Irish eyes are smiling

IF character is as important as ability for Jim Magilton's new-look Ipswich Town side then no wonder he has shown patience and a quiet determination to land George O'Callaghan.

By Derek Davis

IF character is as important as ability for Jim Magilton's new-look Ipswich Town side then no wonder he has shown patience and a quiet determination to land George O'Callaghan.

On the playing side, O'Callaghan oozes class with the ability to twist a defender inside out, pick a precision pass, score spectacular goals or be in the box for a tap-in.

His impact at Cork City, at first as a striker but then in midfield, was such that the Rebels won the eircom League and were runners-up in the FAI Cup and the lucrative Setanta Cup, with O'Callaghan scooping the eircom League player of the year award.

Those worried that such a build-up for a player dubbed 'The King' by Cork fans, can rest easy because another commodity O'Callaghan has in abundance is confidence.

That is not to be confused with arrogance, because he is as down to earth as you will find. While he is more mature than the battered youngster who left Port Vale some five years ago, he still has the same enthusiasm, belief and self-effacing humour he had when John Rudge first signed him at Vale Park.

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His ability on the pitch saw him make his debut against Wolves at 17 and he was voted the Valiants' young player of the year in 1997.

Things went awry at Vale Park under Brian Horton, who thought him too immature to be in a side which was eventually relegated from the old Division One.

However, even Horton recognised O'Callaghan had something a bit special and offered him a two-year deal, with Spurs and Bolton waiting in the wings. The young Irishman accepted but he never fully fulfilled his potential or ambition and returned to his native Cork.

O'Callaghan said: “I was young and a bit naïve and I got homesick. In many ways that has helped me. I got my enthusiasm for the game back at Cork and I have grown up a lot. I never wanted to be one of those who came back from England and just disappeared. “I wanted another chance in England and this is it. I'm stronger in every way now, as a player and a person and I'm hungry to do well. Not many people get a second chance but I have and I will make the most of it.”

While with Vale he played alongside Robbie Williams in a testimon-ial match for Martin Foyle, now manager, while the pop star is a major shareholder at the club.

O'Callaghan also became good friends with perennial world darts champion Phil 'The Power' Taylor, who still practises at the Saggar Makers Bottom Knockers pub in Burslem, across the road from where Robbie Williams' dad used to own the Red Lion.

Although O'Callaghan played in an early round of the then LDV Vans Trophy, he missed out on a trip to Wembley and so, disillusioned, left England.

It did not take him long to win the fans over at Cork too, helped by a goal on his debut against Shelbourne, but things took a turn for the worse in the summer after a dismissal against Bohemians

Manager Damien Richardson fined him two weeks' wages, which was challenged by the player and backed by the PFA.

Richardson was livid and made it clear O'Callaghan would not play for Cork again while he was manager.

O'Callaghan said: “That is all in the past and I'm not going to dwell on it. Cork is a fantastic club with some brilliant people there.

“They gave me a platform when I came back from Vale and I'll be grateful for that and the fans are absolutely magnificent.”

Slavia Prague, who Cork had played in Europe, were alerted and tried to sign him, but a deal fell through at the last minute.

O'Callaghan was invited to train with Ipswich and Phil Parkinson at Hull City was also keen to have a close look.

However, the Irishman was seduced by the Blues and quickly settled in. His hopes of impressing early on took a knock when he suffered a viral infection and had to return home to Cork.

Undeterred, O'Callaghan returned, worked on his fitness and convinced Magilton he should sign him. He said: “I loved it here from day one and although I had other offers I wanted to show my commitment early on.

“I'm fully fit and flying, a lot of that is down to Simon Thadani and I bet he is glad he doesn't have to see my ugly mug as much.”

The winning goal in a practice match against Millwall and another good showing at Watford underpinned what Town already knew, but striking a deal with Cork City proved a long and arduous process.

For O'Callaghan, the 18-month contract is a lifeline and he is determined to show that the wrangling was worthwhile.

He said: “I can't believe it has finally happened - I'm an Ipswich player at last. This is a great club with a fantastic tradition and wonderful history.

“Jim is doing a terrific job and I'm excited to be at the start of something that is going to be

brilliant. I have trained with a lot of the lads and feel very much part of the squad so it won't take any time at all to fit in.”

The Irishman could make his debut against Colchester on Saturday alongside Alan Lee, who was on loan at Port Vale when O'Callaghan started out.