Local hero ready to step up
HE is less than six months at St James' Park but on the terraces they have already composed a song in his honour.
They sing to the tune of "Any old iron" from the old music-hall ditty. "Any O'Brien," it goes.
"Any, any, any O'Brien/Who put the ball in the Mackems net?/Any, any O'Brien." The song does not refer to one O'Brien dear to Geordie hearts but two.
When Andy O'Brien lined out for Newcastle against Sunderland last April, his fourth game since signing from Bradford, he knew it was an important fixture for the club. Until he levelled the game with 12 minutes remaining to preserve a 21-year unbeaten record at Sunderland, he didn't quite grasp just how important it was.
In 1992, Liam O'Brien scored the most important goal of his career at Roker Park to clinch a 2-1 victory for Newcastle.
"Remember where you were when Kennedy, Lennon etc were shot?" wrote Michael Bolam in his book,
The Magpies - A Day To Day Life. "Well, when [Liam] O'Brien wrote his name across Geordie hearts, I was right in the middle of an almighty celebration on the Roker end with thousands of other joyous United fans."
The younger O'Brien is just 21 but knows that he will ultimately be judged not on the goal but on the quality of his performances in the heart of defence. That is how he wants it. He talks sagely of disappointments to come because, in truth, since he made his Bradford debut at the age of 17, his career has been on an upward spiral: promotion, survival in the Premiership and the chance to jump ship when the inevitable drop came for Bradford. Will his world always shine so brightly? He doesn't think so.
"It's great when things go well and everyone can enjoy it but I think it's how you cope with your disappointments that makes you the person you are. I know sometimes things are going to go against me and hopefully my character will bring me through." That he has rich reserves of mental strength is not in doubt. For O'Brien the move from Bradford was unquestionably a timely one but Newcastle fans saw it differently.
Just before Bobby Robson made his move, Newcastle's chairman, Douglas Hall, had publicly stated the club's intention to woo Rivaldo from Barcelona. O'Brien's arrival could hardly have elicited less interest if he was coming in as head groundsman.
"There was total apathy from the supporters," says Bolam. "Andy's arrival came on the heels of the capture of Wayne Quinn from Sheffield United and it seemed to suggest that we were now reduced to shopping at the lower end of the market, if £2m can be called a bargain basement fee."
O'Brien knew only too well that he hadn't set pulses racing. "I probably wasn't the most exciting signing in the world from a Newcastle fan's point of view,"
he says, "but when I scored against Sunderland that helped me to settle. It couldn't have worked out better, really."
The goal? Even now four months on it's still hugely relevant.
People who wouldn't have known him from Adam stop him on the street to talk about it and he sees the delight in their eyes. "It brought it home to me just how big this club is," he says.
"We've had 52,000 people for all our Inter-toto Cup games. We've had pre-season friendlies here and 30 to 40,000 people have turned up. They're just fanatical, really."
It has been an auspicious beginning. Going 2-0 down to his former club on his debut was not the ideal launching pad but they salvaged a draw and O'Brien started the remaining eight games of the season. An ankle injury in June has halted his stride but, fitness restored, few doubt that he will be a staple of the team this season.
He speaks endearingly of his years at Bradford but he knows that he wouldn't be on the fringes of the Irish senior team if he was still at Valley Parade. Mick McCarthy had always liked O'Brien but wasn't certain that he had the requisite strength to cut it at the highest level. At the beginning of last season, McCarthy had seen O'Brien being outmuscled by John Hartson in a game Wimbledon won 3-1.
Perhaps, McCarthy wondered, O'Brien was too shy to impose himself on a streetwise centre-forward.
"I haven't got a big gob, O'Brien agrees. "But I don't think it's an issue, I just try and get on with the job. I'll let myself be known on the pitch."
So far he has been as good as his word. McCarthy last watched O'Brien when Newcastle visited Anfield in May. It wasn't O'Brien's finest hour. Liverpool won 3-0 but when
McCarthy departed at half-time they were only a goal ahead. A couple of weeks later he won his first senior cap against Estonia. No damage had been done.
His route to the Irish senior team has been an interesting one. He was born in Harrogate and was always a target for English teams at under-age. Three years ago, Peter Taylor was asked to select a Football League side to play a side from Italy's Serie B. O'Brien was man of the match. Taylor took over the England under-21s shortly after and tried to convince O'Brien to commit himself to the English cause.
In February 1999, he played in a friendly against France at Pride Park but when Taylor offered him the chance in England's next competitive outing, O'Brien demurred and took time out to ponder his international future. He was flattered by the English attention but he was aware of his Irish roots - his grandparents Danny and Kathleen O'Brien had moved from Kilfinnane in south-west Limerick to look for work in the mills of Yorkshire - and two months after his English debut, he played for Ireland in an under-21 friendly against Sweden in Birr.
Ireland were thrashed 3-0 but everything else felt right. "I just had this feeling of being wanted and that suited me. I remember Danny Cadamarteri not turning up for the England game and I had to room alone. It was nothing to do with Peter Taylor but a lot of the other lads knew each other and I didn't seem to fit in. But I didn't know any of the Irish lads either and I keep in touch with a good few of them now. I felt I grew stronger with that group."
People approach him now and wonder, what with his upwardly mobile status, if he regrets the decision.
"I say no. It wasn't really close. I only played against France because it was a friendly and there was pressure from the club's point of view because they think it's more prestigious to play for England than for Ireland." He has no doubts. He travelled to Kilfinnane with his father last summer and the experience overwhelmed him.
"Just picking up a few pieces of my past," he said.
Now he turns to the future. No grand plans or targets. A few games for Newcastle, he says, and a regular place in McCarthy's squad. And maybe some part against Croatia on Wednesday.
"I'll turn up on Sunday, do a few days' training and hopefully play a part in the game. It's just a stepping stone, really."
For Andy O'Brien, just one more calm but assured step along the path to football distinction.
John O'Brien (no relation)