Jim Jefferies’ Dunfermline by thumping them 4-0 in front of a packed Easter Road, with Garry O’Connor converting a penalty in the process. His most memorable moment in his second spell in green and white was definitely against Aberdeen in the Scottish cup semi-final. O’Connor produced a neat near-post finish after a cross from the ‘Gambian Roberto Carlos’ himself, Pa Kujabi (and to think people thought the 21st of May 2016 was a footballing fairy-tale at Hampden). Eventually the Aberdeen defence recovered from PTSD after conceding a goal from a Kujabi assist and they equalized, but with moments remaining O’Connor flicked the ball on for Griffiths who finished well to put Hibernian into their first Scottish cup final in eleven years. Leigh Griffiths credits O’Connor with mentoring him during his second spell at Easter Road and just like his first spell, O’Connor was defined by his ability to form a very effective partnership with his strike partner. I don’t think many other strikers in the league at the time could have notched 16 goals in a team as poor as Hibs were that season, but his physical fitness was a much bigger concern during his second spell and once again off the field issues began to arise and O’Connor was looking for a new club after the Scottish cup final.
Despite only being twenty-nine when he departed Hibs for a second time, O’Connor’s career was effectively over. He returned to Russia briefly to play for Tom Tomsk where he only played six league games, was involved in a contract dispute and claims he was never paid a penny by the club. He then joined championship side Greenock Morton and was maligned for his physical condition and attitude by the fans, media and his manager Kenny Shiels. He would be relegated to league 1 with the ton after only contributing one goal. He then played for and managed the now defunct lowland league side Selkirk between 2015 and 2016, but it only served to put into perspective how somebody who was once commanding combined transfer fees of almost four-and-a-half million pounds, driving a Ferrari and being linked with a move to half of the English Premier league had fallen.
After he stepped away from football in 2016, O’Connor started up his own Edinburgh-based football academy, 2nd chance football academy. As the name would suggest, the academy aims to reinvigorate young players who may have fallen out of love with football or give people who feel that their talents have gone unrecognized a chance to train with professional coaches.