independent

Monday 14 October 2019

Conor's class suggests best yet to come

Dave Devereux chats to the Gorey youngster enjoying his role with Bohemians

Gorey native Conor Levingston (right) in a tussle with New Ross man Greg Bolger during one of Bohemians’ three victories against arch-rivals Shamrock Rovers already this season. Levingston and Bolger are flying the Wexford flag in the League of Ireland Premier Division along with Wexford town’s Ethan Boyle (also Shamrock Rovers), and Screen’s Kevin O’Connor (Cork City)
Gorey native Conor Levingston (right) in a tussle with New Ross man Greg Bolger during one of Bohemians’ three victories against arch-rivals Shamrock Rovers already this season. Levingston and Bolger are flying the Wexford flag in the League of Ireland Premier Division along with Wexford town’s Ethan Boyle (also Shamrock Rovers), and Screen’s Kevin O’Connor (Cork City)

If one door closes, another one opens. Those seven words sum up the attitude of Gorey soccer star Conor Levingston in a nutshell.

After being released by Wolverhampton Wanderers, following a six-year spell with the midlands club, he didn't wallow in self pity.

Instead he took enough time out of the game to dust himself down and get over his disappointment, and now he's back on the horse with a broad smile on his face and high-flying Bohemians are getting the benefit of a reinvigorated player.

The Wexford man admitted that while it was a tough pill to swallow to be shown the door by the Premier League outfit, he felt it was probably the right time for a fresh challenge.

'I'm an ambitious lad and competitive so I was definitely disappointed that I was let go. But I didn't dwell on it too much. I probably wasn't as disappointed as I thought I would be,' he said.

'I just thought everything happens for a reason. With the direction the club are going in at the minute they can sign pretty much anyone they want.

'They had a very good season in the Premier League last year. I just think it was probably best for me to move on and get out and kickstart my career,' he said.

After returning to his native Gorey last year, he satisfied his lust for sport by training with Naomh Eanna and he couldn't have picked a better time to be involved with his local club as they claimed an historic Senior hurling and Intermediate 'A' football championship double.

'I was out of football for eight months and ended up training with Naomh Eanna for a while. Obviously they had a very good year last year. I was just on the panel training and stuff and it was fantastic just to be involved.

'It would have been hard to go back to playing football straight away. You do kind of fall out of love with the game. The G.A.A. took my mind off things for a while,' he said.

However, a call from Bohemians manager Keith Long saw him return to his rightful place after his hiatus, allowing him to rekindle his love affair with the beautiful game.

'I was working in Weatherglaze in Gorey and Keith rang me when I was on my break and explained to me how he wanted to meet up and wanted to sign me.

'He said he'd seen me playing for Ireland at under-age and always liked the look of me and wanted to give me a chance. He took a big chance on me and I'm thankful to him for that,' he said.

Levingston commutes to Dublin for training and matches, sharing lifts with team-mate, Arklow man Aaron Barry, meaning he can enjoy life surrounded by family and friends just a stone's throw from where he cut his teeth in the game at Gorey Rangers.

And he speaks fondly of his boyhood club, where he spent his formative years before being snapped up by Wolves when he was 15.

'I played with Gorey Rangers right up until I went across to England. I probably started training with the Under-10s when I was about six or that. It wasn't like it is now where you'd have an academy. You just went up and there was lads of all ages.

'My first couple of experiences with the club were with 'Hoxey Travers', God rest him. He was brilliant with all the young lads. That's where it all started really and I progressed on through a couple of other good managers and eventually to John and Darren Burke, who were instrumental in my progression,' he said.

His stand-out performances for Gorey Rangers quickly began to turn heads and led to international recognition, and ultimately a trip across the water to link up with Wolverhampton Wanderers.

'I got the opportunity to go to Qatar with the Irish Under-15s around Christmas time in 2012. That was brilliant, it was a reward for all the hard work in the years before that, not just me, by my ma and da and the sacrifices they made and everybody at Gorey Rangers.

'William Doyle, who was my manager for the county team, was also instrumental in my progression, so really it was an accumulation of a lot of people that helped me.

'Willie Byrne, the Wolves scout, has family in Gorey and I think he watched me play with Gorey Rangers a couple of times in All-Ireland competitions and with the Wexford county teams as well,' he said.

It's never easy for a fresh-faced teenager to leave family and friends behind and uproot to a different country to follow their dream, and Levingston, the eldest of four, with two younger brothers and a sister, freely admits that it was a struggle to adapt.

'I'm not going to lie, it was very tough going over at first. Leaving the quiet surroundings in Gorey to going over to the hustle and bustle of a city in England. I was a bit out of my depth off the pitch.

'On the pitch I was going from playing in the Wexford Schoolboys League, and in the first couple of weeks I went over I played against Man United at Carrington. It's a big jump from the Wexford League to be playing at that kind of level.

'It probably took me a couple of months to find my feet on the pitch and it definitely took me a couple of months to find my feet off of it to get settled in and stuff,' he said.

After years trying to impress in the youths and reserve teams, ultimately things didn't work out at Wolves, but that phone call from Keith Long gave him an opportunity for redemption and a second coming of sorts, with the Bohs manager illustrating an unshakeable faith in the young midfielder's ability from the off.

'Me and my dad met him in the Arklow Bay Hotel and he explained to me that if I was doing the business in training in pre-season he'd have no problem throwing me in straight away. Some managers might say that just to get you in, but Keith was one hundred per cent true to his word and threw me in, and I think there's only one league game I haven't played this year.

'I'm thankful for the opportunity that Keith and Trevor (Croly) gave me, bringing me in and giving me a taste of men's football for the first time. Going from academy football over in England where you're in an out of the team.

'First team players come in to get game time when they're recovering from injury so no matter how well you're doing it's hard over there. This is just fantastic for me, to play every week and pit myself against the best players in the country. It's been really, really enjoyable,' Levingston said.

The 21-year-old has been one of the stars of the season for a Bohemians side sitting in third place in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division table, behind champions Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, and although he's been earning high praise for his performances he's always looking to add a little bit extra to his game.

'I've got two goals this year so I'm absolutely delighted. It's been kind of unknown territory for me in recent years, I was playing more of a holding role but Keith and Trevor are always trying to get that little bit more out of you.

'If I could add more goals to my game that would be another string to my bow. It helps the team to be able to score goals from all over the pitch,' he said.

Levingston had no illusions about the challenges he faced when stepping over the white line into battle in our domestic league, and said he was ready for whatever was thrown at him, having been well aware of the quality on our own shores.

'I never thought coming to the League of Ireland was going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Men's football is completely different to academy football. It's a lot more competitive, maybe a bit frantic at times.

'It probably took me a couple of games to find my feet. The senior players at Bohs were really helpful when I arrived, giving me little pieces of advice about what to do in certain situations.

'I found my feet fairly quickly I think but I wasn't surprised by the high standard. There's a lot of good players in this country that don't get the credit they deserve,' he said.

The Gorey man has had plenty of recognition at international level in the past and hasn't given up hope of donning the green of Ireland again, although unsurprisingly Bohs are his number one priority at the moment.

'It would be lovely to play for the Under-21s. I've played at every other age group. If it happens, it happens. It would be a bonus to me really but at the minute I'm just focusing on Bohs and trying to do well every week.

'Hopefully we can achieve something this season. The sky's the limit. We've a young group.

'We're doing well so far but it counts for nothing if we're not still there at the end of October/early November,' he said.

Levingston has settled in like a dream at Bohemians and it's easy to see why, with the array of young talent around him as well as a fervent home following, and he's quick to acknowledge the role played by the dedicated fans.

'I think the third game of the season was a Dublin derby up in Dalymount (a 1-0 win against Shamrock Rovers) and the atmosphere was just unbelievable. The fans get behind us even when things are not going our way.

'We've had a couple of disappointing results at home this year but they back us to the hilt all the time. Even the away support that we get is great. They travel to Sligo, travel to Cork in midweek and stuff, and that really helps.

'It's always great to play in front of a good home crowd, and obviously the results have helped this year as well in getting people in the door. The attendances have been fantastic and it's always better when you're playing in front of a good crowd,' he said.

Bohs really seem to have the Indian sign over Shamrock Rovers, having beaten their local rivals in all three meetings this season, and Levingston says it's a fixture he relishes being part of.

'It's easy to get up for the Rovers games. They're such big games and obviously everybody wants to win. You want to win every game of course but there's so much more on the line for that one. It's a really enjoyable fixture to play in.

'It's mental, so frantic and there's a hostile atmosphere in the stands and stuff. That's the kind of atmosphere you want to be playing in. You don't get that in academy football,' he said.

A quick glance at the Premier Division table will tell you that Bohemians have European football in their sights for next season, but Levingston says they're taking it one step at a time.

'To be fair we haven't put any limits on ourselves. Keith hasn't said we need European football, or we need this or we need that. I know it's a cliché, but we just take every game as it comes and try to win every game.

'It's not really an arrogance, but we think from the games we've played we believe we can beat anybody on our day.

'We've put it up to the best. Against Dundalk two last-minute winners went against us. They're the benchmark in this country and it's up to us to try to bridge that gap. We've beaten Rovers three times already this season so there's no reason why we can't bridge the gap to them in the league table. We'll aim for the stars and if we fall short, hopefully we'll fall short in a decent position,' he said.

Levingston had the chance to pit his wits against world-class opposition as Bohemians drew 1-1 with Premier League giants Chelsea in a friendly last week, in a contest where manager Keith Long gave plenty of his young guns game time, and Levingston said it perfectly illustrates the philosophy at the club.

'It was a brilliant experience and really enjoyable. It was nice to go out and perform. It shows the way the club and manager work. Playing against big teams with big names, he's still not afraid to give young lads a chance.

'That's part of the reason that I was attracted to Bohs in the first place. You can see they've a track record of giving young lads a chance. Young lads coming back from England and even young lads in Ireland working their way up,' he said.

Having gotten a taste of English opposition it might have whetted the appetite for a return across the Irish Sea, but Levingston says all his focus will remain closer to home for the foreseeable future.

'I haven't really thought about it (returning to England). I'm just back enjoying football and I want to keep it that way. I'm playing well and the team is doing well. I just have to look after my performances and keep focusing on Bohs.

'I don't know what will happen down the line but for the minute I'm more than happy to play for Bohs and happy to be home with family and friends around me,' he said.

It goes without saying that sport has played a massive role in his life to date, but Levingston doesn't want to keep all his eggs in the one basket and will also be setting out on an academic path when he begins a Level 5 course in architecture, design and technology in Bray Institute of Further Education in September.

'I left with no Leaving Cert so I think I need to do a PLC to get some credits to get into university or college or whatever. If I enjoy the course I'd like to go on and do it at college. I'm looking forward to having something to take my mind off football. I could have gone for something sports-related but I just wanted something different,' he said.

As somebody who always seems eager to learn and progress, his education on and off the football field should go hand in hand, and in Bohemians he seems to have found the perfect fit.

'Keith is one of the best man managers that I've worked under. He's very good at seeing if a player is a little bit down and putting an arm around him, while Trevor's reputation goes before him. He's probably the best coach in the country and his attention to detail is second to none.

'The backroom staff up there are fantastic as well. Everybody just keeps pushing you in the right way and they won't let you rest on your laurels. It all helps to get the best out of you,' he said.

You sense with Conor Levingston's application and ability, that the best is yet to come.

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