The first signs of winter had surfaced. The surrounding trees looked lifeless without their leaves and there was a sharp bite in the air. Despite the cold, he had no desire to retreat inside to the nearest building because he knew that would require a level of interaction with people. However, his job as a sales rep demanded that he get out of his car and face the same people that he wanted to avoid.
For O’Grady, it felt like a never-ending nightmare. The reason behind his eagerness to shy away was that almost every conversation he got involved in somehow wound back to the one topic that he didn’t want to discuss: Sligo Rovers reaching the FAI Cup final.
Normally, O’Grady would excitedly welcome any mention of his beloved club, but he found it difficult to share in the local enthusiasm for the team’s first cup final in 15 years as he was due to sit it out through suspension.
Having grown up with the 1994 cup-winning team as his heroes, the battling midfielder had always dreamed of following a similar path to glory. But an accumulation of too many yellow cards cruelly robbed him of that chance when Sligo made it through to last year’s final to meet Sporting Fingal.
The build-up to that game proved to be just as difficult for the 30-year-old to handle as watching his team slip to a 2-1 defeat when they conceded twice in the last 10 minutes to finish as runners up for the sixth time in the club’s history.
“Those were the worst weeks of my life. I know that may sound over the top because there are far worse things that happen in everyday life, but it was just heartbreaking,” said O’Grady.
“In the build-up to it, I thought that I would never get the chance again to play in a final. Of course, I was hopeful that I would but I knew that there was no guarantee of it. Having lost in four semi-finals and been suspended for a final, I felt that it wasn’t meant to be for me.”
Fortunately for O’Grady, a second chance has fallen his way as the Bit O’Red will today meet Shamrock Rovers in the Aviva Stadium to fight for the last piece of silverware of the season. Ironically, the Sligo native could feature in the game at the expense of teammate Richie Ryan, who is forced to serve a suspension alongside striker Matthew Blinkhorn. But he is refusing to take anything for granted as last year’s experience has left him more than a little wary.
Another reason why the experienced midfielder is sceptical about earning a starting place is that he has not been a first-choice pick this year. Despite making 25 appearances in the league, 15 of those came as a substitute as he struggled to break into Paul Cook’s team.
However, O’Grady could be the player that the Sligo boss turns to as a replacement for Ryan. If he does then the 13-year veteran of the league insists he will be ready to take on a pivotal role in the three-man midfield as he aims to make up for missing last year’s final.
“I’d like to think that every time Paul has called me into the team that I’ve done a good job. So hopefully that plays in my favour because I don’t think I have ever let him down,” he says.
“Obviously missing Richie is a big loss as he has been our player of the season and I don’t think it is fair that he misses the game through suspension. But we have to get on with it, just like last year when I missed out for the same reason.
“Whoever comes in will have a big job and I feel that I’m capable of it due to my experience. I’ve played in League Cup finals, been around the league for a number of years and the fact that I’m a little bit older means I won’t get caught up in the hype of it all.”
The story of Sligo’s season to date has been one of steady improvement. From only claiming two wins in their opening 10 league games to securing the EA Sports Cup and finishing third in the league, they have impressed after a shaky start. In fact, they are unbeaten in their last 11 games in all competitions and have been lauded for their fluid attacking play.
Cook has been the mastermind behind it all. Preferring a 4-5-1 system, the former Southport manager encourages his team to employ a short-passing game that allows playmaker Joseph Ndo to roam freely.
Although the absence of Ryan and Blinkhorn through suspension disrupts his entire gameplan ahead of their most important game of the season, there are options available to Cook and he has shown that he can react positively to setbacks, like when top scorer Pádraig Amond was sold to Portuguese outfit Pacos Ferriera in August. But this final will be his biggest test yet as a manager as he attempts to bring the cup back to Sligo for only the third time.
There is certainly no shortage of motivation in the Sligo dressing-room, although O’Grady feels that victory over Shamrock Rovers this afternoon could be the catalyst to ignite a whole new era for the club.
They already have a lot of the boxes ticked off with regard to a capable manager, a talented first-team squad, a sensible board and ambition to grow even bigger. All that is missing is consistently drawing in big crowds – something that could follow on the back of a cup triumph.
“If we win this game then it could spark a whole new generation of supporters to get behind the team and turn up to games on a regular basis. There is nothing like success to bring people in,” says O’Grady.
“I don’t think enough people have come to watch us play this season. If they did then they would see that we play an entertaining brand of football. In my opinion, this is the best Sligo team to ever play at The Showgrounds and all that is missing is some success.
“I know what a cup win can do for the club and the town. I was in the crowd in 1994 when we beat Derry City and I remember the bonfires and celebrations afterwards.
“Supporters got behind the team after that and there is no reason why it can’t happen again with this team. It won’t be easy as Shamrock Rovers will be favourites, but we will be doing everything we can to lift that cup.”
The build-up to today’s final has been quite different compared to last year’s for O’Grady. He met the same people through his job and was greeted with the same animated chatter about Sligo reaching the final, but this time he felt comfortable talking about it. There was no hiding away from the world or feeling sick in the pit of his stomach because he knows that this could be his opportunity to become a cup hero.
From the worst week of his life to possibly the best, he is determined to make the most of this second chance.