Joey O’Brien: ‘Beating Millwall, Spurs and Liverpool – I loved my time at West Ham’

From Championship chasers to Premier League survivors, Joey O'Brien looks back on his time at West Ham

In recent years, it has become a ritual for new arrivals at clubs to stand up and sing for their team-mates as an initiation ceremony.

But there were no such niceties when former Bolton defender Joey O’Brien arrived at West Ham in 2011, having been handed a lifeline by his former Trotters boss, Sam Allardyce, and desperate to restart a career that had been almost destroyed by injury.

‘I wasn’t talking or getting involved much in the dressing room, because I wasn’t there to make friends. I was so focused for my six week trial, they probably thought I was a bit of a weirdo,’ the 35-year-old former Republic of Ireland international, who recently joined the coaching staff at League of Ireland side Shelbourne, told Blowing Bubbles.

‘All I cared about was getting a contract, so it was only after that was confirmed that I got to know people. Sam didn’t just throw me a deal, he played me in most pre-season games because he wanted to see I was up to it, and it was only a couple of days before the opening game, against Cardiff, that he signed me. 

‘Before that game, he said how I must feel great to be back — I said “I’m not back until this time next year, when we’re back in the Premier League”. That was my mentality.’

Allardyce’s close scrutiny before signing O’Brien was understandable, because by the age of 25, he had built up such a list of injuries that had he been a car, he would probably have failed his MOT.

‘When Bolton let me go, I hadn’t played for them in two-and-a-half years. In October 2008 my knee went playing against Blackburn and I had to have three operations. With all the rehab that took, it was February 2011 before I played again, on loan at Sheffield Wednesday under my old Bolton boss Gary Megson. I was desperate to play and show everyone I was worth a new deal, but at the end of the season, there was none. 

‘It was an emotional time, wondering where my next opportunity might come from. I’d left Ireland at 15 to join Bolton, where I’d been in the academy team and the youth team, captained the reserves, then broken into the first team in a great period in Bolton history, twice playing in the Europa League, so it was very worrying to leave with a track record like mine.

‘Sam had tried to take me to Newcastle before my knee went, but we hadn’t really stayed in touch after that. It’s only when you’re playing that you can prove your worth to anyone at your own club, let alone to anyone anywhere else, so you always hope someone will throw you a bone.’

Fortunately, Allardyce did, bringing an end to a seemingly cursed time in O’Brien’s career.

‘I was amazingly unlucky with the problems I had,’ he explained. ‘I went to see a knee specialist in Colorado, who had done thousands of knee operations, and he said he’d never seen anything like mine, and that it was amazing that I’d managed to play as much as I did. But my luck changed when I got the call inviting me down to West Ham, and that’s why I had that attitude.’

The West Ham O’Brien arrived at was one reeling from the Avram Grant disaster and relegation from the Premier League. 

Allardyce, never likely to have been the fans’ first choice style-wise, was hired with one simple task — to get the team back up — and this he did, at the first time of asking, with O’Brien, after so many years of injury problems, an integral part of the team, playing in more than 30 league games, and more desperate than most to prove his point.

‘I’d played against West Ham a few times, so I knew what the fans and the ground were like, and that if you weren’t playing well, the fans would let you know, so the pressure was on,’ he said. 

‘In the Championship that year, we were such a big club, with such a talented squad, that we knew for many teams, playing us was their big game, so they were always up for it and quite often set up negatively, just to avoid defeat. 

‘That made it hard work for us sometimes to break them down. We had a great away record, and rarely lost, but we drew too many games to go up automatically. In March, we drew five in a row, against teams we should have been beating, and that’s what cost us.’

Having finished third, just three points behind champions Reading, Cardiff were brushed aside in the play-off semi-finals before a showdown with Blackpool at Wembley, with Ricardo Vaz Te — one of three former Bolton players in the Irons team that day, alongside Kevin Nolan and Matt Taylor, although not O’Brien — scoring late on to secure a 2-1 win. 

Relief and exhilaration for O’Brien, but by no means a sense of completion. ‘Obviously there was great excitement and relief that we’d achieved our goal,’ he said. 

‘It was a great moment and we celebrated, but personally, I thought “here we go, this is what I set out for” — after what I’d said to Sam at the start of the season, this was just the beginning.’

With keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen added to the Bolton Old Boys reunion for the 2012-13 season, O’Brien was once again a regular as the team consolidated themselves in the top flight with a mid-table finish of 10th, and the loan signing of Andy Carroll and confirmation of the club’s move to the Olympic Stadium, gave fans reason to think something special might be on the horizon. But in true West Ham fashion, things did not work out quite as planned.

The following season, 2013-14, the Irons rarely ventured out of the bottom third of the table, and fan feelings towards Allardyce, which had never been kept secret anyway, burst out for all to see in January, when in the course of a week, the team suffered two Cup humiliations. 

First, a completely makeshift side containing three debutants, one player making his first start and senior players like England internationals Matt Jarvis and Stewart Downing played totally out of position in defence, was hammered 5-0 at Championship side Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round. 

Then days later, a side with eight changes, including a debut for on-loan defender Roger Johnson, who had joined just 48 hours earlier from Wolves, was thrashed 6-0 at Manchester City in the League Cup semi-final first leg.

‘In the previous round, we’d scored two late goals to win at Spurs, which was an absolutely amazing night and a fantastic atmosphere,’ O’Brien explained.

‘In the last four, it was us, City, Sunderland and Manchester United, who weren’t in the greatest form, and going into that game, City were absolutely on fire, so we had the toughest draw, by far. 

‘In the last two years I’d been there, our biggest strength had always been our back four unit. That night we were missing a couple of centre halves, and we really paid the price.’

 Although things picked up sufficiently in February for Allardyce to win Manager of the Month, fans were still fuming, and when a dismal 2-1 scrape past Hull at Upton Park was greeted with boos by the crowd, Allardyce cupped his ears in response. There was no coming back from that.

‘I think maybe from the fans’ point of view, some people who’d never liked him were waiting for him to make a mistake so they could jump on him,’ O’Brien said. ‘But he did the job he was asked, which was to get us up, and I think if Andy Carroll had stayed fit, it could have transformed things. But sometimes players get injuries and it limits what you can do.’

That following season, a knee injury picked up on international duty and the signing of Aaron Cresswell, and Carl Jenkinson on loan from Arsenal, meant O’Brien was not such a regular, but after all the injury problems earlier in his career, he was glad just to be in contention.

‘I was relatively injury-free at West Ham, the biggest thing I had was when I dislocated my shoulder when Chelsea’s Gary Cahill knocked me over (in January 2014), but that was just bad luck,’ he said.

‘When I was a kid I had two operations on my right knee and missed a year and a half, and later on I missed another two-and-a-half years when I needed three operations. That season, I only got a few appearances because Sam thought Carl was an improvement on what we already had at the club,’ he explained.

As the end of the season loomed, Allardyce’s contract was running down, and O’Brien’s only had one year to go. But only one of these was the defender’s concern.

‘Towards the end of the season, the rumours were getting louder that Sam wouldn’t get a new deal, but I was thinking about myself,’ he said. ‘I’d been out of his plans, so particularly as I only had one year left, my priority was my job, and I was wondering who would be the new manager and how I could best impress him to get back into the team.’

The contrast between Allardyce and his replacement, Slaven Bilic, could hardly have been bigger, and as the club prepared for its final season at Upton Park, with a fans’ favourite at the helm, things looked good all round.

‘The new manager didn’t know me from Adam, so it was clean slate and I saw it as a real opportunity, and qualifying for the early rounds of the Europa League meant he picked a mix of senior players who’d been out of the picture for a while, and youngsters, so I did my best to make the most of the chance. His first game in charge (against Lusitanos from Andorra), in front of an absolutely rocking full house, is a night I will always remember,’ he said.

‘Sam had left him a decent squad, and then he added Dmitiri Payet, who took things to the next level. I’m into my European football so you know who’s who, and to be honest he wasn’t that highly regarded, so to bring in someone who turns out to be that good, for a relatively modest fee, was amazing — it was the same as when Jay-Jay Okocha arrived at Bolton, he was a total gamechanger.’

Alas, the good times were not to last long for O’Brien. An unfortunately timed hamstring injury on European duty against Astra Giurgiu of Romania meant after a promising early season, O’Brien was sidelined when the Premier League kicked off — and after that, he barely got a look in.

‘I was fit for most of that season but for some reason I was nowhere in the manager’s plans,’ he said.

‘The summer transfer window came and went so I was waiting for January to try and get out on loan to go somewhere, and when it came along, I had what I thought was a good chance to go to Sunderland. The chairman seemed happy for me to take it but for some reason I wasn’t allowed to go.’

What turned out to be O’Brien’s final games for West Ham were an away FA Cup substitute appearance at Anfield, and then his final start, at home in the replay. That was in February, and at the end of the 2015-16 season, there was no new contract. Over. And out.

‘If you’ve had injuries when you’re younger, people are more willing to take a punt on you, but less so when you’re older and haven’t played in a while,’ he said.

‘I got some calls from lower league clubs but that wasn’t for me. I’d played my career at a high level and the quality mattered more to me than the number of games, so I had a long wait and eventually went home, and got in touch with Shamrock, where I knew a few people, and it worked out fantastically over the last four years.’

The statistics speak for themselves; after joining in 2018, O’Brien helped Rovers win the FAI Cup and two League of Ireland Premier Division titles, before retiring at the end of the 2021 season to take up a coaching position with newly-promoted Shelbourne, alongside former international team-mate Damien Duff.

After so many setbacks along the way and so much lost time, to play for the team he supported, and be successful, was the perfect final chapter for O’Brien’s playing career. 

But despite its unsatisfactory ending, the West Ham one is a significant part of his story, too. ‘How it ended doesn’t affect my feeling for the club at all,’ he said. ‘To come back from all the stuff I did and play for such a huge club, which I owe to Sam, was special.

‘We played some big games and had some great times. Games against Millwall, the League Cup win at Spurs, and that first European match in my final season — they were all fantastic.

‘And beating Liverpool in the FA Cup with a goal in injury time of extra time? Now that’s a great way for it all to finish.’

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