Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Ronnie O'Brien

Person of the Century

1999 - 2002 : Juventus (Italy)
1999 :  Lugano (Switzerland)
2000 - 2001 :  Crotone (Italy)

2001 - 2002 : Lecco (Italy)
2002 - 2006 : Dallas (USA)
2007 : Toronto (Canada)
2008 : San Jose (USA)

As a teenager; Ronnie O'Brien was a promising midfielder, and a member of the famous Republic of Ireland Under 18 squad that would win the European Cup. However, unlike team-mates Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, O'Brien would never make an appearance for the senior side.

He was released by his club Middlesbrough in the summer of 1999. Another 19 year old  boy who failed to make the grade, his career would seem destined for the English lower leagues or a return to Ireland. However, fate had a more interesting plan in store for O'Brien, as he would soon find himself playing and training with some of the world's greatest players then struggling for form with small Mediterranean sides before finally making his name and his fortune in America.

That summer, to the shock and surprise of almost everyone, O'Brien was offered a 5 year contract with Italian giants Juventus. It was a move that shocked Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson, who had just released the teenager, believing he would never make it at the top level. Juventus' coach Carlo Ancelotti, had been impressed by a video he had seen of the young Irishman playing for Middlesbrough's reserves, and snapped him up.

He would become the third Irishman to wear a Juventus shirt, after Matthew Kunding and Liam Brady

O'Brien (bottom left) featured on Juve's
official pre-season poster with Zidane,
Bachini, Ferrarra, Mirkovic and Conte
Before long 0'Brien found himself at Juve's pre season mountain retreat at Chatillon, where he was roomed with club captain, and current Juventus coach, Antonio Conte. He trained with Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids and Alessandro Del Piero.

He made his only appearance only appe for Juve in an August 1999 UEFA Intertoto Cup tie against Russian side Rostselmash. Coming on as a substitute for Zoran Mirkovic, Juventus were already cruising 5-0. The game ended 5-1. and O'Brien, quite unbelieveable to himself also, played for 13 minutes alongside Edwin van der Sar, Edgar Davids, Filippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Del Piero. The match was played at Cesena's Dino Manuzzi stadium, O'Brien would never play at the Delle Alpi. He would remain on the bench for the remainder of the club's Intertoto campaign, as they beat Rennes in the final to advance to the UEFA Cup for the 1999-2000 season.

O'Brien in action for Lugano
Juventus don't operate a reserve team system, so O'Brien was informed that he would be loaned out to a lower league side, and his progress monitored. This isn't unusual in Italy, especially with young players of a lesser reputation. The night before he was sent away, he was taken out for dinner by Edgar Davids, who bestowed upon him some fatherly advice. O'Brien was sent to Swiss side AC Lugano, then playing in the Nationalliga A, Switzerland's top tier league. Lugano finished the season in 11th, but by then after making 8 appearances, O'Brien was sent back to Turin.

He was loaned out again, this time to Italian Serie C club Crotone. O'Brien played only 4 times for the Squali in the 2000-2001 season. This lack of action, even for lower league sides, was beginning to damper his hoped of making it at Juve. By now, it seems, he wasn't destined to succeed in Italy.

Next it was Lecco, another club mired in the depths of the Italian game, who had last tasted top flight action in 1967. Again, O'Brien would utterly fail to establish himself at another weak side, playing 8 times. He was now 22, and the game was essentially up.

He was sent on loan once more to Scottish side Dundee United for the end of the 2001-2002 season, helping earn the Terrors a neat mid-table finish. He had hoped for a permanent move to Dundee, as it had become clear that Juventus, with Carlo Ancelotti no longer at the helm, didn't require him. The move didn't work out, and what's more, he was released from his contract by Juve that summer. 

He was the last Irishman on the books of a Serie A side, but not that last Irish player in Italy. A few years later, other young castaways of the English game Michael Collins, Conor Morrissey and Conor McCormick would unsuccessfully try their hand in Serie B.

The future was bright however, for the Bray man. For rather than roll up his sleeves in Scotland or buckle down in Italy, he moved across the Atlantic to spend six years in the sunshine of Major League Soccer, where he made his name and became highly regarded. 

He signed for Dallas Burn (now called F.C. Dallas) and scored on his debut in a cup tie. In spite of joining Burn mid-season he finished the 2002 season with 2 goals and 2 assists in 11 games. He began the 2003 season with high hopes and a fair amount of fanfare, however his dreams of the year were cut short in a horror challenger by Ukrainian Derma Kovalenko who broke O'Brien's tibia in the season's third game.  Burn went on to record one of their worst seasons. In 2004, O'Brien returned and was named in the MLS Best XI for the year. In 2005, he netted six goals and enjoyed 12 assists at Dallas finished their conference in 2nd place. By now he had become highly regarded in the league, and the memories of previous disappointments were wearing off. 

O'Brien scores two cracking goals for San Jose

In 2006 he began to clash with Dallas' Northern Irish head coach Colin Clarke. He spent the next year with Toronto, but another injury hampered his season. Finally, he signed for new MLS franchise the San Jose Earthquakes in 2008. 

Linking up with former Manchester City striker, Darren Huckerby, O'Brien helped lead the Earthquakes' offensive play. He scored the club's first ever goal in Major League Soccer

Here he put in another cracking season, scoring 6 goals and bringing his total MLS assists statistic to 45. However, in spite of him being the club's best player and creative spark, San Jose's chairman wanted O'Brien to take a massive pay cut. The Irishman refused and his contract was not be picked up for 2009. This shocked fans who protested the club.
San Jose fans protest O'Brien's release
O'Brien, tired of his persistent injury problems anyway, decided to retire. He was only 29. It was a rather ignominious and sad end to an extremely bright and classy Major League Soccer career. It seems that O'Brien's time as a professional footballer was to begin and end in defeat. However, for about 5 years, he managed, in spite of injuries and people's lack of belief in him, to prove that he was a good footballer and was one of North America's best players. 

Perhaps Juventus was a bit of a stretch for the Brayman, and he probably never would have made it in Turin, but he was certainly a top level footballer and his career path shows that second chances are always possible. He is now back in Dallas and is coaching their youth teams. 

Ronnie O'Brien, the Irish boy who dared to dream. I salute you!

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