Mick O’Connell’s path to the Harrogate Railway dugout has been unconventional considering AP McCoy and Frankie Dettori were two of his sporting adversaries less than a decade ago.
O’Connelll was one of the country’s leading flat jockeys until a serious back injury in late 2013 brought his career as a professional sportsman crashing down.
O’Connell travelled the world through horse racing and won hundreds of races during his 13-years as a professional jockey. He met Queen twice, rode one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s horses and won the 2012 Flat Ride of the Year award for his triumphant ride on on Qubuh at Hamilton Park in the May of that year.
He’s also been threatened by revenge-seeking mobsters and been effectively restrained by two air hostesses on a plane.
Now he’s in the Non League Football world after switching sports after retirement from the saddle and he’s the latest man tasked with ending Harrogate’s fall from the NPL to the bottom of the NCEL Division One table that began with the departure of the highly successful Billy Miller in 2015.
This is Mick O’Connell’s Non League (Horse Racing) Journey:
“I would say I was very successful in terms of riding everyday and the volume of winners I had. I wasn’t in the elite class as there was four or five elite jockeys when I raced. That was your Tony McCoy’s, Frankie Dettori’s, Mick Kinane, Ryan Moore’s. They won all your big group ones, all the classics and then you have the band below that of jockeys who are riding 70 or 80 winners a year, maybe 100. In football terms, I was mid-table and probably Burnley – never going to be relegated, but never going to break into Europe.
“I made a good living out of it and I got to meet a lot of people, a lot of famous people. I travelled the world and I have no regrets. It is a really great career. It is like any professional sport, when you are in it, you’re in that bubble. It is not until you retire that you realise how privileged you were to be in that position. It is so intense and when you step-out you look back at some of the people you meet and the places you go, you think ‘wow’. I couldn’t do it now because the lifestyle is crazy. You’re up at four in the morning and you’re getting back at 2am in the morning. You’re travelling all over the country and the world too. It is not like football when you have five days off, you’re straight back racing the next day and you hardly see your family during the season. Unfortunately with weight restrictions you have to be conscious of what you’re drinking and eating as well.”
“I’m from County Kildare which is literally 30 minutes outside Dublin and I played football from eight upwards at a reasonably good level. I had a trial for Celtic at one stage, but when you get to 16 you get to a crossroads when you know whether you’re giving to make a living from it or not. You think about what you’re going to do and I had never touched a horse in my life. To be honest I didn’t know how many legs they had! But someone said to me ‘you’re small so why don’t you try and be a jockey’. I said I couldn’t because I had never ridden one. He told me about an apprenticeship jockey school and because he arranged for me to go, I had to oblige. I thought I’d go and be so far behind everyone that I wouldn’t get accepted and that would be the end of it. In the background I had made arrangements to start as an apprenticeship electrician. So the plan was go on the two week trial at the jockey school and then drop into the apprentice electrician job. But I went to there (to the jockey school) and took to it like a duck to water and never looked back. Looking back, going there (to the jockey school) was one of the the best decisions I ever made. I left home and I spent ten months at the racing college. In the morning you would learn how to ride the horses and then in the afternoon and night you’d do your GCSE’s. If you think footballers did a YTS course, we basically did that, but as jockeys.”
“You get trained in-house for six months and then they send you on a work placement. Mine went well and I got on really well with the trainer called Peter Mooney. I qualified from the racing school in the April of the year (around 2000) it was and I took part in my first ride as a professional on Derby Weekend at Curragh three weeks later. So in the space of 12 months I went from not been able to ride a horse to riding in a race. It took me a while to get going and I must have had about 80 rides before I rode a winner. There were people around me who were riding winners and I was thinking ‘maybe this isn’t for me’ and ‘maybe I’m not good enough’. You start doubting yourself. But when I did eventually ride my first winner, I think I rode five winners in the space of two weeks. I think my first win might have been at Limerick.
“I was initially riding in Ireland for a year and then my trainer sent me over to England for the winter. I was sent to just outside Cardiff and I spent three or four months riding on the all-weather for David Evans. I went back to Ireland in the March and I spent another season riding in Ireland, but while it is ultra-competitive, there is not as much racing as there is in England. It is really hard to get going so I made the decision when I was nearly 19 that I was going to move to England full-time and it is one of the best things I have ever done. I was sort of floating about in Ireland getting slow rides, but when I came here I pretty much took off straightaway. I never looked back.”
Move to England
“I went to Harvey Smith in Bingley and I spent a year-and-half there and rode probably 30 or 40 winners for them. I got offered a job in Middleham with Ferdy Murphy so I moved there. I initially did well, but then I had a couple of injuries and falls. I struggled when I came from injury and I spent about three years having up-and-down times. As soon as I got going again, I would get a fall and break another bone. I broke two vertebrates in my back when I fell riding. I’ve been in the back of an ambulance more times than you can count, too many times. You learn to have a high pain threshold.
“When I came back from the broken vertebrates, that’s when I switched back to flat racing. At this stage I’d probably ridden about 50 winners. I went to Dandy Nicholls in Thirsk and from that point my career took off. I started riding some good horses and riding a lot of winners. I was now riding at all the big meetings. Royal Ascot, I rode in the Derby which is the biggest flat race in the world. I rode all over the place really. I rode a couple of winners in Dubai. I never rode in the Grand National, but I have ridden at Aintree.”
Meeting the Queen and Famous Footballers
“I had the privilege of meeting the Queen at Royal Ascot and at Epsom. At Epsom, because it is the biggest race in this country, she stands in the paddock so you shake her hand before you go into the paddock to get on your horse. I didn’t know I was going to meet her at Epsom. I came into the paddock and she was there shaking everyone’s hand. I met her again doing the same thing at Royal Ascot, maybe a couple of years later. Meeting the Queen is probably one of my proudest moments.
“I met loads of football managers and players like Sir Alex Ferguson, Michael Owen, Paul Scholes. They all own horses. Michael Owen has a big yard in Chester. You go to the big horse meetings on a Saturday, York, Cheltenham, the footballers all have horses there.
“Alex Ferguson actually had horses with Dandy Nicholls while I was there. Paul Scholes did too. Alex Ferguson is an absolute gentleman and he lives and breathes for horse racing. I’ve also met Harry Redknapp and he’s the same.
“I rode a horse for Joey Barton in Dubai and believe it or not I fell out with him night. To be fair he was alright, but we were out in the owners bar and his racing manager piped up and said something. As you do after you’ve had a few beers, I told him how it is. I never heard from them again!”
Wild Nights Out
“On the race track it is every man for himself and you don’t give your mates an inch. There is no prizes for finishing second. In the changing room you’re a really tight-knit group. You tend to socialise and the nights out can be really wild. It is one of those circuits where everyone goes out together.
“I remember going to France for one of the biggest meetings. I flew out that morning and I was supposed to fly back that night. I think I rode in the second race and I finished fifth or sixth. I only had one ride so I went to the owners bar and I ended up p***** as a fart. I got back to Charles de Gaulle airport to fly back to Heathrow and there were six or seven people telling me to stand up straight or they wouldn’t let me on the flight. I was stumbling about all over the place because I’d drunk too much champagne. I don’t know if you’ve ever drunk champagne, but if you drink too much of it, it is not good for you. We get to the gate and they let everyone through, but I was told to stand away and they wouldn’t let me on. So I’m thinking ‘this is great, I’m stranded in France and the missus is going to go crackers when I tell her’. Anyway, after everyone was on the flight, the air hostesses decided to let me on and they hustled me onto the flight. They asked the people on the front seats to move and they made me sit in the middle of the three seats and the air hostesses sat either side of me for the whole flight. I felt like a convict, it was horrendous!
“Another wild night out was when we rode in Dubai and then went on the p*** as you do. We had to be at the airport at six in the morning. After the night out I went to the apartment and when I woke up it was 6.30am. The flight was at seven o’clock. I grabbed my bag, ran out of the apartment block and flagged a taxi down to get to the airport, but I missed my flight. I had to pay £1000 to get a different flight back. The only flight that day was to Birmingham or somewhere like that. So I flew to Birmingham and I had to get a train from Birmingham back up to York and Northallerton. I then had to go to Newcastle to pick my car up. You can imagine what the missus said! I’ve been told off by her more than enough times.”
“I spent two winters in Dubai and I absolutely loved it out there. It is a place that I could happily back to go to and live there. I’ve been back there on holiday three or four times. We actually contemplated moving out there last year. Football is on the up over there and there’s a lot of investment at grassroots level and there’s a lot of ex-pros coaching out there. The football facilities are out of this world. They make St Georges Park look adequate.”
Mobsters want to shoot McConnell
“I rode somewhere one day and I had two or three rides. The horse I was on was one to four on, it couldn’t get beat. It was 20 pound well in and this trainer who I won’t name said to me, ‘you can’t win today’. I said ‘there’s no way he can’t win unless his leg falls off’. A mate of mine who is a steward came to me and said ‘be careful on that’. On BetFair you can bet on horses to lose so the owners who were gangsters from Newcastle had put about one hundred grand on the horse to lose. They would have got millions basically. I said to my mate ‘thanks for giving me the heads up’.
“I went out and the horse took off and won. I went back in and the trainer was nowhere to be seen. I drove home and the phone goes and it was these Newcastle boys wanting my address so they could shoot me and break my legs. What they were going to do was unbelievable. At the time I was working for Dandy Nicholls and I told him the following morning. He said ‘right, get in the car, we’re off’. He drove to the trainer’s yard and shouted ‘where is he, where is he’? He was in the tack room and Dandy ran across it and grabbed him by the throat and picked him up off his feet. You can imagine the guy’s feet dangling. Dandy was ragging him about like a rag doll because the trainer shouldn’t have done it. If I had not tried and got beat, I would have probably lost my licence. I could have got a eight-year ban and I was only a kid at the time.
“These things do happen, but it is a lot better now. When you go in the stewards room at the races there is probably 50 TVs on the wall and they have every angle covered. They know exactly when you’re trying and when you’re not trying. If there is dodgy movements in the betting they know so you can’t get away with it anymore.”
“I had a good horse I used to ride called Iver Bridge Lad. I went to Royal Ascot, Dubai, all over the place with him. He was a bit of a globe trotter. I won a couple of a patten races with him.
“I won in France with a big Grade Two race in Maisons-Laffitte with him and I regard it as the best win of my career – a because of the magnitude of the race and b because of the owners.
“I became good friends with the owners as I travelled everywhere with them. They weren’t your big owners with loads of money. We had some really funny days with them.”
Punters want McConnell’s blood
“I rode at Wetherby on a favourite and I got beat. I finished fifth or sixth. I couldn’t understand why I had got beat, but the horse pulled up lame when it was coming back in. When we were back in the paddock, we saw that he had pulled his front two shoes and it is impossible for a horse to win when that happens. That day I had to get escorted by security out of the back door to my car and then escorted out of the race course. There was about 100 punters at the front door wanting to kill me. When I was walking back up the walkway they were throwing beer bottles at me, apples, race-cards. You can’t repeat the names they were calling me so they didn’t take too kindly to the horse pulling up lame.”
Devastating injury finishes career
“I was sort of the second jockey at Dandy Nicholls and I then got offered a stable jockey job with John Quinn in Malton. I spoke to Dandy about it and he said I had to take it. I had maybe three seasons with John Quinn and it was a really successful time. We had a lot of winners together. It was my best ever run, but then in the November-time I smashed my back after a bad fall and I never recovered from that and I never got back riding. I had 18 months off and I went through rehab like you do. At the back of mind I thought I’d get back, but it wasn’t to be.”
“I’ve no regrets. I was very dedicated because everyday I was waking up nine stone two or nine stone one and I would have to get down to eight. Half of the races are blur because you’d take so much weight off. I once took off a stone in a day. I lost ten or eleven pounds at Ripon one day and I was coming home from Ripon and when you are so dehydrated you get cramps. I had to pull the car over as my hands kept locking up and I physically couldn’t drive the car. It is not something a lot of people will know, but jockeys really battle with their weight. It has come out now that a lot of jockeys suffer with mental health problems because you’re battling with the scales every day. It is not like a boxer who fights three or four times a year and loses weight for just those fights. For jockeys it is relentless and they battle for 365 days a year.
“You set yourself a weight at which you can ride at and my bottom weight at the time was eight stone seven, but I didn’t do that very often unless it was a very good horse that had a chance of winning.
“For a normal training day you’d probably have a ride in the morning on a horse and then do some gym work in the afternoon. Nine times out of ten you’d then chill out because you’d been so busy that you hadn’t seen the missus for two weeks. During the season you’d never see them. So she’d probably drag you round the shops! You may go for dinner, but you can’t eat anything. Socially you can’t do anything because of the weight. It is a very unsociable lifestyle. We had some wild night outs, but we suffered for it the next day because you’d have eight or nine pounds to lose.”
“I still get remembered and I still get people coming up to me and speaking to me when I go to the races. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, but I did relatively well so I can see why. General racing fans recognise me and it is nice. People remind me of horses I’ve ridden and races I’ve won and I can’t remember riding or winning them because I’ve ridden that many and won so many races!
“I still follow it everyday by looking at the results and I still have a lot of close friends involved in horse racing. One of my closest mates (Alistair Whillians) is a trainer. He was my best man at my wedding. I first met him at Ferdy Murphy’s and we had some good times together like wild night outs.”
Change of Sport
“I started playing football again in 2015 and I played a few games for Harrogate Railway when Liam Gray was the manager (in 2017). But I hadn’t played for so long and I never really enjoyed it. I always had one eye on coaching as that was the avenue I wanted to go down.
“I settled in Bedale many years ago and when I retired from horse racing, I stumbled back into football. I needed something competitive to keep me occupied. I ran a junior team for Bedale Juniors and I started taking my football coaching badges. I spent a few years running it and then I took a group of players to Darlington and I ended up taking over the team. They were 16s at the time and I obviously got the 18s job and I maybe had two seasons doing that until a new manager came in and starting changing things.
“I went and helped my mate with a local team and then I got a phone call from (chairman) Mick (Edwards) to come back to Harrogate (in January as Des Macorison’s assistant)) and I got the manager’s job (when Des left). It has been an unconventional path, but I’ve always been football-orientated. It might sound really stupid, but football and horse racing are not a million miles away from each other. I know in horse racing you haven’t got 15 lads to back you up. If you mess up in horse racing, it is your livelihood and you’re on your own and you’re out. It is a ruthless game and you have to be ready 365 days a year. There are no hiding places, but you have to be super fit and what people don’t realise is that you’re a professional athlete in the peak of your condition. You have to do all your own nutrition and fitness. All you have is an agent looking after your rides and a valet looking after your gear.
“You have to be professional, be ready, be fit, be mentally strong. You know what Twitter’s like. When people have lost a tenner, you get messages and you get slated in the paper. It is a ruthless business and it has prepared me to take that step into football management. I’ll be honest, I don’t want to be hanging around the Northern Counties East League all my life. I’m ambitious and I’ve been at professional level in one sport, but I’m not going to sit here and say I’m going to the very top as a manager because you need a lot of luck. But I’ll do my upmost to get as high as I can up the food chain because that’s where I’ve come from and that’s where I want to go back to.
“There’s no comparison in the intensity though. People say Non League is semi-professional, but you go to work on a Monday morning and it (Saturday) is forgotten. When you’re riding horses professionally, you get beat on the Tuesday, it is still there on the Wednesday as you’re back doing the same thing. The level of professionalism is getting better in Non League football and the level of coaching is better, but there is still some very amateurish people in the Non League world. I want everything done professionally because that’s all I know. Even though it is Step 6 football, you have to have standards.
“I have a way I want to play, but at this level of football when you have only six hours of contact a week, if that if you’re lucky. It is very hard to get that across when lads are coming from 12 hours of work. Because of how I am, we train at seven, but I expect them to be there at 6.30pm and be ready on the pitch at 6.50pm. That’s the life I lived and sometimes I forget that I was getting paid a full-time wage to do that. These lads don’t. I’ve got to adapt to and I think I will.”
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There is a video at the bottom of the page showing our work.
NLY Community Sport, run by James Grayson and Connor Rollinson, has always had combatting social isolation at the top of our objectives when running our Disability Football teams so when the green light to return is given, our work will play an important role in reintroducing our players, who have disabilities and learning difficulties, back into society.
We have six teams, a mixture of Junior and Adult teams – Nostell MW DFC, Pontefract Pirates, Selby Disability Football Club and the South Yorkshire Superheroes (Barnsley) – across Yorkshire.
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