Issue In praise of Luke O’Brien

As told by Jason Mckeown

In the middle of a truly wretched second half performance against Lincoln City last week, came an extraordinarily brilliant Bradford City moment. It involved a young full back charging forwards with the ball and then, superbly, nut-megging two defenders to get past them before racing into the penalty area. He then hit a terrific curling shot that narrowly flew wide of the far post, with the keeper beaten. It wasn’t quite a spectacular goal, but it still took your breath away.

It hasn’t been a season of great individual performances, but Luke O’Brien is enjoying an outstanding campaign that has seen the home-grown left back emerge as the only rival to David Syers for player of the season. And if this award went to the player who’d produced the most consistently-strong performances over the course of the campaign, Luke would probably be set to pick it up for the second time in three seasons.

And who would have thought that a year ago? When Peter Taylor arrived at Valley Parade, O’Brien’s days began to look numbered. Part of a dreadful team display at Accrington in Taylor’s first game in charge, the new manager rushed out and signed Liverpool left back Robbie Threlfall on loan. O’Brien wasn’t dropped out of the team, but moved to a left winger role that lead to up-and-down form for the rest of the campaign. When Luke lost his starting place for the season after the Easter Monday defeat to Macclesfield, and with Threlfall looking un-shiftable at left back, his future looked very uncertain.

Yet even though he began this season in and out of the team, O’Brien rediscovered his best form and regained his left back position from an off-colour Threlfall. Since being unfairly left out of the Morecambe defeat in October – to make way for a loan signing Taylor was forced to play at the first opportunity – O’Brien has started every game for City. Team performances have proved wildly erratic since, but one constant has been the excellence of the former City youth player.

His game has come on significantly, and there’s no doubt Taylor – not to mention assistant manager Wayne Jacobs, who played that position so well for 11 years – have helped him to develop. Luke is not the tallest player, but has gained the confidence to not be bullied by opposition players who have in the past targeted him. He is an excellent tackler who has learned when to stay on his feet and when to make a challenge. He is always willing to get forwards and shows great levels of fitness getting up and down the pitch.

Playing left wing last season was far from O’Brien’s comfort zone, but the improved dribbling ability and confidence going forward he has since demonstrated is evidence to the positive difference it made.

But above all the credit should go to O’Brien himself. Ever since breaking into the first time under Stuart McCall in October 2008, Luke has shown outstanding levels of work-rate and commitment to the cause. He never goes missing in games by shying away from the ball; and he displays a creditable focus on doing the right things for the team and his manager, even if that sometimes goes against the crowd’s wishes. Witnessing the way that the 22-year-old has developed his game and established himself as a key first team player – the Lincoln game was his 100th league start for City – has been one of the few bright spots of City’s time in League Two.

Is he appreciated by fans as much as he should be? Sadly not, and even at the last two games I’ve heard the odd supporter in ear shot complain about his supposed failings. Yet full backs are never the star of the show and are often only truly noted when they are bad; and the fact O’Brien puts in so many excellent performances that can largely go unrecognised is a sign of how consistent he is. If he had a shocker, everyone would suddenly notice.

The constant criticisms aimed at Leon Osborne this season have underlined how, ultimately, being a young player emerging through the ranks doesn’t afford you much leeway with your home crowd. Yet as we grimly wish away a disastrously-bad season and look forward to some less than committed players leaving in future, there is great comfort to be had from having someone like O’Brien on our side. He grew up sat among us, watching City in the Premier League from a seat in the Kop. He is now living our dreams and performing in a way we all would if we could live it too: giving everything we have, to make up for slight deficiencies in ability – because we’d care so much.

He is not here simply to pick up a wage, he gets it.

And in terms of the impact he’s made on the field – and relatively speaking – he is the best young player City have produced since the last O’Brien (Andy). Just like the now-Leeds United centre back, Luke can go much further in the game than Division Four.

Let’s just hope he stays around long enough to take us up there with him.