Return of the Craic – Paul O’Brien Interview

Interview by Stephen Coutts

Photos Courtesy of St. Anthony’s 

On Saturday 10 March 2018, solid stopper Paul O’Brien stepped onto the Dalziel Park artificial turf, looked around, breathed in the crisp air, set himself up, then made his debut for Thorniewood United under old hand James “Cotter” McKenna, and then played out the full game in a 4-1 win over Lanark United. 

It may have been a friendly, but with their away match with Neilston postponed due to the weather, this was a Godsend to get the 32-year-old affable Irishman some game time under his belt and integrate with the squad. 

Scottish non-league football is tough. It’s mud and glory with determined committees making sure they keep the wolves away from the door while trying to provide value for money and get folks through the gates, yet on the other hand, it’s a game that needs a massive overhaul if it’s to drag itself into the 21st century and not be left behind with the dinosaurs. 

Yet despite signing on with Ashfield at the start of the season and hitting the floor running, he’d recently been out of the picture with broken ribs, but now he’s found himself with a familiar figure and on a short-term loan at Viewpark where his expertise is needed. 

Although it was touch-and-go whether the move would go through but the softly spoken man from Cork, who used to glance across the changing rooms at Shane Long and Kevin Doyle, was pleased with the decision when it finally did. 

He said: “I didn’t know what was happening as the deal didn’t go through with Thorniewood until midday (Sat 10 March 2018) and it’s class to be back with Cotter again – I’m so happy to have played the full 90 minutes and hopefully being back to my old self again. 

“We played well so here’s hoping I get some game time there and try salvage a bit of the season and although it was just a friendly it’s a good 4-1 win over Lanark.” 

O’Brien’s semi-pro, university and amateur football journeys, have taken him from his home in Cork to the west coast of America, the capital city Edinburgh and the largest city in Scotland, Glasgow, where he resides in the east end and now calls home. 

He’s been in in our fair country for nearly a decade and has set down some roots, he’s got a steady job and is planning on marrying a Scottish girl in the summer after a massive ‘Stag Do’ in Malaga, of course. 

But it’s Govan-based cult side Saint Anthony’s where he’s made his name after a stint in the amateurs before being spotted and pulling on the famous green-and-white hoops that so many legends have done so before him.  

He explained: “I started playing under John Hughes, the Maryhill manager now, with Postal United and we had a fantastic team that won the league three times in a row with promotions and winning the top flight, it was good times with a fantastic bunch of lads. 

“But like everything else, John moved on and the team was starting to get fragmented and that’s when Cotter came in and starting being a pest on Twitter – but that’s Mr McKenna for you! 

“He’s a good guy but him and Davie Greig are two of a kind that would do anything for you, but Cotter brought me down to the Ants and used to collect me for training and games, and even when I was sick he would turn up at my door to bring me to the Ants. 

“I had a few years at the Ants and was fortunate enough to get Players’ Player of The Year (2015-16) but then Cotter left with Tony Kane and Ronnie McDonald coming in as the management team last year. 

“Last season we had all the tools and we beat all the favourites and we were flying but I still can’t put my finger on where it’s all went wrong and I still speak to Tony Kane about it as the plans we had just never materialised.” 

The Ants have a rich Irish heritage running through the club’s veins, but O’Brien is keen to adapt as his own man and carefully downplays the links as they try to beat the side he joined this pre-season, in the race for promotion out of the McBookie West of Scotland League Central District Second Division. 

He said: “I love the Ants, it’s a fantastic club with brilliant people but I’m a bit of a weirdo as I may be Irish but it’s my identity and I like to pave my own way, as I now live in Scotland and my partner is Scottish and my life is always going to be here. 

“I still root for Ireland when we win at the rugby and qualify for tournaments but I try to develop and get more of Scotland into me and be a well-balanced person. 

“John Doyle has came in and is doing excellent with them at the top end of the table and lot of the boys I came through with all left and I thought I would step on and went through to Ashfield and I’ve played games and even won Man of the Match, a goal on my debut and even set up one. 

“But I was injured there for nearly three months with broken ribs which saw the boys go on a 10 game league and cup unbeaten run and I don’t have any arguments per se – I leave the Ants and they go top then I get injured and we go on a run, you can’t make this stuff up.” 

One thing that troubles the big defender is the next step for the non-league game in Scotland with money seeming to be paradoxically the answer and the cause of the problem, however, he praised the Ants for the way they run a tight ship in uncertain times. 

He said: “You’ve got look at the model Saint Anthony’s has as I used to pay into Friends of The Ants which is basically £10 per month to play like subs, no fancy boots, nothing handed to you, you worked for it and when you walked onto the park on a Saturday you play for the jersey. 

“Times are tight just now and it’s difficult for any club as it’s a tough gig and you can see by the way things are going with trialist’s at training demanding money and you think, really? it’s a strange way but I’m delighted with the Ants as they don’t pay you money and they still compete. 

“It’s tough for every Junior club and the battles that Saint Anthony’s are facing is the same with every team and I’m afraid for this level of football with the way things are going, but hopefully something comes along and gives it a kick that it needs.” 

Although being with Thorniewood United in the short-term the Irishman has his eyes set on helping develop the next generation of stars as he looks beyond his playing shelf life and for a pair of comfy Copa Mundial’s in the dugout. 

He said: “I’m feeling fit and looking to get another three or four years out of Junior football and then think about going for coaching badges as I’ve got an eye on the future, as you’re only one injury away from a career-breaker. 

“I’d like to have my ‘C’ Licence next year then push on with the ‘B’ but I need to research it and see but I want to stay in football once I retire and try to give back to the game from what I’ve taken out of it over the years. 

 “It’s been a great journey so far and it’s been great and hopefully there’s a few more years left in the tank.” 

 If you want to know more about Scottish non-league football take a look at this fantastic site http://nonleaguescotland.org.uk/ 

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