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Dublin: 13°C Thursday 29 October 2020

'Growing up watching the Premier League, I could see it. How many Irish players actually made it?'

Joey O’Brien fought for a career in the English top flight and the Shamrock Rovers defender is now aiming to prepare the club’s next generation for what’s required.

Joey O'Brien (centre) celebrates.
Joey O'Brien (centre) celebrates.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE FAI CUP has been going on a tour around Dublin since Shamrock Rovers beat Dundalk in a penalty shootout earlier this month.

Almost all corners of the capital have been covered as players and management take turns visiting supporters to celebrate a triumph that was 32 years in the making.

It’s even made its way out west, to Connacht, where it was gratefully received by the Roscommon Hoops.

For Joey O’Brien the journey took him much closer to home, to his old school at Drimnagh Castle.

It was not the first time he has returned. The Dubliner had been invited back to speak to impressionable students during his time as a Premier League player and Republic of Ireland international.

But this felt different.

It means more when you come back home and play for a club that people you know are really connected to,” O’Brien says. “I feel that too. They have a love for the club so when you win something like that they really feel it, and you do too.”

O’Brien, named SSE Airtricity/SWAI player of the month for October and November, turns 34 in February, just in time for the start of the 2020 Premier Division, and none of that fundamental joy of the game has been sapped after close to 20 years as a professional.

“Being emotional isn’t a bad thing,” he reckons. “It’s not bad to have that emotion or passion. It’s a good trait to have.”

Injury meant O’Brien missed the guts of four years at the top level while in his prime during his late 20s. And yet there is no bitterness or resentment. He will still travel over to London before Christmas to visit his old West Ham United team-mate Winston Reid and take in a game.

He is not one to hide away and forget his previous existence, especially when there are still benefits. “I won’t start paying for tickets now,” he laughs. “I’ll be calling in favours.”

l-r-andy-reid-john-oshea-and-joey-obrien O'Brien (far right) on Ireland duty with Andy Reid (left) and John O'Shea Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

O’Brien and Reid remain “very close”, although he was left “sick” not to meet when the New Zealand international was in Dublin for the recent friendly with Ireland.

O’Brien was away on holiday at the time with his wife and twin daughters, who are about to embark on the dreaded Terrible Twos stage.

And the Rovers stalwart is about to have another 18 kids to contend with, as he takes his first steps into coaching with the club’s U15s while combining his duties as a key figure in Stephen Bradley’s squad.

The environment at the Roadstone Academy is different to the one which O’Brien encountered first as a teenager at Bolton Wanderers at the turn of the century.

O’Brien played with Lourdes Celtic and Stella Maris during his schoolboy days so did not have his head in the clouds when he arrived in the north west of England. “I saw so many players go over to clubs from Dublin and then come back and you never hear of them again,” he recalls.

And it didn’t need Bolton’s academy manager Chris Sulley’s brutally honest predictions to set him on the right path.

There were 11 or 12 of us in that first year, he sat us all down and said the chances of more than two or three of us being left by the time were 19 was slim, and that there would only be one of us at the club by the time we were 21,” O’Brien remembers. “I just said ‘fuck me, I’m going to be the one’. It was a reminder of how hard it was going to be but I had already seen it. 

“Growing up watching football, watching the Premier League, I could see it. How many Irish players actually made it? There weren’t many. So I already knew that I’d get nowhere without the determination and desire. It’s the same at any top-level sport. The demands are huge.”

That is what he will try and impress upon the Rovers youngsters ahead of U15 National League in the new year, although he accepts that he will need to adapt for the role once he is out of the first-team dressing room environment.

“Of course, how I talk and what I say will have to be different. The approach can’t be the same but you still have to put demands on the kids. They have to want to learn and get better.

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“If you are telling them information, they will have to absorb it, they have to take on the information they are being told so they can improve.

“If you’re being told something and shown how to do it, especially now with all the video analysis lads are seeing, if they’re not taking it in and into their game it’s going to stop their development.

sse-airtricityswai-player-of-the-month-october Joey O'Brien shows off his Player of the Month award. Source: Eóin Noonan/SPORTSFILE

“How they deal with it is a huge part of it, can they take on information or will they say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ and just do the same things and make the same mistakes, that will stop you progressing.

“You can’t just be about you,” O’Brien continues. “When you’re on a team and playing for the team, you can’t be thinking about showing off on the ball and all that jazz. The people who you’re trying to catch the eye of know more about football than you, so they’ll see if you’re not a team player.

“If you have the mentality on the pitch that it’s all about you and nobody else, you won’t succeed over there in England, or here.”

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