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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Liam O'Brien interview

copyright Red News

Having two United trivia questions to your name is some feat, especially if you only made 36 appearances for the club, but Liam O'Brien can claim just that. In retirement he's taken a unique path too, and in between the odd Masters appearances with former teammates for United, he set up his own limo business in Ireland.
The claims which O'Brien can - if he wanted to - lay fame to? Well, he was Ron Atkinson's last ever signing for the club, a £50,000 transfer fee (plus clauses, from Shamrock Rovers) in October 1986, and lasting under the new Fergie regime until he was sold to Newcastle in November 1988 for £300,000. Oh, and he also has the distinction of the quickest ever sending off for a United player, lasting a mere 85 seconds from the start of the match after a late tackle (but never a red card, I'd still argue, as I recall that twat of a ref Roger Milford being the hoister of said card) at the Dell against Southampton on January 3rd 1987. 85 seconds!
How does he feel about both records? “I remember the sending off as if it happened yesterday. It's a record I am not proud of, nobody wants to get sent off, especially after 85 seconds. I still don't think I deserved it, it was the first tackle of the game and I was not the sort of player that went out to ‘do’ any other professional. I was devastated as it was the first live game shown in Ireland. All my family and friends were watching it - so I was understandably gutted. The management, staff and players were great about it; they knew that I wasn't that type of player. As for being Ron Atkinson's last signing, someone had to be and it turned out to be me. I don't think I was one of his biggest signings (joke), I was one for the future.”
That he certainly was when he signed, and though it can be argued that he'd possibly never have been able to carve out a lengthy career at United, his arrival didn't just coincide during a time when any player would have struggled in that underperforming United era, but he was also unjustly given the tag by some media that has blighted so many kids coming through at Old Trafford - ‘the next George Best’. Giggs of course managed to eventually conquer and distance himself from a similar tag but what pressure it must have been on a kid who wasn't as naturally gifted as Giggsy. But O'Brien doesn't see it that way: “There wasn't that much pressure on me, the manager made sure of that, also the players were very encouraging and supportive. They told me to enjoy it and just play my own game.”
So how did the signing come about? “I was playing for Shamrock Rovers at the time and I was doing quite well for them. We played against Manchester United in a couple of friendlies and I scored in one game. Ron Atkinson was the manager at the time and decided to sign me. Seemingly, he had been watching me for quite some time. When I signed I was so nervous coming from a small club such as Shamrock Rovers to arguably the biggest club in the world. Its every boy's dream especially in Ireland to play for Manchester United, so just to be there was a dream come true for me. Being around so many world class players was fantastic, I learned so much from them.”
It must have been strange that signed by Atkinson, his new boss was suddenly his ex-boss in a matter of weeks. “To be honest, I was only there for a month under Ron Atkinson, so I was mainly training with the Reserves. I never really got to know his management style. I remember when we were told that Fergie was to become manager, players that knew him were saying how brilliant but strict he was, which became very true, but I got on well with him. He was a very down to earth man whose background was very similar to my own. It's like with all managers, they have their own management style and he is no different, but the players all respected him. I got on quite well with Fergie, he was always very helpful to me as was Archie Knox, his Assistant.”
I grew up in that era of supporting United that is hard to describe to youngsters- suffocated in success - just how bleak at times it was watching United. Not as bland and dull as Sexton of course, but soul destroyingly depressing as we contemplated the knowledge that these barren years - bar the odd Cup win - were all we had to look forward to as our biggest rivals, the Scousers, dominated. I remember in its former incarnation, the Masters indoor 5-a-side tournaments, actually involved current players and at one such event in Manchester after watching the first team falter for weeks, those present actually got a bit delirious that we could win the tournament. As if it mattered!
We didn't win it, of course, but I can remember O'Brien scoring a cracker of a goal. It was the first time I'd really seen him play well, away from the first team, with no pressure. Mad times. “I think the team underachieved because one team - Liverpool - were winning everything at the time. With such a high profile club, you are always going to get people saying that there were drinking cliques. I didn't see it, I am sure the players liked a drink but they knew when it was appropriate to do so, they were all good professionals.”
So how about being shunted straight into the first team by Fergie so soon after being labelled ‘one for the future’? “I didn't expect to be involved with the first team so soon, I was only there two months - and one month into Fergie's reign. I actually found out I was in the team for the debut (20th December in a 2-0 win over Leicester) on the Wednesday before, we were playing in a mini tournament out in Bahrain. I played well in the game and when Remi Moses got injured the Boss told me I would be playing on Saturday. Needless to say I was very surprised - but it was a nice surprise!”
Good but not good enough, is that O'Brien's United epitaph? Certainly at times he looked like a gangly giraffe but here was a kid serving his apprenticeship, not in the reserves as would happen now but in a side under immense pressure. Who knows under different circumstances but he carved out a successful career after leaving OT at Newcastle. “I loved playing for Newcastle. I have been very lucky to play for two of the biggest clubs in Europe. Both sets of fans are so passionate and where I lived in both Manchester and 4 Newcastle the people were fantastic, so welcoming and down to earth, I have some brilliant memories.”
A goal he scored against their rivals the Mackems is still fondly recalled by the Cry Babies Support. “Yeah, I was lucky enough to score in a few derby's against both Middlesborough and Sunderland. I scored the winner against Sunderland which is Newcastle's fiercest rivals, it was a free kick at Roker Park. Newcastle hadn't won there for 30 or 40 years so the fans still talk about that goal. To this day, 14 years on I am still being asked to sign the photo of that goal, so I still get a buzz out of it. I know the Manchester United fans have a laugh at Kevin Keegan but if it wasn't for him Newcastle wouldn't be where they are today, he turned the club around. We won the 1st division league under him, I enjoyed working with him, he was a very nice man.”
Somewhat ironically, O'Brien's best game for United - where he showed a glimpse of what Newcastle fans would get more used to - was to be his last for the Reds. Against Villa he showed a composure we hadn't seen before and was starting to look the part. “I really enjoyed that game against Villa and as you say it was probably my best game for Manchester United. I was on a week to week contract since the end of June, that game was in November. The club didn't move on the contract, Newcastle were aware of that so they could talk to me without Manchester United's permission. Also my wife had just given birth to our first baby and I needed stability and security. Newcastle offered me a three year contract which I couldn't refuse. If Manchester United had offered me the contract I was looking for (and it wasn't much), and no agents were involved, things could have been very different, I probably would have stayed longer at the club, so in a way, it was very hard to leave.”
How does he look back at his time at United? “I had two great years there and learned so much. I made 40 appearances for the first team, so it's not too bad, but it was always going to be hard for me to get a good run in the team with so many high profile players there. I was offered a new contract at the club but I needed to be playing regular first team football, that is one of the reasons I left.” He doesn't see much of the old team. “I think you will find most players don't keep in contact but I do bump into some of them occasionally and we have a good chat. I think if you ask ex-players, they would all say they would love to be playing now the way the money is, and I am no different. However I would say I have had a fantastic time, met some great people, been all over the world and I have definitely no complaints.”
And what about our fortunes since he left. “In the 90s it was all about to change thanks to one person - Alex Ferguson.” And now? “It’s been an indifferent season for them by their own standards, they have had a lot of injuries to key players. Also Fergie is rebuilding at the moment, so it won’t be long until they are at the summit again.”
On the takeover, we chatted once before Coolmore had sold out, and O'Brien said: “I would like to think that Coolmore don't sell their shares to Glazer, as they say don't try to fix something that isn't broken.” As we can relate to all too well now.
So how did the limo business come about? “When I finished with football, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, so I discussed it with some business contacts I have and came to the conclusion that there was definitely a huge market from inside Ireland and from Europe and the UK for executive chauffeur service for corporate clientele. With my football history I felt I had a lot of contacts and could provide a service with excellent standards of professionalism and discretion. At the moment I am working with the K Club which will host the next Ryder Cup, so we have quite a number of groups arriving from the UK and we arrange all the transport for them. I am thoroughly enjoying it and everything is going well.”
“After finishing my career with Tranmere Rovers, we decided to return to Ireland in 1999. I had one year playing with Cork City and in 2000 - 2003 I was player/coach with Bohemians F.C. I have a U.E.F.A. A license badge, so it was great to give something back to football in this country. We won two leagues in my time at Bohemians which was a fulltime set up but like most clubs in this country, they suffered financial difficulties and I returned to Shamrock Rovers for the season 2003 - 2004. I finished with them at the end of that season to concentrate on the limo business.” Any chance of a managerial comeback? “I would never say never, but I don't think it will happen, there are so many coaches and managers out of work in England, so for the moment I am concentrating on my limo business.”
How does he look back at his career? “The highs were obviously playing for my country and getting the chance to play with and against so many great players. The lows would have to be all the injuries I have had; broken leg, damaged knee ligament, I went through the lot. I was very lucky to play with so many great players, and I must say not one of them was big time. The likes of McGrath, Moran, Whiteside, Olsen, Strachen, Bruce and Hughes, but I must say that the best player I have ever played with was Bryan Robson. He had everything, I have never seen a fitter player and what a lovely person. He was a midfielder like myself and it was a pleasure to be in the same team as him. Manchester United always have Irish connections and I was lucky enough to have Paul McGrath, Frank Stapleton and Kevin Moran who all helped me settle in and gave me lots of advice. Also I stayed in digs when I first moved to Manchester and another Irish lad Joe Hanrahan was there with me and he was brilliant.”

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