Issue Luke O’Brien proves himself a worthy successor

As told by Jason Mckeown

While trooping out of Valley Parade following the Bolton friendly defeat yesterday, the loud moanings of one fan could be heard over the sea of relative contentment most people felt towards a very good Bradford City performance. The subject of this person’s ire was Luke O’Brien, and the fact he’d been caught in possession leading to Bolton’s undeserved fourth. And despite a decent performance otherwise, this fan could not stop slating him.

It’s not an unusual occurrence over the 18 months. Despite having his best season in his fledgling career last term, complaints and criticism over the left back’s ability were aired frequently. At some games people seemed determined to pounce on his every perceived mistake while constantly questioning his positioning. When he did things right, many attempted to still find fault. When he actually did make a genuine mistake, the level of abuse was astonishingly high. In some people’s eyes O’Brien is a poor player the club needs to be rid of, despite having made 136 appearances in claret and amber.

But as rumours began to surface last night – confirmed by the T&A this morning – that O’Brien’s position rival Robbie Threlfall has been told he can leave, it appears the former Bantam trainee has won the battle that really counts – convincing the manager he should be first choice left back. Many argue Threlfall is a better player, looking at purely technical ability he probably is; yet the former Liverpool youngster has failed to nudge O’Brien onto the sidelines, and has now been told where the door is.

All of which says a great deal about the mental toughness and desire of Luke. When Threlfall was signed on loan from the Reds one game into Peter Taylor’s ill-fated reign as manager in February 2010, it looked curtains for the previous player of the season who had struggled for form during Stuart McCall’s final weeks in charge. Threlfall netted a superb free kick on his debut at Rochdale, and became a steadfast fixture in the team before his move was made permanent during the summer. O’Brien was initially moved to left wing where he was steady if not spectacular, but by the end of the season he’d lost his place in the team.

Despite Threlfall beginning last year first choice left back, with O’Brien on the bench, he struggled to find his own form and eventually lost his place to Luke. A change of manager to Peter Jackson though, and come the end of the season Threlfall was back in favour and O’Brien on the sidelines. Perhaps now we can suggest this was Jackson using the last few games to put Threfall in the shop window, but from the outside it didn’t looked good for O’Brien – widely considered runner up in the player of the year award to David Syers.

Instead Threlfall is looking for a future elsewhere and O’Brien can look back with pride on the fact a player was signed to replace him and he stood up to the challenge with great character and dignity. And as the complaints from some fans will no doubt continue this season regarding his ability, there are further reasons to bestow a comparison on him with one of the club’s greatest modern day players.

Wayne Jacobs: a great club servant, hugely respected by most fans – constantly vilified by others during his 11 years playing at the club. Jacobs was considered the team’s weak link in Division Two (now League One), but despite many fans attempting to drive him out he kept pace with the club’s meteoric rise to the Premier League. When he made a mistake the reaction from many was over the top and deplorable, but he seemed unfazed and continued coming back.

Then there was all those replacements signed to take his place, who he managed to shake off: Lee Todd, Andy Myers, Ian Nolan and others. Only when he got older did Paul Heckingbottom finally wrestle the shirt from him. To have so many fans barrack you and to have managers try to replace you: that Jacobs stayed so long at City – making the best use of the ability he had – is a commendable lesson for anyone.

Including O’Brien, who from some he attracts similar types of criticism as Jacobs and who has now fully fought off his first major rival. It is sad that it has to be this way but – just like with Jacobs – it should not be overlooked how many supporters do rate him and are willing to fight his corner. Luke does have weaknesses to his game and can occasionally be caught out, like others he will make mistakes over the coming season. But his work rate and positive attitude makes up for other failings, and the defensive ability he does have means he can go further in his career than a League Two full back – with or without City.

Growing up watching City on the Kop, no doubt hearing the abuse directed at Jacobs over the years, Luke couldn’t have had a better role model. Those lessons probably helped him when his future looked uncertain at City more than once; now he has the chance to continue to build on a promising career with even more reason to feel confident.