Big step up for Conor

Big step up for Conor

8 September 2021

KILLYLEAGH’S Conor Brennan enjoyed a whirlwind time with the Rangers first team squad after being involved in the team’s preparations for their recent European and Scottish Premier league fixtures.

The Glasgow giants academy goalkeeping coach received an unexpected call-up to assist with the senior side after Rangers were left without their regular managerial team after a number of them were forced to isolate after testing positive for Covid.

The Ibrox side found itself in an unfortunate situation ahead of its crucial Europa League qualifying play-off against Alashkert and Old Firm derby at home to rivals Celtic as numerous members of the senior squad management team — including manager Steven Gerrard — were forced to stay at home.

Conor (27), said he got a phone call from the club on Monday, August 23, asking whether his passport was in date as he was flying to Armenia two days later to prepare the first team goalkeepers for the European tie.

“I just had to take it one step at a time and try to keep everything the same as I usually do with the academy, as the Alashkert game was worth roughly £10m pounds to the club so you could sense there was a lot riding on it,” he revealed.

“It was a quick turnaround for me but I wasn’t surprised with anything preparation wise, as everything we do in the academy mirrors the first team regime anyway.”

After quickly adjusting to his senior squad duties, Conor set off on the six-hour flight to Armenia arriving on Wednesday morning, a day before the tie was scheduled to kick-off.

“It was just members of our team on the plane and we really can’t fault the first class service we were provided. Usually there are around 40 to 50 players and staff who would travel to any given game, but we boarded the flight with about half that number due to the sheer volume of people isolating.”

When the Rangers squad arrived in Armenia, they were met with a media scrum who had caught wind of the depleted team and absence of manager Gerrard.

“We had to travel in three separate buses to comply with social distancing measures. As Covid-19 already had a major impact on our squad, we didn’t want to hang about the airport. It was very much a case of get in, do the job and get out again,” reflected Conor.

While already at a disadvantage with a less than full strength squad, Rangers had to cope with scorching weather conditions at the Vazgen Sargsyan Republican Stadium in Yerevan.

“Just before kick-off, the temperature was 32 degrees and it felt like a dry heat where you could barely catch your breath at times,” Conor explained. “It obviously had an effect on the boys, but that shows their level of professionalism and togetherness as a team to battle through adversity.”

But the Killyleagh man wasn’t the only person who made a surprise appearance with the Rangers first team as the side drafted in their third-choice ‘keeper Robby McCrorie in the absence of both Allan McGregor and Jon McLaughlin.

“Robby is a great kid that came through the academy with me. He was out on loan last season with Livingston and with Allan and Jon out of contention it was a big opportunity for him,” said Conor.

“My job was to make sure Robby kept a clean sheet by doing everything possible to make sure he was as prepared as he could be. But, of course, a lot of praise goes to the goalkeeper himself.

“This was my first time as a coach at a European fixture with the first team. I have been involved with Northern Ireland in the past, but this was my first taste travelling at club level so I’m glad I helped get the job done.”

Rangers recorded a goalless draw which was enough to qualify for the Europa League group stage, after they had won 1-0 in the first leg of the fixture in Glasgow.

However, the excitement didn’t stop there for Conor as the missing players and staff would not be out of isolation in time for the Old Firm derby against Celtic three days later.

He continued: “We managed to organise the times with flights and travel so that the squad could remain in a UK time zone and not suffer any jet lag ahead of the Celtic game which was a totally different experience, even though the preparation was the same.

“A few hundred fans travelled to Armenia but at home to Celtic we had 50,000 of them packed into Ibrox. The atmosphere is unexplainable but you just need to focus on your job and what you’re doing. I used exactly the same warm-ups with the goalkeepers because ultimately my focus was helping keep a clean sheet.”

Rangers came away with a 1-0 derby day win, with Conor revealing that the level of eliteness from the players really opened his eyes.

“The condition they are in is incredible and their professionalism wowed me. We had five academy players in the squad and that showed them where they could be if they continue to dedicate themselves,” said Conor, who said his involvement with then first team reinforced where he would like to be in the future.

He said: “I learnt a lot from my time with the first team and it’s something I am thankful for.”

While Conor has returned to his duties with the Rangers academy team, he is still enjoying his own playing career with semi-professional outfit East Kilbride FC in Scotland’s lower league.

Conor added: “We are enjoying a good winning run at the minute and I really enjoy playing for them. The balance I have between playing and coaching is perfect and I couldn’t be happier with my situation at the moment. I’m very grateful.”