For club and country

Bill George on the Irish defender Andy O'Brien and his path to glory

THE ROADWAY that led Andy O'Brien from modest Bradford to an exotic World Cup and the European delights of the Champions League was clearly sprinkled with stardust. It has helped to define his future and inflame his ambitions.

The next step for the earnest young defender is to replicate the journey, but this time as a first-choice centre-back with Ireland and Newcastle United.

Twenty-four year old O'Brien is not too sophisticated to attempt to disguise the sense of privilege he still feels at having lived through the excitement of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, even though if he never got to play in any of Ireland's four matches.

Most of all, he is not one to understate the challenge presented by the task of winning a regular first-choice place with country and club. He reels off the names of Ireland's most experienced central defenders, Kenny Cunningham and Gary Breen, and those of the young pretenders who stand in line alongside him, John O'Shea and Richard Dunne, and says: "I appreciate that the players who've been playing have done a very good job, and you have to be patient sometimes."

The task is no less intimidating at club level, particularly since Newcastle added Jonathan Woodgate to their roster. O'Brien cost £1m when signed from Bradford, but is now in competition with Woodgate, who cost £9m when signed from Leeds, and Titus Bramble, a £6m purchase from Ipswich Town. He pragmatically puts things into context: "You don't get everything you want in football, and I think it's a good thing to have patience. Obviously you want to play wherever you go. But it's a squad game now and I'm personally determined to hopefully stake a claim, internationally and at club level."

Andy O'Brien is a model young professional, intense and disciplined in the modern fashion. The feeling is inescapable that football is, for him, far more than just a profession: it is his life's blood.

Since that is the case, he is with the right club and governed at that level by the right manager. In his opinion Bobby Robson is a legend.

He took time out on Ireland's five-hour flight to Tbilisi yesterday to say: "I don't know if you saw the TV documentary on him, but there were people like Figo and Ronaldo speaking about him.

"I'll always be grateful and respectful to him for taking me out of a club that was bottom of the league at Bradford. I'm just glad that he saw something in me that he wanted to introduce to his team."

It is fashionable in some circles to poke fun at Robson's tendency to mix his metaphors and torture his similes. O'Brien invariably enjoys highlighting his capacity for getting the names of his players wrong.

That he has respect for Robson is, however, beyond question. He says: "I'll always be grateful to him for bringing me to Newcastle, I'll never forget him for that. But I also appreciate that I'll have to keep on repaying his faith, and I'm determined to do that."

Newcastle's topsy-turvy journey through the Champions League was not calculated to soothe the nerves of the players or their fans, but O'Brien immediately bristles when a suggestion that they had fulfilled their potential by getting to the second round creeps into the conversation.

"It seems we have to keep proving everybody wrong this season," he says with some feeling. "We finished fourth in the premiership last season. Then we had a qualifying game and got into the Champions League proper, and then we lost the first three games, so people had written us off. We won the next three and got through to the second stage.

"People were saying: 'enjoy it while it lasts' yet we managed to push it to the last game against Barcelona. It's the nature of football that you're built up to be knocked down, but you have to do the best for yourself and work as hard as possible, and you hope to get the rewards from that."

O'Brien is very much a fringe player again with Ireland on this demanding trip. Ahead of him in the battle for an Irish shirt are Cunningham, Breen and O'Shea, but with the Manchester United defender capable of playing at left-back, he is clearly close to a starting position. He is close also to winning a championship medal with Newcastle, and it was obvious he took some pleasure in acknowledging that popular opinion had already reduced the race for the Premiership to a two-horse sprint between Arsenal and Manchester United.

He says: "We're just concentrating on getting into the Champions League, because we've seen what a good experience it is, and how imperative it is to be playing there."

As regards his own private battle to claim a Newcastle shirt, he says: "Opportunities will arise. We saw that when Shearer and Bellamy were suspended, and Lua Lua and Amoebe came in and did a very good job. It is a squad game nowadays and we want to achieve as much as possible."

And what of Ireland, and their quest for a path back to the European Championship by snaring six points on their journey through Georgia and Albania this week?

"It's a challenge, but I'm sure the players would rather be doing it than sitting at home," he says. "It's a two-week break domestically, but it's fantastic to be going to these games and I'm thoroughly looking forward to it. It's imperative that we do get the six points. We had a bad enough start but after the Scotland result we want to build on that. There is a lot of travelling ahead of us and you could make excuses but we have a job to do and we're determined to do it."

Andy O'Brien hasn't put a foot wrong on his journey thus far. It would be rewarding for all concerned if he took it a stage further this week.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox