It was October in 2010. On 21 minutes Conor Sammon scored a tap-in to put Kilmarnock in front. He’d later add a second, again from close range, to level the game against Rangers before Killie eventually succumbed to a 3-2 defeat. These weren’t flukes or a case of fortunate timing. The Dubliner’s positioning was nothing short of exceptional, knowing where to be at the exact moment to deliver the killer strike. This wasn’t the same Sammon I saw pair-up with Paul Byrne in Belfield. Back then, in the stands at least, he was seen as at-best a man in a supporting role to UCD’s star striker. Fans paid homage to his one outstanding trait, and he really only had one, in holding up the ball with a dance. ‘Do the Sammo’ was not the Hustle and Conor Sammon was not a forward to be feared. Watching Sammon on TV that morning in my flat, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Fortunately some of his former coaches were equally amazed by the transformation.
“It’s a different footballer, he wasn’t the goal-scorer he is now,” says Diarmuid McNally, current assistant manager with UCD. “All he had here was potential but at UCD we had lots of players with potential and he didn’t stand out.” Mentally however McNally couldn’t fault Sammon, saying he had the drive to bring his game forward. “If you look at what he did subsequently, he moved to Derry because he knew they were a good club to go to if you wanted to get a move beyond the league,” says McNally. “Then he went to Kilmarnock, a move a lot of lads might not have been willing to make, and he made it work from there.”
Sammon nearly didn’t even make it to UCD. The club was between minds about offering him a scholarship but Eddie Wallace, who joined the club as joint-manager with Pete Mahon, saw some potential. Wallace first saw Sammon playing with Mid-Sutton and that was enough for Wallace to call him up to a Leinster Youths team. From there Cherry Orchard picked him up and Sammon was part of a core of players, including Byrne and current Brighton midfielder Gary Dicker who joined the Students in that scholarship class.
“I saw potential in the amount of running he did up front,” says Wallace. “He didn’t have much ball control and wasn’t very good in the air. When I saw him I was only interested in what he could do for UCD, I thought he could eventually develop into a first-team player.”
While Wallace couldn’t see what was to come, he found him a sponge for absorbing advice. “The kid worked very hard at his game, his upper-body strength is phenomenal now,” he says. “Most players have potential but that doesn’t mean they are going to make it. [With Sammon] You would tell him what to work on and he would do it.”
Wallace and McNally were far from alone in underestimating the striker’s potential. Foppe de Haan, who guided Heerenveen to the Champions League in 2000, saw Sammon playing a friendly on the Foster pitch in Belfield. When asked by Pete Mahon, then UCD manager, what he made of his strikers de Haan immediately pointed to Byrne as the one likely to go further.
“Conor played with our Under 21s in his first season with us, he scored the winning goal in the final against Cork City,” says Mahon. “He did well for us in his first year in the League of Ireland. Conor had a great attitude. He was determined, he wanted to be there all day doing his best.”
Mahon said he was surprised but delighted at the former UCD striker getting the call-up from Giovanni Trapattoni. “Last week against Notts Forest, it was the best game I’ve seen from him in a while. He wasn’t in a good situation at Wigan, getting most of his chances as a substitute,” says Mahon. “The level he’s at now, with Derby, he’s going to get the chance to play every week and continue his development.”
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Emmet Ryan is a former Media Officer with UCD AFC, follow him on Twitter.