The Midweek Player Focus – close season special #1: Luke O’Brien (08/09)

24 May
The Width of a Post’s regular feature ‘The Midweek Player Focus’ has taken a close season break. But to keep us going through the summer, we are going to run a spin off weekly feature looking back at past official Player of the Season winners (in a reverse chronological order). These victors often offered an interesting snapshot of the mood at the time, and where the club headed next. It’s also good to recall those players that we were highly appreciate of, for their efforts in claret and amber.
To kick us off, Jason McKeown goes back to the last winner who is not at the club anymore. The 2008-09 season, and the emergence of Luke O’Brien.  

The home grown hero has romantic appeal in football. Think of Eastender Mark Noble helping West Ham to promotion this season, Whinston’s Steven Gerrard sometimes single-handedly winning his club matches, or – if you like, and it’s not to my personal liking – a suspended John Terry donning his kit and shin pads to lift the European cup for Chelsea last week. So when local lad Luke O’Brien burst on the Valley Parade scene during the 2008/09 season, the feel good factor in the stands was high.

Here was a promising full back breaking into a team that he, alongside the rest of us, had grown up supporting. When City were battling against the odds to avoid relegation from the Premier League at the turn of the millennium, O’Brien was a regular fan watching on from the Kop and cheering the same goals as the rest of us. He was the embodiment of the passion we felt for City, performing on our pitch; and how warmly he was initially welcomed into the fold.

In fact O’Brien won the official Player of the Season award in what was a classic case of judging the success of players by how much they exceed their individual expectation bar. No one particularly expected O’Brien to break into the first team – never mind the 37 appearances he made during his first proper season – and the encouraging performances he delivered were a welcome contrast to the disappointment felt towards many of his team mates.

I don’t think you could honestly say O’Brien was the best City player that season – he certainly wasn’t the most effective. But he was the most consistently good; and when the chips were down come March and we badly needed more senior players to justify their relatively high salaries, the majority were found wanting. Not O’Brien of course. He never gave up and he let no one down. He knew what it meant to us, and we could credibly believe that he shared our pain of missing out on promotion. And for those reasons, you could well understand why he was crowned Player of the Season.

Yet exceeding expectations means that bar is eventually going to rise, and the three subsequent seasons of O’Brien’s City career, before he left the club last January, were all about the full back attempting to reach those new standards and facing criticism from some, who perceived he had failed to do so.

In 2008/09 O’Brien was a good full back who helped to support the marauding Omar Daley – without himself doing anything too spectacular. He was solid. In 2009/10, a new 4-3-3 formation – plus Daley out injured for nine months – meant greater responsibility fell upon his still young shoulders. O’Brien was now expected to get up and down the pitch, contributing as an attacking threat as much as his role of defending. In front of him, however, he no longer had any defensive cover (it turned out Daley being poor at tracking back was still more effective than having no one) and a succession of opposition managers targeted O’Brien as potential weak spot. When City didn’t have the ball, Luke would face both an opposition winger and full back. Small wonder he began to struggle.

Peter Taylor eventually entered the building, with Robbie Threlfall rocking up a matter of days later. And it seemed as though O’Brien’s days were numbered as he lost his place. By the end of that campaign, he was being asked to play as winger. It was an experiment with merit, and in my eyes O’Brien became a better player for it. He was suddenly far more confident of taking on his man and beating them, even if his final ball required plenty of work.

Almost exactly two years to the day of his league debut in 2008, O’Brien was reinstalled at left back in the early part of the 2010/11 season. And from here came, in my opinion, his finest displays in claret and amber. City still often played 4-3-3, with O’Brien expected to get forward; and he would do so with relish while also showing a greater resistance to being bullied by the opposition when it was time to defend. In a campaign of no official Player of the Season, O’Brien came second behind David Syers.

Yet still, he was no longer the home grown poster boy hero, with a split amongst the crowd over whether he was good enough. And in time, and with wearisome predictability, the string to his bow which initially triggered his popularity – his local roots – was used against him. “Some people only rate him because he’s from around here”, they said. It’s a curious thing to me in that – during my time supporting City, at least – every youngster who has come through the ranks was eventually ridiculed by some of our support.

Sadly O’Brien – who was clearly not rated at all by Phil Parkinson – was released last January. He headed to League One and Exeter, as far in England from his local roots as you could be. Just two appearances for the relegated Devon club later, last month O’Brien was quickly released. He now searches for another club, but – despite City needing a left back – the attacking nature of O’Brien and fact he crosses the halfway line means he does not appear to fit in with Parkinson’s ideals for this position.

Where he goes next will be interesting. Like Threlfall – also released by City during the second half of the season – he could find another League Two club. But with a young family to think about, Luke will probably be less willing to move South again. So if a fairly local League Two club side doesn’t snap him up, could part-time, non-league football await?

You would like to think not, because I personally believe O’Brien was one of the major success stories for City over the past four years. That he did not fit into Parkinson’s plans is a shame given the development and hard work that the club invested into him, but that does not make Luke a bad player.

Since O’Brien’s emergence, nine players have come through the youth ranks and made their first team debut and, so far, none have made more than six appearances for the Bantams. O’Brien might not have quite fulfilled the romantic notion of home grown hero, but he could be the closest we come to seeing one for some time.

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