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‘Suddenly, I was told I needed an operation, otherwise I could drop dead on the pitch’
Former Ireland underage international Mark O’Brien is aiming to get his career back on track after overcoming several major setbacks.

FORMER DERBY COUNTY defender Mark O’Brien has every reason to curse his own bad luck. But admirably, he chooses not to.

The Ballyfermot man prefers to accentuate the positives.

By the tender age of 16, O’Brien got his big break when he made his Derby debut against Watford in the Championship, and everything seemed to be set for the Cherry Orchard youth product to forge a career at the top of English football.

But football, like life, is never straightforward.

Now with League Two side Luton Town, the 24-year-old is determined to work his way back up the football ladder after a luckless start to his career.

Soccer - npower Football League Championship - Nottingham Forest v Derby County - City Ground PA Archive / PA Images O'Brien was named Ireland’s U16 Player of the Year in 2009. PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

It was back in May 2009, when the Dubliner became one of Derby’s youngest-ever players after he came on as a substitute in the club’s final Championship game of the season at Vicarage Road.

However, just five months after making his first start, the former Ireland underage international’s fledging career suffered a severe setback.

A series of medical examinations, which are carried out on all players at the club, revealed that the teenager required major heart surgery.

“It was a routine scan, and they found a minor leak in the aorta valve. We thought it was nothing too serious at first,” O’Brien tells The42.

“Initially, the doctor told me I wouldn’t need an operation for 20 or 30 years.

“Our heart rates were continuously being measured at training, but they found that my maximum heart rate was becoming really, really high.

“It started getting a lot worse. I went for a MRI, and they found the leak was escalating faster.

“And then suddenly, I was told I needed an operation within the next two weeks, otherwise I could drop dead on the pitch.”

O’Brien would have been forgiven for feeling sorry for himself.

The prospect of having his chest opened up to undergo surgery that would last over six hours, was coupled with the danger of his football career coming to a premature end.

But even at the time, the teenage defender could already see the bigger picture.

He knows how easily he could have been another tragic football statistic, with Motherwell’s Phil O’Donnell and Cameroon international Marc-Vivien Foé just two well-known players that have died playing football.

“It all happened so quickly. I didn’t really have time to think about the seriousness of the procedure, which helped me.

“But I do remember thinking that if I never made my debut, they may never have spotted the problem.”

Manchester City v Leeds United PA Archive / PA Images Former Manchester City midfeilder Marc-Vivien Foé died while playing for Cameroon against Colombia in the Confederations Cup in 2003. PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

“You have to stay positive in those circumstances; it was an opportunity to take care of myself that otherwise I may not have got.”

Remarkably, seven months later, the young centre-back recovered to be an unused substitute for the Rams in their last game of that season.

The following campaign allowed O’Brien to ease his body back into the game, playing a mixture of youth and reserve-team football, which was sprinkled with sporadic first-team action as he overcame yet more surgery, this time on his ankle.

But at the start of the 2011-12 season, O’Brien’s luck changed.

An injury to fellow defender Russell Anderson in the first game of the campaign paved the way for O’Brien to have a prolonged spell back in the first-team.

His good form at the start of that season was rewarded with a new bumper four-year deal, as O’Brien made 21 appearances before the turn of the year.

However, by the end of 2011, the youngster suffered another cruel blow as he damaged his cruciate ligaments in training.

“It was mentally tough, there’s no question about it,” O’Brien says.

“But I knew I still had the opportunity to do what I always wanted to do. No matter how big the setback was, nothing was going to stop me from pursuing my dream. I always had that mindset.”

O’Brien was fit enough to join in the pre-season preparations the following season, but a niggling knee problem forced manager Nigel Clough to gradually re-introduce him back into first-team action.

And after being out of the game for over a year, O’Brien started in Derby’s 2-0 win over Bristol City with the manager full of praise of the “tremendous” Irishman who showed “unbelievable character”.

“Nigel really helped me out during the time of my injuries, he really stood by me.

“I was so young, but he really helped instill confidence in me that I could bounce back,” O’Brien explains.

“He was ready to help out at any time with anything he could, without hesitation. I couldn’t praise him enough.”

But unfortunately for O’Brien, after a run of six consecutive starts, a problem in his knee flared up again, ruling the Irishman out for a further six months.

O’Brien would never play for Derby again.

Soccer - FA Cup - Fourth Round - Derby County v Blackburn Rovers - Pride Park John Walton The Irish defender made a total of 35 appearances during an injury-disrupted seven years at Derby. John Walton

In the meantime, former England manager Steve McClaren took over the reins at Pride Park, and although O’Brien was keen to fight for his place, deep down he knew his future lied elsewhere.

“The following season after my knee injury, I turned down an opportunity to go out on loan. I wanted to be part of and learn from a changing room that was going for promotion. I was really keen just to get that experience.

“McClaren was probably the best coach I’ve ever had and I wanted to learn from him too.

“Tactically he was spot on, you can see why he has worked at a club like Manchester United.”

The next season, the former Ireland U21 international then spent the final year of his Derby contract on loan to Scottish Premiership side Motherwell and made 19 league appearances as the Fir Park club narrowly avoided relegation to the Scottish Championship.

“In many ways, in Scotland, I wanted to prove people wrong, the people who believed that I couldn’t play anymore, and I enjoyed my time there.

“To be fair, as a person, McClaren was always honest with me, which I respected, not many managers would be in that situation, but he thought it may be best in my long-term interest to leave Derby.

“I was there since I was 15. I was devastated, I loved life at Derby, but football is a business.”

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Soccer - Scottish Premiership - Celtic v Motherwell - Celtic Park Danny Lawson O'Brien spent the last 12 months of his contract with Derby on loan at Motherwell. Danny Lawson

In the summer of 2015, free agent O’Brien joined Luton Town in the bottom tier of the Football League, but so far the move hasn’t worked out as he would have liked.

After being in and out of the team, a couple of loan spells with National League side Southport followed to allow O’Brien get much-needed game time.

“Luton had offered me a two-year deal which is not usual the further down you go in the Football League. I was over the moon. It was nice to have that security. A lot of the moving about can be a bit disruptive.

“I feel I started well here. I suppose it is tough being back down the leagues after playing at a higher level.

Soccer - Capital One Cup - Second Round - Luton Town v Stoke City - Kenilworth Road Steve Paston O'Brien up against Bojan in Luton's EFL Cup tie against Stoke. Steve Paston

“But the new manager came in [Nathan Jones] at the start of the year, it’s his first job and it has been tough for me to get into the side.

“He has his own ideas and the type of players he wanted to bring in. I had two options really; I could stay and act as a back-up or go out and play games.

“I had no second thoughts, I wanted to play and Southport were brilliant with me.

“In a way, it is a lot more competitive in the National League and there is probably a bit more hunger in the players – everybody there is trying their best to make a living out of the game.

“But it is demanding on the body – there is an older style of play.

“In the Premier League, the force of a tackle can get you a yellow card, it’s not like that here but that has helped me enjoy it more.”

O’Brien’s time with the national underage squads, where he played alongside some of Ireland’s Euro 2016 stars, such as Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, now seem just a distant memory, but motivation remains high.

“I don’t dwell on the past or on what may have been – I couldn’t be happier for the lads in France. I know how hard it is to make it in this industry.

“The freak injuries have been out of my hands.

“They are tough to take, but I also have shown in the last couple of years that I can withstand a lot.

“The run of games does give you peace of mind that you can still play.

“I’ve learned the hard way that you can really set yourself too many targets because you can easily be knocked back.

“All I can do is keep ploughing away, who knows, in the future I could be playing with them again.

“But I am going to continue to work hard and hope I can get a bit of luck.”

A bit of good fortune is the least O’Brien deserves.

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