By Jamie Holt
REVITALISED Bristol Rovers midfielder John-Joe O’Toole admits he almost quit the game after his release from Watford and has accused Malky Mackay of ostracising him at the Hornets.
A teen sensation at Vicarage Road, O’Toole was living the dream and scoring goals from midfield for fun until former boss Mackay shipped him out for being “a bad egg” in 2009.
Mackay, recently sacked by Premier League Cardiff, played with O’Toole briefly and was caretaker boss in 2008 but the young Irish starlet had no indication he was about to get ousted when the Scot took charge permanently in 2009.
Initially farmed out on loan to Sheffield United by Brendan Rodgers at the latter end of his stint in charge, O’Toole was then sent to John Ward’s Colchester for three months before making the move permanent in early 2010.
He has spent much of the subsequent years mulling over his future in the game, with a particularly low moment coming when he ruptured his knee ligaments in April 2010.
That ten-month lay-off almost sent O’Toole “off the rails” and, despite enjoying a prolific spell in front of goal for Bristol Rovers this season with 10 goals in his first 27 games, he’s never quite got over the snub at his first club.
“I thought I was doing fairly well until I was pushed out unduly, to be honest,” said O’Toole, who scored ten goals for Watford from 57 league games.
“The manager at the time, Malky Mackay, wanted to push me out and I felt it was unjustified.
“It was a really disappointing way to end my career at Watford. It wasn’t pleasant. I started there at eight years old and some things were said that were a bit unfair.
“You have to try and not let it affect you, but he was saying that I was unprofessional and unfit, and I wasn’t going to be playing because I was a bad egg.
“It was hard to take, especially when there are players playing in front of you who you think you should be playing in front of.
“I spent a couple of years in and out of the team from then on at Colchester and I was working my nuts off, and when you don’t get played you lose your way a bit. I was flying at Colchester at first then I was out for a long time with my knee, and then picked up a couple of niggles that perhaps should have taken less time to get over than they did.
“I almost went off the rails, and quitting does cross your mind, but thankfully I stuck at it. There wasn’t a particular moment that stands out, but John bringing me to Bristol Rovers and giving me a run of games was a bonus.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I’ve played more than I have in the last three of four years and I’ve come up with the goals.”
O’Toole’s tally this season is already the best return of his career, but he isn’t finished there. The 25-year-old is targeting 20 goals this season and hopes he can help drag Rovers away from League Two relegation fears.
“I’m on a good run, but this is something I’ve always had in me,” added O’Toole, who joined the Gas on loan in January 2013.
“I’ve got into double figures, but I feel I can do it in League One and the Championship as well given the opportunity.
“There have been no offers for me as far as I am aware. On a personal level you can only try as best as you can, but as a team we have been playing within ourselves.
“Being beaten by poor teams is heartbreaking, and sometimes it affects your individual performance. Sometimes you just have to look after yourself.
“But I can’t rest on my laurels, I want to get to 15 goals then 20 and just keep my head down.
“We made a bad start, but we seem to have picked up a bit now and in this league if you win two or three on the bounce you are right back up there.
“It’s really tight at the moment, I don’t look too much at the table but there’s no one in this league that I am scared of. Anyone can beat anyone.”
O’Toole and Ward have had a love-hate relationship over the past few years, with the Rovers boss earlier this season criticising his midfielder’s “foolish” sending off against Burton. The former Colchester boss, though, is a big admirer of his talent and promised the former Republic of Ireland U21 international regular first-team football at the Memorial Stadium.
O’Toole admits he was dubious at the prospect of dropping down to League Two at first, but has promised to do all he can to help Ward and the team out of trouble.
“When John brought me here I wasn’t too keen, to be honest, but it’s worked out well after the loan spell,” continued O’Toole.
“He brought me here and he knows what I am about. He said I would be playing more or less every game and that was brilliant to here.
“It’s exactly what I needed and hopefully we’ve turned a corner as a team.”