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'I wasn’t going to come here and start swanning around thinking I owned the gaff'

With Shamrock Rovers on the cusp of a historic double, Joey O’Brien talks about the joy of delivering glory for his hometown club.

Joey O'Brien at Shamrock Rovers' FAI Cup final media day this week.
Joey O'Brien at Shamrock Rovers' FAI Cup final media day this week.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

HISTORY IS WRITTEN by the victors, but Stephen Bradley is not about to sugar coat it.

The Shamrock Rovers boss needed experience in his squad in the winter of 2018 and Joey O’Brien was by no means a sure thing to help cure the ills afflicting an underachieving squad.

A month shy of his 33rd birthday when he put pen to paper that January, the Dubliner was about as far from a banker signing as could be.

For the previous 18 months he had been without a club, working on his fitness alone in Canada following his release by West Ham United.

O’Brien’s career in England with Bolton Wanderers and the Hammers had been blighted by injury and, while his competitive spirit or pedigree was never questioned, doubts still persisted.

“You’re always wary of signing older players coming back from England because you have to judge their mindset and where they are,” Bradley explained this week.

“Because we are very conscious here that we don’t want to sign players that just want to come and sit around and be happy to do that. We need hungry, ambitious players. That can mean young but it can also mean older as well, so you have to be really careful with that.

“When it is an older player who has had a really good career like Joey has had you have to be careful but we’ve been very, very lucky because he has been outstanding for the group and for the club. Sometimes signing the right older player can be gold dust and that’s turned out to be the case with Joey.”

The silverware has followed. FAI Cup winners last season, Rovers are now aiming to complete the club’s first league and cup double in 33 years having been head and shoulders above all challengers in a truncated 18-game Premier Division campaign.

Had the Covid-19 pandemic not struck, the Hoops would surely have continued their dominance regardless. With 15 wins and three draws in the league, they can finish this season unbeaten by beating Dundalk in the Aviva Stadium tomorrow.

O’Brien has been a key figure, the former Republic of Ireland international returning home with his wife and young family to play for the club he grew up supporting.

I went to England at 15-16, and it never came easy for me if you look back on my career,” he begins. “I wasn’t going to come here and start swanning around thinking I owned the gaff. It’s not in me as a person.

“I saw it happen at other clubs where people came in at the end, trying to get a last pay day. You don’t come here for a pay day! I came here to this football club to win. One of the first meetings I had with the manager was about winning the league, winning the cup. I wasn’t saying ‘we’re miles off it’ or ‘the players we have were lacking a bit of this’.

“The level I played at, I was here to win for this football club. Luckily, we’ve won a couple of things over the past couple of seasons.”

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shamrock-rovers-joey-obrien-lifts-the-sse-airtricity-league-premier-division-trophy Lifting the Premier Division trophy. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

This has undoubtedly been the toughest due to circumstances that have nothing to do with football.

The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged Ireland, decimating livelihoods and taking the lives of more than 3,000 people on this island. League of Ireland clubs will continue to feel the effects into 2021 and unless supporters are able to return in the New Year there will be even tougher times ahead.

Rovers players agreed to a 25% pay cut back in April to help ease some of the financial burden, a decision O’Brien explains was not difficult.

When we took the pay cut, it was decided by the lads. The players were all wanting to help at that time. That showed the character [of the group]. There was no one asking questions. It was about backing the club and helping out if we could.”

O’Brien is one of a number of prominent voices in the dressing room, and captain Ronan Finn is someone he has developed a strong bond with. As well as being in charge of the fine system for the first team – Jack Byrne is the biggest culprit – the pair also help out on the coaching staff of the U15s.

ronan-finn-celebrates-scoring-a-goal-with-joey-obrien Team-mates O'Brien and Finn. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

While O’Brien represented Ireland and reached Premier League level, Finn is a League of Ireland lifer who has shone in two Europa League group stage campaigns. First for the Hoops back in 2011 before becoming an instrumental figure in the heart of midfield for Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk four years ago.

The esteem O’Brien holds his colleague in is clear to see. “I’ve never had that opinion ‘ah, Jesus, you only had a League of Ireland career’. Never, just never. There is a lot of luck in football and timing and I have benefitted from that.

“From Ronan’s point of view, the career that he has had at this level, it’s a really tough level. You see that. People from the outside, other players who come back from England, and it doesn’t really work out or they think that it’s going to be a walk in the park. You soon realise, ‘Jesus, it’s not’. To last as long as he has at this level and to keep winning things – still winning things – is an unbelievable career. It’s great to have a player like him still in the league.”

O’Brien turns 35 early next year and is under contract for the 2021 campaign. Regardless of events at Lansdowne Road there is one more challenge he is still eager to meet head on.

“I have to try and play Champions League qualifiers, don’t I?”

Another chapter of history could yet be written.

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