As a teenager footballer in Dublin, Conor Sammon waved goodbye to plenty of mates as they crossed the water to try their luck in the English game, writes James Shield.
At the time, serving an apprenticeship in the SSE Airtricity League must have seemed positively mundane by comparison. But, he explained earlier this week, it equipped him with the skills to succeed where many of his contemporaries failed and carve a long and successful professional career.
“Lots of lads come over when they are 14 or 15 but my situation is slightly different. I played semi-pro for quite a while and that toughened me up because, when I was 17 and 18, I was getting first team games.
“Okay, it was at a lower level if you like but it was against grown men. That meant I was much much more used to getting big hits when I finally signed.”
Sammon, as tomorrow’s opponents Bury will be acutely aware, has dished-out plenty himself since joining Kilmarnock seven years ago. Despite boasting a deceptively delicate touch, the Sheffield United centre-forward, who left Derby County on loan during the close season, was primarily signed to instil the League One club’s attack with an uncompromising edge.
“I like to give as good as I get on the football pitch,” Sammon admitted. “Even in training, I enjoy a good physical battle with the defenders. You can’t go at it half-cocked in the week, then just to expect to flick a switch and come out on top on Saturday afternoons. You’ve got to be intense in every single session. But, at all times, I try to be above board and fair.”
Sammon was forced to develop his survival instincts after enrolling in Ireland’s traditional school of hard knocks.
“I played Gaelic football when I was younger, from when I was 12 to about 14,” he said. “Back home, if you want to make it, then you’re always fighting to prove yourself, always fighting to show that you’re good enough to potentially, one day, come over here. That’s just the way our mentality is.
“But the Gaelic, that’s a big part of it too. It’s just so physical it’s untrue.
“They kick lumps out of each other and just get on with. There’s no rolling around or stuff like that. The only time you see those guys stay down is if they really are hurt. They’re all amateurs too.”
“I was a corner forward or a half forward back then,” Sammon added. “The actual role, unless you are familiar with the game, is pretty hard to describe. But they’re showing the Gaelic on SKY quite a lot now so people will be able to see what I’m on about. The hurling is on as well and the pace of that is incredible, they even clatter each other with the hurl itself.
“I didn’t get any injuries, fortunately, so I must be able to take a hit pretty well. There comes a time when you have to pick one sport or the other though and, for me, soccer as you’d say back home, was always my number one choice even though the Gaelic is huge. You can get 85,000 people inside Croke Park, the mainstadium supporting their county.”
Predictably, having been born and raised on the banks of the River Liffey, Sammon’s county of choice is Dublin. Even though, he acknowledged, it causes ructions with the folks.
“We’re having quite a lot of success with the Gaelic and the hurling at the moment and it’s really easy to keep up to date,” he said. “I’m from Dublin so that’s who I follow but both my parents are from Mayo so it’s always nice to get the bragging rights over them.”
Sammon, who represented UCD and Derry before heading to Rugby Park, enters the meeting with David Flitcroft’s side searching for his third goal in seven outings for United. Adkins’ squad slipped to fourth in the League One table following the postponement of their fixture against Colchester due to international call-ups. But Sammon, capped nine times by his country, is adamant they possess the firepower and strength of character to make-up lost ground.
“There’s great competition for places now, none more so than up-front, and that drives us on because we know we’ve got to play well to stay in the team. To be honest, I think that’s brilliant. It’s healthy for me and it’s healthy for the group as a whole. It guarantees we’re all ‘on it’ every single day.”