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Dublin: 5°C Sunday 7 March 2021

'Being in a team with guys like Shearer and Owen is something I definitely appreciate more now'

Former Ireland winger Alan O’Brien reflects on his career in football.

NEWCASTLE UNITED HAD just touched down at Riga International Airport for an Intertoto Cup fixture against FK Ventspils when the news filtered through to their Irish contingent.

Inclusion in the Republic of Ireland senior squad could no longer be classed as an earth-shattering development for experienced campaigners like Shay Given, Stephen Carr and Damien Duff. They already knew the drill.

For the fourth Irishman in Newcastle’s travelling party, the announcement of Steve Staunton’s panel for a friendly against the Netherlands was far more significant. As a new Premier League season approached, his sole objective was to establish himself at club level. A senior international debut was a long-term objective.

The initial suspicion over an elaborate hoax gradually subsided. The news was in black and white for his family at home in Dublin to read in the following day’s newspapers. There, sandwiched between Kevin Kilbane (Everton) and Aiden McGeady (Celtic), was Alan O’Brien (Newcastle United). 

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Manchester City v Newcastle United - City of Manchester Stadium Alan O'Brien in possession for Newcastle United against Manchester City in February 2006. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I was completely in shock,” says O’Brien, who was 21 when he was called up for the game against the Dutch at Lansdowne Road in August 2006. “It wasn’t something I was even thinking about so early in my career. I did feel like I was going in the right direction at Newcastle, but it still took me completely by surprise.”

Just over a week later, O’Brien was introduced as a half-time substitute against Marco van Basten’s side. The left-winger hoped that it would represent the first of many outings in the green shirt, and while he did go on to win four more caps, his international career was over just 10 months later.

2018 has seen some significant retirements involving Irish footballers. Wes Hoolahan, John O’Shea and Daryl Murphy all stepped away from the Ireland set-up, while Robbie Keane hung up his boots for good. Unless you’re a regular visitor to Wealdstone FC’s website, Alan O’Brien’s decision to call it a day is one that’s likely to have escaped your attention. 

A career that featured several notable achievements was ultimately blighted by injury. The broken leg he sustained as a 19-year-old was followed by recurring knee and hamstring issues. The subsequent back problems that continue to have an impact on his life are unlikely to be fully rectified. 

However, O’Brien stresses that injuries weren’t entirely responsible for sending him into non-league football by the age of 27. The physical restrictions were a factor, but he’s keen to take ownership of his decline. He encountered plenty of hurdles along the way, but the manner in which he negotiated them has left him with regrets. 

“It’s probably not something you can fully appreciate until times like now when you look back,” O’Brien says of his six years at Newcastle United, where he shared a dressing room with players of the stature of Alan Shearer, Patrick Kluivert and Michael Owen.

At 16, he left his home in Dublin to move to the north-east of England, having received his footballing education from Cabinteely FC and St Joseph’s Boys. After a short loan spell with Carlisle United, O’Brien made his first-team debut for Newcastle under Graeme Souness at the age of 20 in an FA Cup win over Mansfield Town.

Alan O'Brien of Ireland and Tim de Cler of Holland Taking on Tim de Cler of the Netherlands. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I actually found a load of my old Newcastle tops recently,” he says. “One of them was the one I made my debut in. It has all the signatures of the squad on it, and I was just staring at the names. 

“There were world-class players at Newcastle back then. At the time, the reality of it just passes you by. Being in the same team as those guys — the likes of Shearer, Owen and so many other top players — is something I definitely appreciate more now.”

O’Brien was handed his senior international debut despite making just five first-team appearances as a substitute for Newcastle. His surprise call-up prompted several newspaper articles which pondered the relevance of his connection to Ireland B team manager Pat Devlin, who had previously been an adviser to the player.

Steve Staunton insisted that O’Brien was in the squad “on merit”, the Ireland boss referencing the “lightning quick” pace that was his most valuable asset.

“Speed was always my main thing,” O’Brien says. “Trying to add the others bits of the game to that was always the focus for me.”

In any case, the newcomer to the set-up refused to allow the speculation surrounding his inclusion to spoil the milestone moment. 

“I laughed about it,” he says. “There was nothing in it. Pat spoke to me and said he wouldn’t put his name on the line like that. I felt I did well enough for Ireland to justify my place in the team anyway. A manager isn’t going to risk his reputation by playing a guy who might not be able for it.”

O’Brien made his Ireland bow for the second half of a 4-0 defeat to a Dutch team that included the likes of Edwin van der Sar, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. A few weeks later, he came on for his competitive debut in the closing stages of 1-0 loss to Germany in a Euro 2008 qualifier.

inpho_00201949 Training with Ireland alongside Aiden McGeady, Liam Miller and Robbie Keane. Source: INPHO/Morgan Treacy 

Two more appearances followed in that qualifying campaign — the infamous 5-2 hammering in Cyprus and the redemptive draw with Czech Republic. His fifth cap came in a friendly against Bolivia, during which he set up Shane Long to score his first Ireland goal.

O’Brien believed he was gradually adapting to international football, yet the 1-1 friendly draw against the South Americans in May 2007 marked his last appearance in an Ireland shirt. Staunton’s disappointing tenure ended later that year and his successor, Giovanni Trapattoni, looked elsewhere for left-sided options.

“The opportunity to play for Ireland is something I’ll always be grateful for. The whole experience was just incredible,” says O’Brien, who also represented his country at various underage levels.

“The main memory I have is of travelling to the games with a police escort and hearing the Irish rebel songs on the bus the whole way. I remember looking out the window and thinking how crazy it was to be getting a police escort around my own city because I was an Ireland player. It was surreal stuff.”

He adds: “I was disappointed I never played for Ireland again after that game [against Bolivia], naturally enough. I have the DVD of it which I’ve watched back and the commentators were mentioning how well I played. I think I was called up for one more squad, but that was it for me in terms of caps.

“The fact that I played for Ireland obviously means a huge amount to me. My grandad got to see me achieve that before he passed away, which was special. It was a great thing for my family and something I’m extremely proud of.”

In January 2007, O’Brien made his first start for Newcastle in a 2-2 draw with West Ham. It came a fortnight after he had seemingly been on the verge of a full debut which was billed as a man-marking job on a burgeoning 21-year-old playing for Manchester United.

Alan O'Brien Playing for Ireland in a Euro 2008 qualifier against Germany. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I think it was the day before the game and Shay [Given], Duffer [Damien Duff] and Stephen Carr spoke to me,” O’Brien recalls. “The three lads told me that I was being put in to play at left-back to mark Cristiano Ronaldo because of my pace. I was the complete opposite of a defender so it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

“Even when we got to the stadium, in my head I was preparing to try and stop Ronaldo — in my first start in the Premier League! But I was spared it. Glenn Roeder must have had a change of heart because he put David Edgar — who was a centre-back — in instead. It was a wise decision; Ronaldo didn’t get a kick, Edgar scored and we got a draw.” 

His next Premier League outing came on the final day of the season, a 1-1 draw at Watford, during which he replaced Michael Owen as a 67th-minute substitute. It transpired to be his last game as a Newcastle player.

Despite being offered a new contract, O’Brien didn’t fancy his chances of a more prominent role under new manager Sam Allardyce. Mick McCarthy had previously expressed interest in taking him to Wolves, but O’Brien felt his best option was at Hibernian, who parted with £200,000 to bring him to the Scottish Premiership. 

“I should never have left Newcastle,” he says. “They offered me a very good deal to stay. Hibs was definitely the wrong move. It was purely because I wanted to play more often. Damien Duff was in the position I was challenging for at Newcastle, so it was obviously going to be hard for me to get in.

“Sam Allardyce never contacted me when he came in, which I took to be not a great sign. The contract offer was already there from the club before he took over, but if I was in his plans he probably would have rang me himself.

“I’d had a few injuries by this stage, so the physios at Newcastle knew exactly how to manage me in that sense. They took much better care of me than I probably realised at the time. I went on to Hibs and played about 50 games in my two years there, but it wasn’t an enjoyable time overall. I found it tough.”

Soccer - Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League - Rangers v Hibernian - Ibrox Challenging Pedro Mendes of Rangers. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

He adds: “I got used to getting grief from fans throughout my career, more so at Hibs than anywhere else. When your own fans are shouting abuse at you, it does have an effect, especially when you’re working as hard as you possibly can. You’re only human, after all.

“For example, if you’re working in an office and someone comes in and starts roaring abuse at you while you’re trying to do your job, how do you think it’d make you feel? When someone is telling you that they think you’re shit, you’re bound to start questioning your ability. That did have a big impact on me up there.

“I knew my limitations as a player and I knew more than anyone that I wasn’t playing well, so I didn’t need anyone else telling me that. It really got me down, being honest. There were a lot of occasions when I remember feeling that I just wasn’t enjoying what I was doing anymore. It stopped being fun.”

Nevertheless, the tough times in Edinburgh were punctuated by several career highlights. O’Brien was involved in big wins over both Celtic and Rangers, as well as a game at Murrayfield that marked Pep Guardiola’s first as manager of Barcelona.

Eidur Gudjohnsen (2), Lionel Messi and Pedro had Barca four up after just 26 minutes of the pre-season friendly. Bojan Krkic and Yaya Toure scored in the second half to round off a 6-0 defeat for Hibs, as Guardiola’s side kicked off a season that ended with a La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League treble.

“Poor Paul Hanlon was on Messi that day,” says O’Brien. “He was a very good defender but he was made to look like he’d never kicked a ball before. Messi was out of this world, on another level entirely.

“We managed to break from one of their corners at one stage and I ended up in a race with Dani Alves, who was making his debut for them. I beat him for pace, and Fletch [Steven Fletcher] was waiting in the box for what would have been a simple tap-in.

Soccer - Friendly - Hibernian v Barcelona - Murrayfield On the ball against Barcelona. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I just needed to tee him up but my cross wasn’t at all good enough. Fletch still jokes that if that cross had found him then Guardiola would have put in a bid,” he laughs. “I might have had a different career then!

“But they were absolutely phenomenal. It was a joke how good that team was. It was a great experience to play against them, but there was a point where it became not fun. We ended up just looking at each other, going, ‘how do we get the ball back from these lads?’

“You think you’re pressing them but you can’t get near the ball. They may not have been quicker in a straight foot race, but their quickness in the mind meant they were always ahead. They were a team who made the likes of Man United look ordinary then, so there was no shame in losing to them like that.”

Desperate to leave Hibs behind, O’Brien was offered an escape route to League One in England in the summer of 2009. His time at Swindon Town featured an appearance in a play-off final at Wembley — a 1-0 defeat to Millwall — but it was another two-year spell that was interrupted by injuries.

“I got a really bad hamstring tear, which I found it tough to come back from,” he says. “Swindon were actually very good to me. They sent me to a specialist in London, who basically told me all the issues I had and that if I didn’t address them I’d struggle to walk by my 30s.

“He wasn’t wrong, because it can be a struggle sometimes even to stand nowadays with the pain in my back. I’ve had so many operations over the years and I’m left with a lot of soreness as a result of so many different problems.”

After being released by Swindon, O’Brien headed for Yeovil Town. There, his relationship with the game started to deteriorate. He left the club after four months and joined Gateshead in February 2012. Less than five years since winning his fifth senior cap for Ireland, O’Brien found himself playing non-league football.

Soccer - Coca-Cola Football League One - Play Off Semi Final - Second Leg - Charlton Athletic v Swindon Town - The Valley With Swindon Town team-mate Simon Ferry after reaching the 2010 League One play-off final. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“I got to a stage where I was fed up of football,” he explains. “Yeovil was probably the turning point. I was driving there from Swindon, which was a three-hour round trip. But eventually it started to feel like about 10 hours there and back.

“Having to recover from so many injuries was draining me mentally. I remember coming back from a hamstring injury but it still wasn’t right so I was starting to hobble on the pitch. The fans were booing me then because they thought I was being lazy. It just wore me down.”

O’Brien continued to play semi-professionally for six more years, lining out for Hungerford Town, Chippenham Town and finally Wealdstone. During his time at Hungerford, he looked beyond football for career prospects for the first time in his life.

Earlier this year, O’Brien — who’s now 33 — launched his own auto broker business in Swindon, for which the contacts he made in football have proven particularly beneficial. It was a satisfying step on a journey that began in a Mercedes-Benz call centre at the age of 27.

“I was coming from a background of being a professional footballer and all I had to show for my education was my Junior Cert, so I couldn’t just walk into Mercedes and start selling cars. I was making 100 calls a day to try and convince people to come in and consider changing their car,” he explains.

“It was the start of something that has thankfully been giving me a healthy living ever since. I’ve always had an interest in cars and I just started thinking that I’d prefer to be doing something related to that, with the way my attitude towards football had gone.

“I got my wish and I’m really happy with what I’m doing now, but in hindsight my mindset as a player was completely wrong. When things got challenging, I should have handled it better. I should have been more appreciative of where I was, realising how hard it is to get to that level of football and earning good money for playing a game that you love.

Screen Shot 2018-12-20 at 23.03.55 O'Brien finished his career at Wealdstone earlier this year. Source: Wealdstone FC

“I was doing what I dreamt of doing since I was a kid, but I stopped appreciating how fortunate I was to be in that position. I should have had the same discipline that I had at Newcastle.

“You start going out and getting drunk with your mates. I wasn’t looking after my body in the way that I used to. If I had, I might have recovered from injuries quicker and then maybe things would have been more straightforward. I have to look myself in the mirror and admit that I didn’t do enough.

“Even when I was at Yeovil, I was playing well enough in those first few games that I thought I could maybe get a decent move to the Championship and start climbing back up the ladder again. But once I got injured again, it just felt like it wasn’t meant to be. I probably wasn’t mentally strong enough to cope with another injury at that stage.

“Once I dropped out of league football, I started accepting that I wasn’t going to be climbing back up anymore. I actually started enjoying it again at Hungerford, training twice a week and stuff like that. But I knew at that stage that it was the beginning of the end.”

Owing to his passion for cars, O’Brien couldn’t think of many better ways to earn a living away from football. However, this is a stage of his life that arrived much sooner than he would have hoped.

“I’ve heard that question before — ‘what ever happened to him?’ — and it’s understandable,” he admits. “I had times when I looked in the mirror and asked myself that question. But I did tick a lot of boxes as well, which I have to remember.

“I nearly scored on my Ireland debut against Holland but [Edwin] van der Sar made a good save. I came on against Germany and was marked by Philipp Lahm. I played in the Premier League. I played against Celtic at Parkhead. I played at Wembley. I played with and against some of the best players in the world.

Alan O'Brien of Ireland with Miguel Hoyos of Bolivia 'The opportunity to play for Ireland is something I'll always be grateful for.' Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Even now if I’m going to a game with my mates at a big stadium, I’m often able to say ‘I played here’. They’re all things to be really proud of. I’m grateful that I had those opportunities. I have regrets, but I’d imagine the majority of players do in different ways.

“I used to pray every night when I was younger that I’d play in the Premier League and play for my country. I achieved both of those things at 21. One of my big mistakes was that I never reset my goals after that, which I think would have made a big difference to my mindset.

“I got a lot of grief about my ability, with people saying I was just all about pace. Enough people who had experience of playing the game at the highest level told me that there was more to my game than that, which was what I preferred to focus on.

“I had a lot of amazing experiences which I’ll never forget. People can have their opinions, but they can’t take those memories away from me.”

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