I think I was born with a ball at my feet – I had a tennis ball I would constantly have around the house, kicking it off anything in sight and turning to go the other direction. I was 110% full time with a football from the age of 2 or 3 I’d say. Football has been amazing to me and really shaped the first 20 years of my life. It’s given me the chance to dream, to travel the world, to make numerous friends, to learn different lessons, and most importantly, the chance to have fun.
My name is Darren O’Donoghue and I’m a Data Science Consultant for Accenture’s Applied Intelligence practice. I am 25 years old and from Dublin. I always had a love of mathematics throughout school which led me to choose MSISS in Trinity. We had a Regression module in 2nd year where we were building models to predict whether a patient had cancer or not. For the first time in my life, I could really see how all the mathematical formulas in the world come together to really be applied to real-world issues. I got a real kick off building that model and it was a game-changing moment for me where I realised I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life happily.
Other than the usual socialising, I am just obsessed with sports. The main constant sport throughout my life, and where I’ve had my most success, is soccer. I played for a few teams in my teenage years. I started at Templeogue United before moving on to Crumlin, St. Francis and finally Belvedere FC. I was a centre midfielder. It’s weird, I’ve played centre-half and left-back before to cover for people, but I don’t enjoy football unless I’m in centre mid. It’s just not the same game. I love to be in the thick of all the action, constantly on the ball, spraying it around and getting up to get some goals!
I have many role models in football, but my main one is Ronaldinho. He was an absolute joy to watch for those few years from the 2002 World Cup until he left Barcelona. I really don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone like him since in the way he would go past players. Messi & Ronaldo are different players that will be higher up in the history books, but Ronaldinho was particularly special to me. I used to study Iniesta & Xavi a lot also and take notes as we played similar positions. Roy Keane was also a hero of mine – having an Irishman captain Manchester United just provided such a relatable figure to aspire to be.
I was involved with the Irish team through a bunch of trials and scouts monitoring your performance with your club on the weekend. The trials started with the top 200 players in Ireland and ran on consecutive Sundays for months until they got down to a squad of 18 for a trip to Qatar. After that, the squads would constantly have a few changes based on performances, so it was a great learning curve to have that sort of competition throughout the team for the jersey.
My debut for Ireland was in Qatar in a 60,000 seater stadium that will be used in the 2022 World Cup. I also played multiple games away to a Netherlands team that had many of their current internationals playing. We also played Belgium, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. My favourite memory was probably my first international game on Irish soil against Lithuania. As it was at home, all my extended family came to watch and it was a great occasion for everyone.
My favourite experience as part of the Ireland team was just singing the national anthem out as loud as I could. If there’s one thing to know about me it’s that I cannot sing to save my life, but I’m a proud Irishman and getting the chance to look at the flag and sing was such an honour for me.
I have had a lot of great moments as a football player. Representing Ireland was obviously the pinnacle. I also had 6 or 7 trials at Manchester City before they brought my parents and me over to show them the club and watch a game. I had a jersey with my name on the back presented to me on the pitch and got to meet many of the players. It was a proud moment to think I could treat my parents to an experience like this just because of a sport I loved playing. In hindsight, I think I was a bit oblivious to the fact that they do this with many people from all over the world and I had by no means made it at that point. But still, it was a proud moment to have a club like Manchester City treat you and your family like that because they want you to sign.
When I finally gave up on my lifelong dream to be a footballer at about 19, I had to reinvent myself and figure out what life had in store for me. This was incredibly tough as I’d never given a minutes thought to me not making it in football. After a few years of college/soul searching, I realised that I certainly was not just Darren the Footballer as I would have been known in school and amongst friends. I was a fully rounded person with a number of talents, and football was just one of them. I would reiterate to anyone solely focused on making it in football that it’s incredibly important to not let football define you and to be able to identify yourself with more than just the game.
Right now, I play with Larkview FC in the Leinster Senior League. It’s not quite the same as playing in front of crowds or scouts and being touted as the next big thing, but when you break it all down, a game of football is a game of football. I still get the same adrenaline rush when I score a goal or make a tackle but the difference is once the final whistle blows, I’m not completely consumed by football and I get back to my normal life.
I learned many important lessons from my time playing football. I always trained hard but 99% effort isn’t enough with regards making it to the very top. My central midfield partner with Belvedere always set the bar when it came to effort – as hard as I thought I worked, I just could never match his effort and dedication. He has over 100 appearances for Blackburn Rovers and recently captained them in the Championship. It is very cliché, but talent can only get you so far – you have to be the most dedicated. This is always the beauty of hindsight, but another one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to simply appreciate every training session, match, and experience. With sports where you require youth and athleticism, it really is a case of blink and it’s gone. Those teenage years of playing are precious – it really is a short time frame and is to be enjoyed and appreciated.
I really feel that the experiences I had through football have shaped who I am today. The great experiences are brilliant memories, but the negative experiences are what build your character. Getting rejected, dropped or overlooked and knowing how to bounce back and better yourself is the main thing I’ve learned that benefits my professional career. It’s so easy to quit but biding your time, taking constructive criticism and coming back better is what drives me. You will constantly be overlooked/written off in work, so knowing how to deal with that and self-improve is imperative to success. Football gave me great experience in that. It can be tough as a 15-year-old to be told you’re not good enough and to deal with that pressure, but it is an experience I’m so grateful I got at that young age.
With regards to playing for your country and pursuing a career in football, I couldn’t recommend it enough. I had just the most amazing experiences and I wouldn’t change that for the world. Having said that, I would throw in a massive caveat – it is absolutely crucial that these teenagers can identify with more than just football. I’ve seen lots of ex-teammates that didn’t quite make the grade for one reason or another; at 19/20 years old, they get cast aside with no Leaving Cert or no idea what to do next as they’ve only ever considered football as the solution. More needs to be done in the game for the players that don’t make it and get released at that age, but it’s most important for that to come from the players themselves. I would tell all of them to stay in school and work hard and have a solid Plan B. I was lucky because I was quite academic, although I never wanted to pursue an alternative career. But the main thing is that when I had to reinvent myself, I learned that there’s way more to the world than just football. There are many other sports, past times and careers – it’s about having more than one passion and plan. Data Science and the tech industry works brilliantly for me from that point of view. It’s the most exciting industry in the world at the moment!
There is more to life than just tech. In order to fully shape a person, you need a past time, relationships, and to find a passion. Whether that be charity work or sports or music, having a life outside of work helps overall production as it just clears your mindset and refreshes you in order to be able to produce your best performance in the office!