By Joe Behan
Liam O’Brien was born in Ireland and grew up playing soccer on the streets of Ringsend, Dublin. There was talk going around the playground that a big kid from Hasting Street was a really good player. Gerard (Nosh) Crilly gave the nod that he was good enough to play on the hockey pitch.
It was an ideal 5-side soccer ground. The smooth tar surface was very fast and the ball rarely went out of play. There was a small wall right around the field with goals painted on the walls. Then the goals were made smaller.
The standard would rise when Liam O’Brien would come around the corner to play. For a tall kid, he had great composure. He was surprisingly quick. But he wasn’t the only one who could play in the "Hockier." Jack McDonagh, Cambridge Boys, Man Utd trialist, Bohs and Irish international, served his time in the playground. He lived right facing the soccer ground. David (Rocky) O’Brien, also lived around the corner, Cambridge also, played for Bohs too. In fact, besides Bohs recent win over Aberdeen, the gypsies had another historic win, in the 80s, over Scottish opposition, Rangers, and it was Rocky O’Brien who stole the show with a brace.
The hockey pitch was still with Liam O’Brien even after 28 years. "I went around to the playground just recently, and the pitch is in a mess, it’s terrible, they should fix it up," he said.
The small South Lotts playground, with the hockey pitch, produced many household names in Irish soccer and it may rest that Liam O’Brien was the best.
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Besides the names mentioned above, other names like Paddy Dunning, Albert Hannon, Peter Dorgan, Sean Carey, Paul O’Brien, Michael O’Brien (Luton), Liam’s brother, and many more graced the tar.
After O’Brien developed his passion and skill in the hockey pitch while hitting shots at his brother Declan, he signed for Cambridge Boys FC. By the time they reached Premier 18, Cambridge had all of Ringsend going to games. Many interested League of Ireland coaches scouted most of the team: Jody Byrne, one of the best goalies League of Ireland produced; Rocky O’Brien, Bohemians; and Patrick Kelsh, Man Utd apprentice.
It’s no surprise that Liam O’Brien, who made his League of Ireland debut with Bohemians in 1981, has returned to Bohs after 19 years, as player coach. He is involved with running the FAS course at the ALSAA Club where he also gets to coach at youth level. It is what he was looking for, especially in the coaching game.
After a career in the EPL that spanned 13 years, the big center midfielder has traveled full circle. "I am not sure if any club in Dublin wanted me, but Cork City saved the day," said an unsettled O’Brien during the Christmas break. "Now Roddy Collins has taken a chance on me and settling back in County Kildare with my wife Terry and four children is getting a lot easier."
After Bohs recorded their 2-1 historic away win in the European competition against Aberdeen, manager Roddy Collins was stirring it up. The Bohs manager is talking the talk and claiming he is ready for the next level. The Dalymount boss is perhaps playing it up a little before the replay. What Collins is not talking about is Liam O’Brien, the ex Republic of Ireland and Manchester Utd player who is now the player coach for Bohemians.
"I love the coaching, I have picked up stuff here and there and I kept notes on sessions, the lads love it. I try to do something different every time," O’Brien said.
O’Brien was selected to play against Aberdeen after an understanding with Collins that he can be called upon as a player. "I played in front of the back four against Aberdeen," the player coach said. "We tried to play and slow it down when we could, and we defended when we had to defend. The strategy was that simple. We frustrated them. I got tired, and Roddy took me out. We pushed two up top, caused Aberdeen some problems, and got the result."
It was under the influence and guidance of Cambridge Boys manager Leo McDonagh where O’Brien learned his trade. He was a year younger than his teammates and opposition. At 15, he moved to Stella Maris and by the time he was 17 he was signed for Bohs.
For two seasons, O’Brien made steady progress, his blinding strikes from way out and his vision caught interest of the top Irish team at the time, Shamrock Rovers. He signed for the Hoops and played at Miltown from 83 to 86 winning three championships and two cups; he was also voted young player of the year. Utd moved in and Liam O’Brien began his career across the water.
It is overlooked that O’Brien made 40 appearances, with 15 or so starts, for Manchester Utd. It was Alex Ferguson who gave him his debut. "I was Ron Atkinson’s last buy before Ferguson took over," said O’Brien. "I was playing for Shamrocks Rovers and Utd got in touch with me."
"I have seen it all, 16 and 17 year olds outside offices nearly crying, I was lucky to make it in that respect. My best experience was five years with Tranmere; they have a real family atmosphere," explained O’Brien. "Winning Division 1 with Newcastle was great, the derbies were brilliant, and I still get a call from a reporter there. We played against Middlesbrough and Sunderland and I managed to do well in these local games. They liked me up there."
O’Brien scored one of his most memorable goals against Sunderland, still in the memory of many Newcastle supporters. And so the 360 is complete, from Bohs to Rovers – Man Utd – Newcastle – Tranmere then Cork City and back to Bohs.
It has been a great experience for the well-traveled professional. When he came back to Ireland two years ago, Cork City gave him the ideal chance to get back on the Irish scene. City showed great professionalism when they let him go free to Bohs. O’Brien did play in Europe competition for Rovers against Celtic. His experience with top clubs and coaches will help Bohs get in touch with the big guns like Shelbourne. What’s probably the most valuable experience the veteran brings is international under Jack Charlton.
"I made my debut for my country in "86 against Uruguay, one all. The best thing I was ever involved with in soccer was playing against Brazil and beating them one nil. Liam Brady scored that day. I was taken off with only a few minutes to go. It was great," O’Brien said. "With the reputation the Brazilians have, who wouldn’t want to play against them."
He won 16 caps for the Republic of Ireland and most of them under Charlton. "Jack didn’t want me in the middle. He wasn’t keen on me. He went for Paul McGrath eventually, to close down the middle. Paul hated to play there but he did well for us even in that position."
It was Brady and Ronnie Whelan who ran the show for the Republic and O’Brien is not to disappointed with a shorter international career, as he explained: "These are world class players ahead of you, so any experience at the international level was great, doesn’t everybody want to play for their country?"
O’Brien is one of those players who may have been thrown into the deep end with Utd too soon. Perhaps more experience with a smaller club would have prepared him better for Old Trafford. Nonetheless, he "wouldn’t swap the experience for anything and has no regrets." Injuries were also to haunt his career but he worked extremely hard to get back. He is fit and relishes the chance to play against Aberdeen in the replay at Dalymount.