In our continuing series on League of Ireland Legends, revered midfielder Paul Osam recalls days of heaven with St Patrick’s Athletic with Liam Mackey.
Ask Irish people what they remember most about 1990 and you can expect the majority to wax nostalgic about Big Jack, Dave and Packie, and all the other glorious memories of that momentous summer in Italy.
But ask that question around Inchicore and you’re just as likely to be regaled with tales of Brian Kerr and the St Patrick’s Athletic team which, that same year, finally ended the club’s 34-year-long wait for the League of Ireland title.
Central to that side’s success was the man they still revere as ‘Oso’.
Developing into one of the most dominant midfield players of his time, Paul Osam would go on to win three more titles with Pat’s — a fifth, in 2002, would be denied them because of a controversial points deduction — and another with Shamrock Rovers, in 1994, a period which the Inchicore faithful like to refer to as their hero’s ‘leave of absence’ before he returned to his spiritual home.
Reflecting on that breakthrough 1990 triumph — which Pat’s achieved playing out of Harold’s Cross while Richmond Park was being redeveloped — Paul admits: “At the time, I was young and quite new in the league so it probably didn’t as mean as much to me then, to be quite honest, as it did to the people of Inchicore, to Brian Kerr and to other players who’d been there before for me. It was only later, and looking back now, that I have been able to appreciate it a lot more. It was a fantastic achievement.
“If you looked at it on paper, that great Derry City side — who’d done the treble the previous year — would have been odds-on to win the league that season but Brian had assembled a really good side, even though some of us might have been considered unfashionable players by some other clubs.
But when I look back on some of the clips from that season now, I think: ‘Jeez, we weren’t bad’ (laughs).”
It was an Osam header in 1-0 win in a crunch game in the Brandywell in January which proved crucial in putting Pat’s on an unstoppable course for the title.
“Yeah, that game was the turning point,” he says, going on to recall the relative novelty of the team getting to overnight in Derry before the match.
“It was probably almost unheard of back then but we went up the day before — that’s how important the match was and how prepared Brian wanted us to be. That gave a great buzz to me — that feeling of being as professional as we could be given the finances back then. That would have been a masterstroke by Brian.
“I wouldn’t have been overawed but I remember being a bit nervous playing against Derry in the Brandywell, in such a big game in front of such a big crowd. It was a very close, very even game, as all our games against Derry were. We were probably a little on the back foot but we always had that ability to carve out something.
“I remember the goal vividly. I would have been playing on the left at that time and John Treacy hit a deep cross into the box. I was coming in at the far post and I had to jump backwards to make contact but I managed to generate enough power to loop it over Tim Dalton’s head and it bounced over the line. It was definitely what you’d call a looping header.”
Nine years later and another Osam header would prove just as pivotal in helping Pat’s win another title, their fourth of the golden age. It came in a decisive clash three games from the end of the season with title rivals Cork City, played out in front of a full house at a pulsating Richmond Park.
Liam Buckley was the manager hoping to replicate what Kerr, twice, and then Pat Dolan, had already achieved in the 90s, and one of his biggest worries going into the game concerned the fitness of the team’s influential skipper. Mind, the Pat’s diehards figured there was nothing new in that.
Recalls Paul with a laugh:
There was a Pat’s fanzine called Osam Is Doubtful because they’d been so used to Pat Dolan saying that nearly every week. But I really was doubtful before that game.
“I had a foot injury and it was genuinely touch and go. But by hook or by crook I wanted to play because I knew the magnitude of it for the club, the fans, and for Liam and that team — because it was a really good side we had that year, we played really good football.”
It was by getting his own head on the end of a header back across goal from a corner, that Osam settled a fiercely contested game, the crowning moment of an occasion which he selects as a personal favourite from all the great nights he experienced by the Camac.
Talking us through that goal again, he says: “Even though I was 6’ 4” I wouldn’t have classed myself as being magnificently gifted in the air but we’d always worked hard on set pieces, and I always had the mentality that, any time a ball came into the box from a corner or a free-kick, I saw it as an opportunity to score. And when you have that kind or belief, things will happen for you.”
What happened for Osam that year was record-breaking, as he enjoyed the special personal accolade of carrying off a clean sweep of the country’s three main player of the year awards, from his peers, the media, and the FAI.
That he did so at the age of 31 was, he suggests, no accident.
“Absolutely, I hit my peak at 31 — or even later. Between 30 and 33 I had three seasons that, undoubtedly, were the best for me. When I was younger, I had other things going on in my life or on my mind. But as I got older, and a little bit more mature and a little bit wiser, certainly my lifestyle changed. I met my wife, settled down, had a kid. I was more focused and had more appreciation of things. Up to my mid-20s I’d say I hadn’t looked after myself or applied myself as I did when I matured as a player and, more importantly, as an individual. So I would undoubtedly say I was fitter and in better condition playing football at 31 than I was at 21.”
For all his undoubted quality and for all that he achieved in the domestic game, Osam — who never played in England or won a senior cap for Ireland — reckons he could have done more as a player.
“Could I have played at a higher level? I certainly think I could have,” he says. “I don’t brood about it but, yeah, the thought does come into my head every now and then.”
Happily, all these years later, the long-term benefit for the development of Irish football is that, as national U16 head coach, Paul Osam is well-equipped to point a new generation of players in the right direction.
“100%,” he says. “I’m lucky enough to be in the position where I feel I can offer a huge amount to young players, from all the life experience and football experience that I can call on, to try and help ensure they fulfil their potential, as a player and as an individual, on the pitch and off the pitch.”