‘It’s crazy’: Jake O’Brien, the Irishman at the heart of Lyon’s miracle season

From overcoming the prospect of being sold to qualifying for Europe, the Cork native has become a key man for the French side

Jake O’Brien arrived at Lyon as an unknown quantity, even to the club’s manager. “Jake? He’s under evaluation” responded Laurent Blanc in late August, a fortnight after the Irishman had signed from Crystal Palace for €1m. “If he has come to Lyon, it is to be second, or third choice. If it is to be fourth then there is no point, for him as well as for us. We will talk. The transfer window closes next week,” he added, alluding to a potentially short stay.

By early September, and with Lyon yet to win a game, Blanc departed. O’Brien had outlasted the manager. Since then, he has become a protagonist in one of the great comeback stories in French football.

Lyon were in crisis before O’Brien had even made his debut. After a 4-1 defeat to PSG in early September, he stood in his training bib with the rest of his teammates and listened as the leader of the fan group Bad Gones delivered a chastening dressing down. “Don’t defile the jersey,” he screamed over the microphone in a lengthy speech to the shellshocked Lyon players.

The language barrier didn’t prevent O’Brien from getting the message. “I have never experienced anything like that,” he says. “It was something … different.” It was a rude welcome for the Irishman but it also showed him the scale of the club, the fervour of the supporters and the level of expectation. “Obviously coming to a big club like this, we weren’t in a good position at the time, there wasn’t a great atmosphere around the club and we weren’t playing well either,” he says. “The fans had the right to tell us what they were thinking.”


There was not an immediate response, but O’Brien says the “pressure” exerted by the fans that night was “one of the moments that kickstarted the season”. When Pierre Sage was appointed in December, becoming the club’s third manager of the season, Lyon were rock bottom. His predecessor, Fabio Grosso, had harboured fears of an unthinkable relegation to Ligue 2. “We can only fight to stay up,” said the Italian before departing after just seven games in charge.

Did O’Brien worry about relegation? “I suppose it was in the back of our minds because we were in a bad position but, personally, I never thought we were going to get relegated. It didn’t make sense in my head that we could get relegated with the squad we had. It was very strange because, in terms of the quality we had in the team, you look at all of the players on paper, we have a better team than most.”

Little was expected of O’Brien, but he earned a place and became a bright spark in a gloomy situation. “Big Jake”, as he is now called in the Rhône region, broke into the lineup at the start of October and has started every Ligue 1 game since, bar one he missed through suspension. He has been the immovable object in a team that has seen significant rotation throughout the campaign.

O’Brien has been an asset in both boxes and was briefly the team’s top scorer – above the captain, Alexandre Lacazette. “Obviously that part of my season was a bit of a shock to be top scorer,” he says. “I probably shouldn’t have been there,” he says before joking that Lacazette is now “well out of reach”.

Lacazette, the second top scorer in Ligue 1 this season with 19 goals, was the only Lyon player who found the net more often than the central defender, who finished the league campaign with four goals. Lacazette’s return to prominence has embodied the dramatic revival at Lyon in 2024. O’Brien also credits Sage for creating a “good atmosphere” in the squad and a “togetherness” to fight for one another. “We really wanted to play for him. He’s not just a coach. He talks to you as a person, not just as a player, to try and bring you on.”

No team has outperformed Lyon in the second half of the season. From rock bottom in December and still in the relegation zone as recently as February, Lyon “defied the odds’' and secured sixth place on the final day of the season thanks to a last-minute Lacazette winner against Strasbourg. At one point it looked like Lyon would be hosting Grenoble, Dunkerque and Annecy next season but now they are excited about possible Europa League ties against clubs such as Chelsea, Tottenham or Athletic Club.

“Is it one of the great comeback stories? Definitely,” says O’Brien. “It’s been a crazy, very emotional season. We were given a zero per cent chance of getting out of it and we did – and didn’t just get out of it, we got Europa League as well,” said O’Brien.

There even remains the very real prospect of silverware as Lyon prepare to face PSG in the Coupe de France final on Saturday. O’Brien, who describes the match as the “biggest of his career” so far, believes there is cause for cautious optimism: “We have a lot of momentum going into it. We have the fans behind us and a good atmosphere in the team. PSG will be the big favourites, as they always are, but I can only see a win for us. I’m sure the lads think the same. We have the quality and the players to do it.” – Guardian

This is an article from Get French Football News