Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Do You Remember... Luke O'Brien?

Part two of the Do You Remember? series focuses on Luke O’Brien. The left back made over 100 appearances for City, but left for Exeter as starts began to prove rare.


O'Brien playing for Bradford City

   Luke O’Brien is up there on my (admittedly rather short before the 2012/13 season) list of all-time favourite City players. A bold statement to make, maybe, but one that few supporters who saw him play would struggle to justify.

   O’Brien was a product of City’s youth system, having been on the club’s books since the tender age of eight and rising through the ranks to bag himself a professional contract. Equally endearingly, he was a boyhood Bradford fan: a former season ticket holder, O’Brien had grown up with the Bantams, claret and amber the only colours he’d ever known. He was one of us. The passionate fan. We cared about him. He was living his dream as he pulled on the City jersey and took to the Valley Parade turf on a matchday, and there were never any qualms about his effort or motivation.
    No wonder he rapidly became a fans’ favourite.
   2007 marked his first season of senior football, although, initially, it seemed as though a sniff of first team action would be hard to come by for the young O’Brien. Paul Heckingbottom had established himself as the first-choice left back, and he was a good performer, bringing an air of experience to the role that rookie Luke couldn’t offer. As Heckingbottom excelled, O’Brien was confined to the bench, watching on as McCall’s team aimed to assault the promotion spots. Heckingbottom was reliable, and there were few grumbles about his performances. After all, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
   But the system did break. Eventually. Because Heckingbottom got suspended. The left back spot became vacant. The gauntlet fell to Luke O’Brien, and this was his chance. Would the teenager be able to produce?
   His first start came in the form of a 0-3 defeat to Tranmere at Valley Parade. It was a sobering afternoon: City struggled all over the park and were shoddy and uncomfortable, and it soon became a game to forget as the gulf in class – 32 places on the league ladder – quickly showed. O’Brien, however, enjoyed a solid debut, suppressing their speedy winger. He filled in for Heckingbottom again when City took on Brentford, and even cleared a shot off the line to salvage a point from the clash.
   That was it, but the hype was growing. A composed, tidy youngster who also possessed the attacking intent needed to drive forward, with years to develop and blossom into a first team regular. Keep an eye on him, they said. This one’s got potential.
   And potential that McCall recognised when he offered O’Brien a contract.
   In spite of this, it was Heckingbottom who started the first nine games of the 2008/09 campaign, before being dismissed in shame following two bookable offences.  McCall turned to O’Brien, and his protégé produced. From then on, there was only one candidate for the left back slot.
   It was total role reversal: Heckingbottom was the one sidelined and twiddling his thumbs on the bench while O’Brien flourished to become the name on everybody’s lips. Good one-on-one, not bad at set pieces and never wasteful in possession, O’Brien grew and prospered into one of the strongest and most able players in McCall’s squad, his hunger and desire compensating for any lack of experience. It became a common sight to see Luke overlapping with his winger as he charged forward, whipping crosses into the box and hitting curling balls in for the strikers. What a player. What a find. What a success story for the youth team.
   That pristine season was capped off in brilliant style, and O’Brien won four trophies at the club’s awards night. Paul Heckingbottom departed, and that said it all – we had a keeper in O’Brien.
   O’Brien went on to feature in 49 of City’s games the following season, and survived the cull as Peter Taylor implemented his changes. Taylor quickly became a fan, with O’Brien making 46 appearances under him - an achievement made even more remarkable when one considers the number of players fielded during Taylor’s reign: there weren’t many who started as regularly as O’Brien.
   Like David Syers, O’Brien was one of the few entertaining players in the side. Workrate never wavering, passion never faltering, mistakes few and far between. We all liked him. End of story.
   So, O’Brien retains his place in the squad and is involved in the cup run and the play off final victory and eventually succeeds Jones as captain to lead the side through another promotion and picks up accolade after accolade after accolade at the Player of The Year awards over the years and makes over 300 appearances to become a club legend. Right? Not exactly.
   O’Brien featured little under Peter Jackson and Phil Parkinson as a string of other players were favoured. A spot in the starting eleven proved elusive, and the name ‘Luke O’Brien’ rarely graced the teamsheet on a Saturday.
   To me, the final nail in O’Brien’s coffin came against Sheffield United during the J.P.T. It was a penalty shootout. Penalty number twelve. The next taker just needed to score, and that would be it – City would storm through to the next round.
   Luke O’Brien stepped up, and the pressure was on. One penalty, that was all. Just score, and he’s the hero for the night. One kick away from being the man who won the match.
   O’Brien aimed for the right corner and put height on the ball, but his shot missed by inches and ricocheted off the post. Instead, Chris Mitchell became the side’s saviour, and Luke was left wondering what could have been – and what effect that mistake would have on his chances. 
   Soon, Luke O’Brien left for Exeter, but couldn’t save the team from relegation to the bottom tier. A stint at Oxford United followed, and he’ll start the next season with Gateshead. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to be a part of a Bantams promotion, which was a massive shame for himself and the supporters: he would have loved to represent his beloved City at Wembley, and we would have loved him to lift that play off final trophy. But, sentiments aside, we’ve got James Meredith now, and he’s turned out to be a cracking defender. There’s no doubt that he’ll relish the challenge of League One football next month.
   I’d still go as far as to say that, even with the current squad factored in, O’Brien is one of my favourite City players ever, but, having seen Meredith dominate the left hand side and run riot with Reid, and learnt how Parkinson’s style differs from Taylor’s, I understand why we didn’t keep Luke on.
   He may no longer be lining up for his Bradford City, but Luke will be getting games next season. And, as a young footballer with his best years still to come, that’s exactly what he needs.

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