Speaking immediately after Bradford City’s 1-1 draw with Burton Albion, manager Phil Parkinson revealed that Luke O’Brien is to have talks with Exeter City about a permanent transfer to the League One club. The 23-year-old has not started for the Bantams since the 3-2 home defeat to Rotherham in November, and is clearly not in Parkinson’s plans.
Over the last few weeks O’Brien has apparently agreed with Parkinson that a move now would be in his long-term best interests, with a new challenge hopefully reviving the career of a player who was expected to be first choice left back at Valley Parade this season. Paul Tisdale has approached Parkinson about signing the Halifax-born player, and Exeter are expected to take over his contract.
O’Brien – who grew up watching City in the Kop as a fan – made his debut as a substitute in the 5-1 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy defeat to Doncaster back in 2007. A year later he established himself in the team after an injury to Paul Heckingbottom. He didn’t look back, showing great form and earning the official player of the season award for the 2008/09 season. Only a change of manager threatened to slow his progression, after Peter Taylor took over from Stuart McCall and immediately signed Robbie Threlfall in 2010. Ultimately O’Brien fought back and regained his place and – on the eve of this season – then-manager Peter Jackson stated Threlfall had no future at the club.
In the end, however, Threlfall surprisingly became first choice and quickly demonstrated his best personal form since joining the club. When the former Liverpool trainee was injured at Macclesfield in October, it looked like O’Brien’s time to shine. But after earning a recall he failed to make enough of an impression on Parkinson and soon lost his place to centre back Marcel Seip. The writing has seemingly been on the wall ever since.
Nevertheless, if O’Brien does move to St. James Park it will represent a sad day for the football club. Relatively speaking, he has arguably been the finest player to emerge from City’s youth ranks, and into the first team, over the past decade. And although Luke Dean and Dominic Rowe may get opportunities over the coming weeks, O’Brien represents the last link between the first team and youth set up. For all the young City players battling to make it as a professional footballer at this club, there will no longer be the inspiration of O’Brien charging up and down the flank on a Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps Development Squad players like Nakhi Wells take on the mantle of examples to emulate, but there is something unsettling about the fact that, for the first time in a decade – if you think back to Mark Bower’s emergence, Lewis Emanuel’s strong impression, Tom Penford’s promise, Danny Forrest’s initial impact, Joe Colbeck’s progression and O’Brien’s importance – there won’t be a local(ish) lad in the team.
Not that O’Brien should merit retention simply because of where he came from. Despite how disappointingly this campaign has gone for him, there should be little disputing what a quality player he has developed into – the fact a club from a division higher up want to sign him speaks volumes. O’Brien was a reliable left back who was particularly effective going forwards. Parkinson clearly hoped for better from him in regards to his defensive positioning, but the 131 appearances he’s made for the Bantams should be extended into a long and successful career in the lower leagues elsewhere.
If he agrees to move to Exeter it may be for the best. But it would be very, very sad nonetheless.