By Ciaran O’Donnell
To those in the know, it came as no surprise when Institute came calling for Conor Tourish. And when the caller from the Irish League Premiership side was recently appointed Institute boss, John Quigg, the answer was always going to be yes.
It’s eight years since the 24-year-old Letterkenny man first teamed up with the former Derry City and Finn Harps defender at Brandywell – Quigg was in charge of the under-19s with Eddie Seydak.
The Optum employee played his underage football with Glencar and Letterkenny Rovers – Liam O’Donnell, Anthony Gorman and Eamon McConigley were his managers during that period. He broke into the Rovers first team in 2011 when aged just 16 and by that stage he’d already caught the attention of Derry City.
“Derry City asked me if I’d like to join them and I took them up on their offer. I thought it was a good opportunity,” he recalls.
But in 2013, a hip injury required surgery and that left the teenager on the sidelines for 18 months.
“That was a big setback,” says the towering defender whose aerial strength is complimented by his neat ball-playing skills.
“A year and a half is a long time to be out of the game. It was a difficult time because I wasn’t used to being on my own. There’s nobody really around you and you have to do all that rehab stuff on your own. It was a long and lonely time, especially when you’re not used to it. There was a point when I found it hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
But the tunnel ended and the light was duly seen. Conor got himself back to full fitness and was part of the Derry City Reserve team that won the Ulster Senior League for the first and only time in 2012, with John Quigg at the helm.
“Declan Devine was the first team manager at that time. Then Peter Hutton came in for a spell and Kenny Shiels was the last manager I was under when I was with Derry,” he comments.
“I don’t think Kenny Shiels fancied me that much – you do get the vibe. I was in training every day but was on the bench for the senior team just one night.”
Conor figured he needed a change of scenery and returned to Letterkenny Rovers for the 2016/2017 season. Months earlier, Rovers had reached the final of the FAI Intermediate Cup and had made a good impression in the Ulster Senior League. So the omens were good.
Understandably he has somewhat mixed emotions about leaving his home club he has such a fondness for. He’s happy at the prospect of making the cut at senior level, yet disappointed not to have won an USL title before moving to pastures new.
“I know we weren’t as close this year, but last year we were so close to pipping Cockhill for the league. I know we won a cup this year, and any season you win a cup isn’t a bad season. We started so well and hadn’t lost a game before Christmas. But the two defeats after Christmas to Derry City Reserves and Finn Harps Reserves ruined our chances. The team we had was good enough to win the league at least once over the last three years. But Cockhill were the better team this year and deserved to win the league,” he says.
With much uncertainty surrounding the future of the Ulster Senior League, Conor says it could be a much better league if teams in the region would back themselves and test their ability at the next level.
“There are definitely teams in the Donegal League and in the Inishowen League who are more than able to play at that level. But maybe they are comfortable enough where they are – maybe the issue is travelling. Teams who are good enough need to have the want to go and make the move up. But teams don’t seem to want to make that step and that’s a real pity.”
Last Friday night, Conor was presented with the Ulster Senior League Player of the Year Award.
“Accolades like that don’t come around too often, so I was delighted with it,” he says.
The centre back believes the standard of players in the Ulster Senior League is of the highest quality.
“To be recognised as the best player in the league is something I’m extremely proud of.”
Conor is excited about the move to Institute and is looking forward to teaming up again with his former gaffer.
“I’m going to be stepping up a level. I know ‘Quiggy’ and he knows me. I know he’ll help me settle in. I’m looking forward to giving it a go and I believe I’m well capable of playing at that standard. My aim is to settle in well and hit the ground running. Nailing down a regular place in the starting eleven is the priority because I’ve never played senior football before. When this opportunity came, I didn’t think twice. I had to go and challenge myself,” he adds.
Conor has always been a fan of how John Quigg coaches his teams to play – it’s played out from the back on the ground.
“I think that style of play has always suited me and hopefully I can fit in well at Institute. I’m sure ‘Quiggy’ will be looking to make a solid start because it’s going to be his first full season in charge of a senior team.”
Quigg, who finished out his playing career with Institute, was appointed manager last month and took charge for the final two league games. He is one of the most respected coaches in the North West and his years helping develop players at Derry City’s youth academy are sure to stand him in his new role.
Conor is one of just a few new signings John Quigg has made to date during the close season – Benny ‘Fildara’ McLaughlin who helped Cockhill Celtic to their sixth successive USL title and seventh in total is another.
With pre-season set to begin in earnest on June 10, Conor has been working out himself in preparation for the collective sessions to come.
“I took a couple of weeks off at the end of the season and am happy to be back at it now,” he says.
“Letterkenny Rovers have been brilliant and I’ve really enjoyed my three seasons back with the club. They were never going to hold someone back who’s going up a level and they’ve been a great support throughout my career.”