Presentation night

Date published: Monday, September 6, 2010

Full-back Paul O’Connor swept the board at the Roughyeds’ 2010 season sell-out presentation dinner at Whitebank on Saturday, winning three of the four major trophies that were on offer.

Coach Tony Benson, the fans and his fellow players all voted for 26-year-old O’Connor as their respective player of the year — and at the end of the night a somewhat bewildered Paul needed help to carry his collection of silverware to his car.

Presenting Poc with the overall Player-of-the-Year award, sponsored by Mark Bates and Sons Ltd, Tony B said: “He’s a real champion in every sense. It was a tough decision. Several players were up there. I have a full team of battlers, but one bloke stood out in every aspect and that was Paul O’Connor.

“I look at the game differently from many people, considering not only what we see on the field, but how players react to training and other things like that. His professionalism is first class, and he happens to score a lot of tries too.”

The trophy for Players’ Player of the Year, sponsored by JCM Commercials, was presented by Keith Mullaney, but only after an emotional speech by Valu Bentley, speaking on behalf of all the players. Said Valu: “The guy we’ve chosen has got the heart of a lion. He’s only a little fella, but every time he gets smashed he jumps up again. When he gets smashed again, he jumps up again. He’s got the biggest heart of any player I’ve ever come across, and I’ve played with a lot of good players in my time. You would never know how much respect I have for this guy.

“He’s a first-class professional, one of the best I’ve ever known, and he is also a friend to everybody else in the squad — a real friend, not just a team mate. That guy is Paul O’Connor.”

O’Connor edged out third-placed Chris Clarke and second-placed Neil Roden to win the supporters’ vote for the Dave Davenport Trophy, sponsored by the Oldham Evening Chronicle and presented on stage by the Chronicle sports editor Kevin Richardson. The paper had conducted a poll in which readers were invited to nominate their player of the year.

Club chairman Chris Hamilton described the full-back’s triple-trophy triumph as a “fantastic achievement” and added: “One stand-out incident was typical of his performances throughout the season. We were losing at Blackpool with seconds to go but he lifted the whole team with a surge into the heart of the Blackpool defence — and that led directly to Mick Fogerty’s winning try right on the hooter. That summed him up, and also summed up the spirit of the team.”

Said O’Connor: “I feel very humble indeed, and a little bit embarrassed by all the things that are being said. Ours is a team game after all and I wouldn’t be able to do anything but for the contribution of my colleagues.

“To hear what Valu said, and to win the vote of my peers, put a lump in my throat. Not everyone gets the plaudits, but everyone works hard for the team. We are all mates and we all do what we do for the benefit of each other. There is no way I could do what I do if the front-rowers, for instance, didn’t do the hard stuff up front. We are all in it together.

“It was also humbling to win the supporters’ prize. The fans pay their money to support us and their backing is really appreciated and valued by every member of the team. The supporters here are terrific and they have always backed me, just like they support the rest of the lads.

“We have played some fantastic rugby this year and Tony (Benson) has done a fantastic job as coach, first by helping to put the squad together and then by merging us into a team.”

The other major award on the playing side — that of Junior Supporters’ player of the year — was sponsored by Hollands and won by stand-off Roden, who is also enjoying an excellent season. O’Connor came second in this vote.

Grant and Sheila Somerville, later to receive a special prize of their own, went on stage to hand over the trophy to Neil, who heaped praise on his team mates.

Said Neil: “Everyone wrote us off before the season began, but we have at the club one of the best sets of lads I’ve ever played with. I reckon I’ve still got a season or two in me yet and I would love to carry on playing here next year. Hopefully, we can sort something out.”

More than 130 fans and friends of the club attended the awards dinner, held in a packed Whitebank Stadium function room, and setting the scene perfectly for this coming Sunday’s play-off semi-final clash with York City Knights, which will also take place at Whitebank with a 3.00pm kick off.

Both O’Connor and Roden said they believed the spirit and camaraderie within the squad would stand Roughyeds in good stead in the coming play-offs.

Said Neil: “Hopefully, this year’s team ethic and team spirit will make all the difference and push us to go one step further and enable us to win promotion.”

Asked by the Chronicle sports editor if he felt there was a different feeling within the squad this year, Paul replied: “I’m really excited about the prospects of playing York on Sunday. I can’t wait. To be honest, I thought we would promotion before each of the last three Grand Finals, but as Neil said we have a great group of lads here this year and I hope that might make the difference and tip the balance our way.”

The fifth and final trophy of the night was the Clubman of the Year award, sponsored by Doughty’s Gym of Shaw, and presented to long-serving volunteer workers Grant and Sheila Somerville by Jack Doughty.

Club chief Chris Hamilton, who selected Grant and Sheila for this prestigious recogntion, said it was a break with tradition, given that the trophy was going to a man-and-wife team of two, who could be relied on at all times to do anything that was asked of them, not just the “flashy” tasks.

Grant and Sheila later issued a statement in which they said: “It was difficult at the time to think of appropriate words. We were stunned. On reflection we wish to express our pleasure at receiving the trophy for our services to the club over the past 13 years.

“As volunteers who are positive in our support for Oldham RLFC we have never sought acknowledgement, but it is certainly very satisfying to know that our efforts are truly valued.

“We felt overwhelmed by the spontaneous response of last night’s full-house and we were humbled by the experience. It was quite a night!”

Jack Doughty said: “Grant and Sheila are typical of a large group of people behind the scenes who work so hard for the good of the club and its future prospects.

“As for Tony Benson, the coach has done a fantastic job this year. To win every single league game away from home is a phenomenal achievement. He is an astute coach and he is the man to take us forward.

“Rachael (Marsters) has done a fantastic job also on the commercial side and what about your leader? For 13 years Chris (Hamilton) has had all the club’s worries on his shoulders, and he still has. But he has kept the club going and got us here to Whitebank and it anyone deserves a round of applause it is Chris.”

Tony Benson, on behalf of the players and all the coaching and backroom staff, called Paul Hulbert and his wife Bev on to the stage to receive a token (a meal for two in a local resutaurant) of their gratitude for all they do behind the scenes, Paul in his role as kit man and Bev as a volunteer helper.

Said Tony: “The job Paul does behind the scenes is an absolutely unbelievable one, and every player in the squad will vouch for that. I don’t think there is another club in rugby league who will have a man like Paul.

“Just to give you one example of his dedication, he and Bev drive in their own car with the team kit, well ahead of the team bus, to every single away game we play. By the time we arrive, the dressing room is ready for us with all the kit pegged up and ready for use, just as it would be for a home game.

“You can’t put a value on that sort of dedication. And that is just one of many things I could tell you about what Paul and Bev do for the players and coaches.”

Talking of the season as a whole, Tony said: “When I was back home in New Zealand last autumn I didn’t know what to expect regarding the future of the club. Then Chris phoned to tell me to get back to prepare for the new season and I knew things were going to be good.

“Never in my widest dreams, though, did I believe that we would acquire this set of players and within a matter of months move into our own home at Whitebank.

“I can honestly say that these boys are the most amazing group of players I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Any success they have achieved this year — and we hope there will be a lot more yet — is down to them. I have had little to do.

“The dedication of so many people is what makes us the club we are. Rachael, the physio, works tirelessly to get all the boys on the field, and she isn’t on her own. There are far too many people to mention individually.

“We are now 160 minutes away from winning promotion. We still have a lot of work to do, but I’m sure we are going to do it, so here’s hoping for a big two or three weeks.”

The formal part of the evening was concluded by Chris, who summed up the season so far by using one of Joe Royle’s famous quotations back when Oldham Athletic were in football’s Premiership. “It’s been a pinch-me season,” he said, “and we are not finished yet.

“Staff, volunteers, fans, sponsors and players have been fantastic for us this year. And I take off my hat to Tony Benson, who is more to me than the club coach. He is a close friend, whose optimism knows no bounds; who is always there for me; and whose hard work and dedication goes well beyond the call of duty.”