Dave Hannigan tells the story of the Irishman who's been around the world and back
Just four summers have passed since the then Juventus manager Carlo Ancelotti introduced Ronnie O’Brien for the last 13 minutes of an Intertoto Cup semi-final against the Russian representatives Rostelmash. Making his third cameo appearance in the competition, the 20-year-old Irishman slotted in comfortably alongside Edgar Davids, Alessandro Del Piero et al. A matter of months after Bryan Robson had shown him the door at the Riverside Stadium, while very publicly dismissing his chances of ever making it at the highest level, he was pulling that famous zebra-striped jersey over his head and trousering £3,000 a week. Life was good and the unfortunate Liam Brady comparisons were far too plentiful.
Today, O’Brien is back at home in Bray, County Wicklow, recuperating from a broken leg sustained playing for Major League Soccer’s Dallas Burn on May 3. Near the end of his team’s fourth game of the season – a visit to DC United’s RFK Stadium – the right-winger dispossessed Dema Kovalenko. As he hared towards the penalty area, the Ukrainian recovered to launch an airborne two-footed tackle that broke his right tibia so badly surgeons had to insert a metal bar into his leg. Having arrived in America last summer, what would have been O’Brien’s first full season in the league and a chance to earn a contract beyond next October was already over.
Since the referee on the night bizarrely didn’t see fit to punish the crime with even a card, MLS later banned Kovalenko for one game and fined him $1,000. For some Burn fans, this sort of leniency prompted them to take action of their own. When DC visited Dallas four weeks later, they held up a sign urging the home players to retaliate first and break Kovalenko’s leg. In a reference to the Ukrainian’s previous involvement in the fracturing of the Burn’s Brandon Pollard’s leg back in 1999, the banner advised that by doing so “the leg you save may be your own”. O’Brien wisely counselled against that kind of retaliation. Well, sort of.
“I would hate for someone to be suspended or fined,” he said, “for trying to get revenge on someone who’s not that good a player.”
Way back in 1998, O’Brien was in the Republic of Ireland squad, managed by Brian Kerr and bulwarked by future senior internationals such as Robbie Keane, Gary Doherty, Richard Dunne and Stephen McPhail, that won the European Under-18 title in Cyprus, a feat that helped propel Kerr to his current role. Since then, though, his career has consistently lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous. Discarded by Middlesbrough as one more failed 19-year-old prospect, he was almost immediately offered a four-year deal by Juventus, the old Lady of Turin curiously seduced by a video of him in action for Boro reserves.
“If that is what you have arranged,” O’Brien replied when his agent Steve Kutner told him of his new contract with the Italian giants, “then that is what you have arranged.” When he arrived for his first pre-season mountain retreat at Chatillon, they put him rooming with the club captain Antonio Conte and the night before he left to begin a loan spell at Lugano in Switzerland, Davids kindly took him out for a meal and a fatherly chat. Since Serie A clubs don’t have reserve teams, he was told that Juve would closely monitor his performances while he was on loan.
Unfortunately, the next three years would yield nothing but unimpressive, fleeting stints at Lugano, Crotone, Lecco, Nottingham Forest and Dundee United. In all that time, the only headlines O’Brien ever made were when a group of mischievous internet users conspired to temporarily vote him to the top of Time’s poll for Man of the Century. Twelve months ago, he got fed up of the nomadic existence, requested his release from Juventus and signed on with Dallas.
On a balmy Saturday night at the Cotton Bowl last July, he came off the bench for the final 20 minutes against the San Jose Earthquakes and terrorised the visitors, flitting between each flank and capping a scintillating cameo by firing home a right-footed shot from the edge of the box in the 90th minute. The very week Paul Gascoigne was flirting with DC United, the New York Times led its weekly soccer column with the story of O’Brien’s impressive debut under the headline Promising Irish Player Lands in Dallas. Which is exactly what he remained until Kovalenko’s intervention reduced him to the role of injured footballer unlikely to play again before his contract runs out later this year.
From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month