Managing against Spurs a career highlight: Former Cliftonville striker Diarmuid O'Carroll

Morecambe led Spurs until the 74th minute before bowing out of the FA Cup on a 3-1 scoreline

AS he stood on the edge of the technical area dwarfed by the sheer magnitude and magnificence of the Tottenham Hotspurs Stadium, there were probably a million pinch-yourself moments for Diarmuid O’Carroll.

Antonio Conte a mere 10 metres away, barking out instructions as the Premier League giants struggled to solve the puzzle presented by FA Cup minnows Morecambe.

For 74 heavenly minutes, the League One side led Spurs by a goal – thanks to Antony O’Connor’s side-footed finish on 33 minutes.

A huge upset was on the cards. A prestigious place in the Match of the Day archives awaited them.

In another life, O’Carroll was winning medals for Cliftonville and Crusaders before embarking on the long and winding road of coaching.

Having worked with Stephen Robinson at Motherwell, the former Northern Ireland international didn’t think twice about bringing the Kerry native with him to Morecambe at the start of the season.

On the eve of last Sunday’s FA Cup tie, Robinson contracted COVID – and the managerial reins were passed on to O’Carroll who had only recently been promoted to the Shrimps’ number two role.

“It was a little bit of a rush for us before the game,” says O’Carroll.

“We were stuck in a bit of traffic and we were stuck outside the ground for a few minutes. If anything, it was probably a good thing we weren’t in the ground too early because the staff couldn't get distracted and the pressure didn’t really build. We walked in, got set up really quickly, I had to do an interview with the BBC and you’re standing in the centre circle looking around the stadium…

“You’ve done your pre-match meetings, you’ve went through everything, you’ve named the team, some people are disappointed, some people probably hate you…

“I’m standing out at the edge of the touchline, we’re taking the knee, you look around and standing 10 feet away is Antonio Conte. There are 40,000 people there and it’s game-on.

“But then you get lost in the game…”

O’Carroll talked everything through with 'the gaffer' before the game and at half-time. That’s the only pressure the 34-year-old former Irish League striker felt throughout the day.

“I suppose the main pressure I felt was being so close to the manager, he’s a mentor of mine, and I was trying to live up to him. He’s fantastic. Stephen is as good as you’ll come across.

“He should be working at the top, top level. I just wanted to do him justice and do his team justice and make decisions at times in the game that were in line with his beliefs. He didn’t put any pressure on me; he told me he’d complete trust in me and go and do it.”

For 74 minutes, Morecambe’s 3-5-2 system was proving impenetrable. The midfield five shuffled right and left and stayed compact.

As O’Carroll surveyed the action, he hoped and prayed Conte would somehow forget that he had Harry Kane and Lucas Moura on his bench.

“[Giovanni] Lo Celso was good. He picked out good pockets of space during the game, he was floating around that made you think, ‘whose man is he?’ He was very impressive,” O’Carroll reflects.

“Harry Winks was very good in midfield. They paid £60m for [Tanguy] Ndombele and we kept him largely quiet. Dele Alli was largely quiet as well. People were saying: ‘They had to bring the big boys on,’ but there were quite a few big boys on from the start.”

In the 69th minute, Conte made a triple change, bringing on Kane, Moura and Oliver Skipp. Still the minnows resisted – until Harry Winks’ speculative free-kick from the right flank sailed over Shrimps keeper Trevor Carson and into the net on 74 minutes.

O’Carroll and the Morecambe players’ hearts sank in that moment. With 16 minutes of normal time remaining, plus stoppage-time, it felt like an eternity, especially with Kane and Moura eager to put the League One side out of their misery.

In the 85th minute, Moura raced clear to put Spurs in front. Three minutes later, Kane displayed wonderful economy of effort to make it 3-1. The dream was dead.

“Our defender had pretty much covered every angle and Kane anticipated that and just flicked the ball to the side of him and into the net,” O’Carroll ruefully recalls.

“When Kane came on I thought he looked a level above the players that were on the pitch – stronger, more powerful, more assured. Moura was fantastic as well but Kane looked a proper player - and he was only on for 15 minutes.”

Little Morecambe gave one of the Premier League’s bluebloods a hell of a scare. Hovering at the wrong end of League One, giving Spurs a scare was probably as good as what Morecambe could have hoped for.

But then to lead Spurs in an FA Cup tie for 41 minutes in front of 40,000 frustrated home fans was still the stuff of dreams for O’Carroll.

Since retiring prematurely, a playing career which included five years with Celtic's youth team, O’Carroll has always had his heart set in becoming an elite coach. After stints in America and Scotland, he was delighted to return to Morecambe where he spent a season in 2008/09.

He won leagues and cups with Cliftonville and Crusaders during his playing days but last Sunday’s experience outstripped them all.

“Obviously I won trophies back home but I think my mentality was more suited to being a coaching than a player,” he says.

“So I’d say Sunday was a career highlight for me so far and it’s obviously a much higher level than I ever got to play at. It’s something I can be proud of.

“From the warm-up right through, I loved it and the feeling of the ball going in after a half an hour and leading was incredible.

“Obviously the pressure comes when you’re thinking what changes we can make, how can we affect the second half and can we hang on? But I loved it. You want the biggest challenges you can find. And I hope there are many more.”

With the warm after-glow still being felt around the Lancashire club, it’s back to the grind of climbing the League One table with an away fixture against AFC Wimbledon next Saturday.

Robinson and O’Carroll are looking up with perhaps a little bit more optimism than before…

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