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Dublin: 12°C Sunday 9 May 2021

'We don't really fear anyone' - The Irishman aiming to topple Manchester City

Mark O’Brien captained his side to a memorable win over Middlesbrough on Tuesday and set up a clash with Man City.

Middlesbrough's Adam Clayton (right) battles for the ball with Newport County's Mark O'Brien (second left).
Middlesbrough's Adam Clayton (right) battles for the ball with Newport County's Mark O'Brien (second left).
Image: Nick Potts

Updated at 11.59

AT 26, MARK O’Brien has endured plenty of difficult moments in his career in stark contrast to his key role in Newport’s stunning fourth-round FA Cup victory against Middlesbrough on Tuesday night.

Touted as a top prospect in Irish football after making his Championship debut aged 16, the Dubliner did not enjoy the kind of rise to the top that his former team-mate and childhood friend Jeff Hendrick experienced.

It is coming up to 10 years since O’Brien underwent successful heart surgery to correct a valve problem — an issue which, had it not been detected, could have seen him suffering a similarly tragic fate to Marc-Vivien Foé, the former Man City star who died suddenly not long after collapsing on the pitch while representing Cameroon in the 2003 Confederations Cup.

After making a full recovery from his heart problem, and having begun to slowly establish himself in the Derby team, cruciate ligament damage and knee injury problems further hindered O’Brien’s progress.

Between 2014 and 2017, he played for five different clubs. A loan spell at Motherwell did not turn into something more permanent and after seven years at Derby, he was let go by the club he joined from Cherry Orchard as a gifted teenager and moved to Luton Town. This stint also proved ill-fated and a second loan spell at non-league side side Southport ended prematurely, after his troublesome knee flared up again.

In January 2017, after O’Brien’s contract at Luton was terminated by mutual consent, he agreed to sign for Newport County until the end of the season. It felt like last-chance-saloon territory.

Up to that point, partially due to persistent injuries, O’Brien had struggled for regular game time wherever he went. He had to prove his fitness at a club that were bottom of League Two when he joined.

Yet O’Brien’s performances epitomised the club’s resilience. In that six-month spell, he made 20 appearances — a tally he had matched just once in his career, in the 2011-12 season at Derby.

Moreover, the Ballyfermot native actually scored the crucial goal — just the second time the defender had found the net in his entire career at senior level — on the final day of the season that prevented Newport’s relegation to non-league oblivion and completed a miraculous escape, having been 11 points from safety with 12 games to play.

If ever there was a lovable underdog story in Irish sport, Mark O’Brien was the archetype.

Yet the surprises and memorable occasions didn’t end there.

As a result of his final-day heroics and excellent performances in general, O’Brien was rewarded with a new two-year contract at the south-east Wales club.

Last season, he made 28 appearances in the league — his best tally yet — and helped steer Newport to a respectable 11th-place finish in contrast with the previous campaign’s intense struggle for survival.

But where the club have really excelled is in the FA Cup. Last year, they stunned Championship outfit Leeds in the third round, having overcome Walsall and Cambridge in previous rounds. They were also eight minutes away from dumping out Spurs, before Harry Kane intervened to earn his team a replay, which the Premier League outfit won 2-0 at Wembley.

This season has been similarly unforgettable. In the third round, they earned a stunning 2-1 win over Leicester, whose side included a couple of past Premier League title winners.

Newport County v Leicester City - Emirates FA Cup - Third Round - Rodney Parade Newport County's Pádraig Amond celebrates scoring against Leicester. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

The Irish centre-back captained the team for last night’s similarly phenomenal victory over Middlesbrough, which set up a David-v-Goliath-style fifth-round clash with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

And the club are set to earn over £1 million for this season’s cup exploits alone — significant money for a team the size of Newport.

O’Brien, after all he has been through, understands better than most why atmospheric, adrenaline-fuelled nights like Tuesday need to be savoured.

“We knew we had Middlesbrough down on our home ground,” he tells The42. “We knew we could get any result once we played well, as everyone’s seen live on telly what we’re capable of. We don’t really fear anyone. 

It was raining and the pitch wasn’t the best, they were all factors that played into our hands. We were able to roll our sleeves up and battle in the game, and when we needed to get it down and play, we did.

“We probably caught Middlesbrough on an off night and it showed that we wanted it that bit more.”

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Another Irishman, Carlow native Padraig Amond, scored the pivotal second goal — his 18th of the season — finishing brilliantly after a well-worked corner routine.

“I normally phone him before bedtime and he puts me to sleep because he bores me that much,” O’Brien jokes, adding: “He is one of those people who will pop up with a goal when you need it the most. He seems to be doing it regularly for us now and you couldn’t ask for more.”

Having deservedly beaten the side currently fifth in the Championship, they now face the formidable task of taking on the reigning Premier League champions.

O’Brien believes the fact that the match will take place at Rodney Parade gives his team “a glimmer of hope” in their bid to cause what would be one of the great sporting upsets.

It’ll all depend whether [City] are up for it on the night. They are going to bring a different aspect to the game that no one’s ever come up against before, but we’ve proven before that we can cause upsets.

“If you had a day like yesterday and it was raining and the pitch got boggy, all those small factors play into our hands, because we’re used to playing on surfaces like that.”

But even if the outcome ends in defeat for Newport, as nearly everyone expects it to, they can reflect on a memorable run that will lead to longer-term benefits.

“We understand that it is the likes of the cup runs that will help us get the finances to progress as a club,” he says. “We’re kind of reaping those rewards at the moment and hoping they can continue.” 

Newcastle United v Manchester City - Premier League - St James' Park Newport face Pep Guardiola's Manchester City in the FA Cup's fifth round. Source: Richard Sellers

In comparison with their extraordinary cup feats, O’Brien — who has played 26 times this campaign — acknowledges their league form has been somewhat disappointing. They currently sit 14th in League Two, but are still just 10 points off the play-offs, and if they can maintain the level of performance they displayed on Tuesday, a late-season push for promotion certainly seems feasible. Manager Mike Flynn has cited a lack of squad depth as one issue, but performances like the Middlesbrough game and nights such as the upcoming City clash certainly will do no harm in their bid to attract higher-calibre players.

In addition to O’Brien’s own remarkable tale, there are plenty more in the Newport side with incredible backstories. 

Robbie Willmott, who scored a brilliant opening goal last night, was released by Newport in 2015, before re-signing two years later. At one stage, he feared the chance of playing professional football had passed him by and spent his days stacking shelves in Tesco.

Similarly, goalkeeper Joe Day had to rush off directly after the final whistle as his wife had gone into labour. He arrived in time to see her give birth to twins.

He messaged us all in the group chat and let us know exactly what was happening,” O’Brien adds. “He made it back for the birth of his twins and it couldn’t have been a better day for him — he had a clean sheet, he ran off the pitch and his wife [later] gave birth to twins, so you can’t really ask for much more.

“It can’t be easy going out into a game knowing that your wife could be giving birth at any given time while you’re out playing. It’s a credit to him that, with everything else, he still made it back on time for the birth.”

Tuesday was a night which served as a reminder that glory and excitement in football are not solely preserved for Premier League giants. Even players at lower levels are capable of experiencing moments of sheer ecstasy.

Such occasions make the more mundane and stressful experiences that the game routinely inflicts upon its hapless participants worth persevering through.

Being at Luton, going on loan to Southport and then back to Luton and back to Southport — I wasn’t able to settle anywhere,” O’Brien recalls. “Coming to Newport for the six months, I didn’t really know if that was going to last much longer because of the situation we were in. Like at Derby, it feels like a place I’ve settled now, I’ve got games under my belt.

“When you realise you don’t have to pick your bags up after a couple of months and move here, there and everywhere, you do feel that bit more relaxed in the environment. 

“We’ve a changing room of people who, for whatever reason, are all here at Newport. But whether people have played at the highest level like Andrew Crofts, who’s played in the Premier League [with Norwich] or down in the Conference, whether you play regularly or have not played for a while, everyone’s got their own story. When we come together as a group, we always have this desire and hunger to go out and perform, not walk around with egos thinking we’re better than what we are. Everyone gets on really well and it [is evident on the pitch]. When the TV cameras come down, we show exactly what we’re capable of.” 

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Paul Fennessy

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