“I’ve been a fan of Dublin, myself, all my life,” says the Carlow manager. “My father [Jim] was county secretary in the ’70s and ’80s. I was 13 years of age and I cycled to Athy to buy a Dublin outfit. That’s a fact. You wouldn’t do it now, but I did it. Bought the outfit and came home, proud as punch.”
O’Brien has taken in talks Gavin has given and watched how his team have dominated Gaelic football this decade. They are the known entity, but Carlow aren’t. No Division 4 team really is, he believes.
“I don’t think people outside of the eight counties realise how competitive it actually is and the effort that goes into it. It might get that [a few inches] in the papers the next day in the report, so nobody really follows what’s happening down there in the division.
“We’ve a lot of very, very good footballers. We have a very experienced team, actually. They’re about 28 years of age, most of them. They’ve been playing for Carlow since they were minors. Probably the biggest Carlow team I can remember.”
He can’t say what would constitute a good result for Carlow, only that his players are in good fettle making the short trip to O’Moore Park.
“All I can say to you is this: The lads are in such a place at the moment, physically and mentally and spiritually. As a group, they are ready to give their very best against Dublin and we’re very organised.
“I think a team with a bad plan is better than a team with no plan. We have a very good plan, which we are implementing very well. We have great clarity in the team and the guys are really performing, being truthful with you.
“The only experience I can draw on would be from club football. My background is Éire Óg. We won five Leinster club titles in the ’90s. We beat Dublin champions four times in that, star-studded Dublin teams. O’Hanrahans came out after us and beat Na Fianna, a star-studded Dublin team. Palatine played St Vincent’s last year, gave a good account of themselves. So we don’t fear them, we don’t fear them. We’ve a huge respect for Dublin. We’ve a huge respect for Dublin GAA people in particular.”
The strength of club football in Carlow and the rivalries that go with it have often been seen as a disadvantage to the county team, but O’Brien dismisses this. There are few if any players not in the panel that he wishes were part of it.
“If you don’t have those pieces there, you won’t get the buy-in from the players and I think in these counties, and Carlow would have been guilty of it in the past, we talk ourselves down and we create reasons… not reasons, excuses, why you shouldn’t commit to the county team. I think we’ve turned that table in Carlow at the moment.
“I can’t remember a time when there was 30 Carlow players training consistently for the county team. In fact, I remember pre-championships, 13/14 players in the field and you’re trying to prepare for Leinster Championship, but now we have a panel of 30 players and we’re doing a lot of things right.”
Now, in his third season, O’Brien remembers 70 players turning up for trials in November 2015.
“We ran a seven-a-side tournament in the fog for about six Sundays in a row.”
Part of the allure for those hopefuls, as it is for the Carlow squad now, is to be in a competition where they can pit themselves against the best.
“I think a lot of media pundits and ex-players, in particular, have been talking down the championship and talking down the possibility of a team doing well and that it’s Dublin and it’s Kerry, it’s Tyrone and, you know what, it probably is Dublin and Kerry and Tyrone and Donegal, but what competition in what sport isn’t dominated by three or four teams? Why shouldn’t the other teams take part in it?
“The National Football League is based on performance levels. You’re in a division you deserve to be in. It’s a very good barometer of where teams are at. The championship is a different animal and it should be for everybody. If you go to the FA Cup or whatever it is, everybody’s in the pot and that’s the beauty of these competitions and, personally, I’d like to see the National Football League come into the summer and I’d like to see the championship go back to knockout. I think this move towards the Super 8s, I don’t think it’s going to benefit the GAA, overall. You will have more big games, but I’m not sure that’s going to be good for the overall health of the game in the association.”
The expectation that Carlow will be handed a trimming angers him.
“I’m talking about their mentality that it’s a foregone conclusion and we’re not going to put the effort in and I think they’re listening to it day-in, day-out through the media, particularly ex-players, who are pundits. They do my head in, anyway, being quite honest with you. Naysayers the whole time.”
Whatever happens in Portlaoise, he is full sure Carlow will be playing into July. “We’re going to have a long summer of football. I’m convinced of it and this is one step on a journey. I don’t know what way it’s going to turn out. I’m not saying the result is immaterial, it is important, but we feel we’re going to be competitive. I’m telling you now, we’re going to be competitive and we’ll see where that takes us.”