He was barely 20 when he made his senior debut against Sweden in 2006, in what was Steve Staunton’s first fixture in charge, but only four more caps have followed and five years separated an appearance against Cyprus in ‘07 and a belated call-up for a friendly against Serbia last year.
Injuries were the mainstay of that exile, painfully damaging and damn near incurable injuries that almost left him on the game’s scrapheap, but an earlier source of frustration, of which he spoke in 2008, didn’t help his cause with Giovanni Trapattoni just six months into his reign.
Bemoaning his lowly place in the queue for game time, he described himself as a “fan in a tracksuit” and openly admitted he was contemplating whether or not it was worth his while making the trip for such little reward.
Clear, honest words despite his suggestion yesterday that they were ultimately skewed.
“The last campaign, before I got my long-term injury, I passed a comment. You boys got hold of it and put a spin on it, and it hurt me, the way everyone reacted, saying I didn’t want to play for my country and stuff like that.
“So I always wanted to get back playing to show people — well, not show people but just for my own career, my own pride and my family to come back and play. It’s always been an aim and hopefully I can get a chance.”
Few players have ever merited that more.
In October of 2008 he appeared for Bolton in a 0-0 Premier League draw against Blackburn Rovers at the Reebok Stadium and didn’t play competitive football again for another 17 months.
Until March 2010, to be exact, when he ran out for Sheffield Wednesday with whom he was on loan against Dagenham & Redbridge in a League One game that ended 1-1.
It’s not surprising then to hear him voice his delight at finding himself where he is now: a staple of Sam Allardyce’s West Ham United defence and back on duty for his country with Noel King who he knows from his schooldays playing for Stella Maris with the interim manager’s son Brian.
Yet, even now, reminders of those dark years are never far away.
Yesterday saw O’Brien take to the gym rather than the pitch with the rest of the squad due to his knees’ history, an individualised programme pretty much in keeping with the one at West Ham which is tailor-made to accommodate his suspect joints.
“Of course, with this manager, with my past injuries, I can’t … I don’t train every day back (in London). I have a managed programme with certain stuff. When I spoke to Noel about coming in he asked me about the situation. I explained the situation to him and he had no problem with that.”
Allardyce was the one who has taken convincing. O’Brien’s old Bolton gaffer has resurrected his career by bringing him to London’s East End when Bolton released him and his injury record gave the impression of damaged goods and Big Sam is now extending it with his championing GPS tracking devices, high intensity tests and individualised programmes.
It is hardly surprising then if he frets over the Dubliner’s time with the national squad.
“He has obviously said it to me in the past when I haven’t been near the team. Coming over here he would ask me what’s the point in going over but I always wanted to come over and try to get into the manager’s plans and what have you.”
O’Brien has had a piece of his kneecap removed, he has had medical experts tell him he would never play football again and travelled the world to find the surgeons with the skills and belief to allow him continue his career.
Playing again for his country was one of the motivations that allowed him to do that.
Hopefully cap number six isn’t too far away.