Joey O’Brien: ‘I wanted to win the league. I wanted to win the cup. I wanted to put the club back at the top’

Published in Hoops Scene (Shamrock Rovers v Sligo Rovers May 2021)

There have been plenty of crucial late goals this season that have helped propel the Hoops top of the league and cement the record run of games undefeated in League of Ireland history but for Shamrock Rovers defender Joey O’Brien a few run of the mill wins built on the back of clean sheets would do just as nicely.

“It is always something we talk about in the dressing room that clean sheets win leagues,” said O’Brien. “It is obviously great to get last minute winners. We know if we can get a clean sheet, a win will be easier as the lads are going to score goals. 

“The foundation at the back allows you to be in the game and control the game. A single goal can win you the game with that clean sheet. We would like to get a few more this year. Come the end of the season, the team with the most clean sheets will probably win the league.

“It has gone on so long across three seasons,” said O’Brien about the record of undefeated games for Rovers. When the Hoops hit 31 unbeaten following the win in Finn Harps, they beat a record that had stood since 1927.  “It is a great achievement but it is probably something that you will only look back on in years to come as at the minute it is just on to the next game and the next game. 

“To be honest there isn’t much talk on it in the dressing room. Let’s just win the game in front of you and that is what we were at. It isn’t about keeping the run going. It is about winning what is in front of you. Keep rolling on to the next game.”

It took an injury time winner for Rovers to earn all three points against St. Patrick’s Athletic in Richmond Park, while Rory Gaffney’s goal on the back of a quickly taken throw in from Liam Scales got the Hoops a point last time out here in Tallaght.

“You can’t beat a last minute winner,” said O’Brien about Danny Mandroiu’s goal against the Saints. “It was a tough hard game against Pats. Tackles were flying in. It is a local derby so it makes the win that bit sweeter. It was first against second in the league which added to it and made the win that bit more important.”

The current Shamrock Rovers squad is one that has been created by Stephen Bradley since he took up the Head Coach role at Rovers. The acquisition of O’Brien in 2018 was a crucial one – bringing in a player with both Premier League and international football experience but just as important a player with a driven attitude who is a crucial member of the leadership group in the squad.

“I wanted to win the league. I wanted to win the cup. I wanted to put the club back at the top,” said O’Brien about his ambitions on signing for the club. “That was it. Nothing else. Speaking to the manager when I first came in, that was why I came here. 

“I maybe didn’t realise how far off we were at the start. We weren’t really near the top then. We were qualifying for Europe but there was Dundalk and Cork battling each other and we were below that. 

“You could see the change in the team with the players who left and those who came in. There has been a huge turnover in players since I came to the club. The quality has come into the group and players have improved and improved. 

“The manager has changed the system of play and that has really benefited us. He has brought in really good players who have really fitted into the system. It has been really good over the last 18 months and more from when we won the cup. 

“That was a huge turning point for us,” said O’Brien about the team winning the FAI Cup in 2019 beating Dundalk on penalties in the Aviva Stadium  – the first Rovers side to achieve that success in 32 years. “Winning the cup was a massive massive moment. There is no hiding from that. 

“The club had waited so long. The size of this club and the magnitude of this football club, the players realised how long it was. On cup final day, you could see how big the crowd was, the outpouring of emotion, to see fans who had waited so long or those that had never seen us win the cup. 

“That gave the players in the group a huge amount of satisfaction and enjoyment. But also confidence in our ability – we were the team that ended that cup drought. A huge part of football is the having the confidence to go out and to excel. We got that from the cup final and it rolled on to the following season. 

“It isn’t just being about an older player going around as an older voice of having seen it and done it,” said O’Brien about the leadership dynamic in the Rovers squad. “You don’t really want that. It is about creating the right environment in the dressing room where there are no issues. No cliques.

“If there are any issues, you want the younger lads to be comfortable and confident to go and speak to one of the senior players. You have the experience in the dressing room but it isn’t authoritarian and that these lads are the main men who run it. It isn’t like that. It means you are there to give guidance if you are asked and if there is something that is worrying them. It means you’ve been there and can offer them some advice on how to handle it.

“I am an older player so my life experience is different. I’m going home to play with my kids whereas they younger lads are going home to play on their PlayStation. What you have in common is playing football and the dressing room. 

“The competitiveness and intensity of training are things that will never change. The older lads in the group probably do demand more in training, we put the demand of each other. That then leads on to match day.”

After last Friday’s visit to Oriel Park, the Hoops welcome Sligo Rovers to Tallaght Stadium this evening. When the teams last met a Rory Gaffney deflected shot off John Mahon two minutes from time earned the Hoops a draw. O’Brien knows this evening’s game will be difficult against the Bit O’ Red. 

“I’ve always had a lot of time for Liam Buckley looking at his teams from the outside. Looking at the level and clubs that he played at and also his Pats team and how he had them play. Even now at Sligo you can see how he has changed them. He has brought in some really good players and he has improved the squad. They are right in the race. Sligo have done really well. 

“It will be a tough game and that has been the case when we have played the last few times. The scorelines maybe haven’t reflected the game. They have been a lot tighter games than the final outcome.”

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