In February 1999, Ronnie O’Brien was called into Bryan Robson’s office to be told the heartbreaking news that he was being released by Middlesbrough. His dream of making it as a professional at the highest level lay in tatters.
Just seven months earlier, the talented Irishman had seemed destined for great things, as he celebrated victory in the under-18 European Championships alongside Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne. Now, like so many other young men before him, he was left contemplating a different type of career in England’s lower reaches.
Then, fate, with just a little help from O’Brien’s agent, intervened as he received news of interest from the most unlikely of sources. Juventus manager Carlo Ancelotti had seen a video of winger O’Brien in action and was sufficiently impressed to offer O’Brien a five-year contract in Turin. The dream was back on – and he had a £3,000 per week contract to boot.
It was a transfer that amazed and bemused in equal measure. If the move prompted any second thoughts for Bryan Robson, he wasn’t letting on; “Ronnie’s not good enough but I wish him well. People jump to the ceiling because he has gone to Juventus but he hasn’t done anything yet”.
Meanwhile, in O’Brien’s riposte, there was more than a hint of the clash of personalities had played a role in his Teesside departure: “Things were going nowhere at Boro…I would have left anyway, I wouldn’t have signed a new contract. Bryan Robson doesn’t like young players. He prefers experience”. In a final parting shot, he added “I’ve signed for a club Bryan Robson never signed for and hopefully I can prove him wrong.”
Any residual residual bitterness towards Boro and Robson was quickly extinguished as O’Brien touched down in Italy. He was thrust straight into first-team training alongside Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids and Alessandro Del Piero. He roomed with Antonio Conte. This was nothing short of a fairytale for the County Wicklow youngster.
O’Brien was involved straight away in Juve’s Intertoto Cup campaign, initially watching from the bench as Juve fielded a strong side in the early rounds. He got his chance in the second leg against Russian side FC Rostselmash (Rostov). With a quarter of an hour of the game remaining, and Juve leading 9-0 on aggregate, O’Brien was introduced on the right-hand side of a 3-5-2. In the footage from that game, O’Brien can be seen energetically marauding up and down the flank, diligently putting pressure on opponents and breaking forward whenever the opportunity presented.
This solitary appearance transpired to be O’Brien’s fifteen minutes of fame in the famous black and white stripes. O’Brien found himself in limbo in Italy as Juventus had no reserve team. He was too old to play for the Primavera but unable to challenge more established stars for a first-team place.
Over the following three years a succession of loan spells to FC Lugano (Switzerland), Crotone, Lecco and Dundee United were intended to give him first-team exposure and build his confidence. However, none of these spells were particularly successful, and in summer 2002, with Ancelotti departed, Juventus decided to terminate his contract.
Still bearing the scars of his treatment at Boro, O’Brien spurned offers from England and Scotland in favour of a move to the United States. He forged a successful career there with FC Dallas, Toronto and latterly San Jose Earthquakes. He showed glimpses of the talent that had caught Ancelotti’s eye and was even linked with a call-up to the senior Eire squad in 2007. However, his progress was blighted by a series of injuries, which ultimately contributed to his premature retirement at the age of 29.
In 2008, a decade on from his sliding doors moment, it was O’Brien’s passion for golf gave him a renewed focus as he built a future outside of the football. Having refined his swing during his downtime as a footballer, he went on to become a golf professional, competing in minor US tournaments and taking up a residency at the Maridoe course in Texas.
His career may not have hit the heights predicted for him back in the summer of 1998, but few can compete with O’Brien’s incredible journey.
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