Category: Archive

Wicklow legend O’Brien recalls fondly N.Y. experience

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Pierce O’Reilly

Standing in the hallway of an Woodlawn bar, Wicklow footballing hero Kevin O’Brien once phoned his mother in Ireland to tell her the plane was taking off without him. He wouldn’t be home for at least another three days.

O’Brien loved his trips to New York almost as much as he loved playing for Wicklow. Be it Gaelic Park or Croke Park, O’Brien always gave it 100 percent. The Baltinglass man, who has announced his retirement from the intercounty scene at the age of 35, will always be remembered as a GAA legend.

O’Brien, who became the only Wicklow man ever to win an All-Star award, in 1990, has brought the curtain down on 15 years of sterling service to the Garden County. Like so many other intercounty stars in their latter years, he said he received a serious body blow from the Wicklow County Board before he decided to depart from the scene last month.

"I decided not to return because the Wicklow County Board refused to bring me on a team holiday to the Canaries after all my years playing for the county," he said. "I spent three months in the gym before Christmas and was very eager to return to the panel again this year."

Wicklow’s manager, Mosses Coffey, called O’Brien and invited him back but also informed him that he wasn’t entitled to the Wicklow all-expenses paid week-long GAA junket to the Canary Islands.

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"That angered me more than anything else over the years, and I felt that on principal alone I had to retire," O’Brien said.

After playing for 15 years and rarely missing a training session, O’Brien was gutted.

"I was very upset, I couldn’t believe that the County Board had turned their back on me after all I did for the county," he told the Irish Echo this week. "I later informed the manager that I wasn’t willing to return because things just hadn’t worked out."

One of the most talented forwards in the country, O’Brien had no fewer than eight operations on his knees during what was often a frustrating intercounty career. He won a Railway Cup medal with Leinster in 1986 before he had even played for his county. Later that year, he made his Leinster Championship debut against Westmeath.

New York and Leitrim stalwart Frank Brady has rarely gone through a summer GAA season without chatting with the Wicklow m’stro. O’Brien has lined out for the Connaught side on more than one occasion in the past decade and Brady, like most of his clubmates, were always delighted when the wiry corner forward with the black knee bandage was on his way.

"Kevin never let us down, be it a quarterfinal or a final; if Kevin was available, he’d travel," Brady said.

O’Brien initially played with the Tyrone club in New York, but he and Down star James McCartin were left waiting at JFK airport on one particular trip for several hours and he never returned to lineout for the Ulster men.

"For me, it was a great honor to be asked to come to New York — it’s tough but fair football," O’Brien said. "Most county players nowadays end up marking another county player, so the motion of getting a good hampering isn’t really true."

Certain sections of the New York GAA claim that O’Brien, with his prowess and ability to inflict the killer blows in close encounters, was responsible for a rule book change some years back. It’s claimed that North American player sanctions were introduced when it was reported that O’Brien, among others, were on their way to Gaelic Park for a championship run when proceedings were wrapped up in Chicago and Boston. The resultant change meant that no player from the North American board could partake in the New York championship without a weekend sanction from Ireland.

O’Brien will continue to play with his beloved Baltinglass, whom he helped win the All-Ireland Club Championship in 1990. He also garnered a second Railway Cup medal that same year. His talents were also displayed on the international stage. He twice represented Ireland (1990 and ’98) in the International Rules series against Australia and finished on the winning side on both occasions.

O’Brien, long recognized as the one true class act produced by the Garden County, failed to join the Wicklow panel for the league games before Christmas, and rumors of his impending departure were rife. Moses Coffey, who himself represented the county football team with distinction, said in a recent report that he was more or less expecting O’Brien’s decision.

"It took a lot of convincing to get him to come back last year, so we were always going to have a job to get him back again," the manager said. "Kevin is one of the best Wicklow has ever had, but all good things must come to an end and it’s been on the cards for a while."

In his 15-year career, intercounty success always eluded O’Brien. However, he tasted success with the New York Leitrim club in 1995, ’97 and ’98. The ’95 final was later declared null and void after a board of officers investigation revealed that both Leitrim and Donegal had a number of illegal players.

"I always enjoyed my time in New York — the lads took their football serious and when it was over, it was over," O’Brien said. "You’d head away and enjoy the night out even with the opposition. That’s the way football should be played."

The man who kicked nine points in a senior club challenge last weekend said he was a little disappointed not be to asked back to New York last year.

"It must be a sign of the times," he said. "They don’t want old fellows like me anymore. Instead of the managers calling me, I suppose I’ll have to call Frank or Danny Doohan from now on."

There is a tinge of bitterness in O’Brien’s voice. He still feels, even at 35, that he has something to offer.

"I’d love another few trips to New York," he said. "As for Wicklow, I’ve had enough with them. When they don’t respect their players, I don’t want anything to do with them".

Kevin O’Brien will be remembered in Wicklow as their only ray of hope in making a championship breakthrough for the last 15 years. In New York, he’ll be remembered as one of the deadliest forwards ever to line out at Gaelic Park.

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