Joey O’Brien looking to get international career back on track after injury woes
Defender re-established himself at club level under manager Sam Allardyc
West Ham United defender Joey O’Brien back training with the Republic of Ireland squad at Gannon Park in Malahide. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
He fell foul of Giovanni Trapattoni for a throwaway comment about not getting a game and risked the wrath of Sam Allardyce for travelling home for games when it was clear he wouldn’t play but Joey O’Brien’s international career could finally start to turn a corner under Noel King.
At 27, he has played just five times for his country with injury and involuntary exile accounting for too many years when he probably should have been a regular. Now, though, he is fit and available for a manager whose son used to be a team-mate at Stella Maris “back in the day”.
King stood on the sidelines with the rest of the dads and watched them play. It’s not the greatest of connections but the interim manager might still be expected to understand the West Ham player and appreciate what he has been through in a way his predecessor never really did.
A regular mass goer, O’Brien acknowledges that his faith played a big part in sustaining him through the darkest days of his battle to overcome knee problems that many, including his own specialists, reckoned would spell the end of his playing days.
Perhaps it could have been the basis for a connection with Trapattoni but there never really seemed to be any and the full-back is still clearly put out that a throwaway comment to a reporter about not getting his game prompted a further spell in the wilderness.
On the club front, things were turned around quite some time back. For two and a half years he battled the odds away from the public gaze (his injury problems continued for far longer) and for two and a half now he has been out the other end, re-establishing himself at club level under Allardyce, playing well in the Premier League for more than a season and positioning himself well to challenge again for an Ireland place under whoever the new manager might be.
“Look,” he says, “I missed a long time with my knee and I suppose the last manager had his own ideas and own players so someone like me who came into his sort of squad late it was hard I suppose to get me involved so I wasn’t really featuring in his plans. When the new manager comes you think he might have different ideas and different players he might use so I’m looking for that opportunity.
“I missed four years through knee injuries,” he continues, “but it’s always something that motivated me: to come back and play for Ireland.”
He is still hampered by the need to nurse his knees along a little and spent yesterday in the gym rather than out on the training pitch but he spoke to King about the situation before coming in and will most likely to the same with whoever gets the job on a longer term basis.
“I can’t, I don’t train every day back home. I have a managed programme with certain stuff and when I spoke to Noel about coming in he asked me about the situation. I explained things to him and he had no problem with that (and for me) knowing that I didn’t have to come over here and train every day and put my knee at risk is grand.”
He’ll be out on the training pitch today looking to catch the manager’s eye again whether it’s a right back, left back or central midfield.
The most likely scenario for his inclusion would appear to be a move to the latter for Marc Wilson creating an opening in the position he has been regularly for West Ham these days but he’s not fussy.
“Over the last 18 months I have played left back more than I have right back but over the last couple of years when I have been fit I have been left back and right back. There are some smashing players in the squad who have played in them positions so I’ll see what happens.
“I would never,” he adds in relation to West Ham’s weekend defeat of Tottenham, “have said that the manager would have thrown me on in the middle on Saturday; when I broke onto the scene as a kid I was a central midfielder but he (Allardyce) has turned me into a defender. But in the build-up to the game there was a bit of talk about midfield, out of nowhere, so it’s a case of playing wherever the manager wants.”
He was, in fact, dropped and only brought on in the dying minutes. “Yeah, like I say,” he says with a laugh, “the manager got his tactics spot on.”