Having Taken The Road Less Travelled, Jake O'Brien Is Now Reaping The Rewards

By Gary Connaughton

In many senses, there is a sense that there is defined path when it comes to Irish players and their mission to progress to the top of the game. They will move to English clubs at a young age, playing in the club's academy. Perhaps they will go out on loan to the lower leagues, before then breaking into the first team.

That may have been the case for a long time, but things are slowly changing.

There is no one way to make your way in the sport. Academies are still an option, but many youngsters are now cutting their teeth at first team level in the League of Ireland before making a move abroad. When it comes to gaining more experience once they eventually do take the next step, many are looking a bit further afield than the EFL.

Jake O'Brien is a prime example.

Having come through the ranks at Cork City, he broke into the first team for the 2020 season. His stay at the club would not be a long one. Interest from English clubs would quickly emerge, with the centre back making only a handful of appearances before moving to Crystal Palace.

Speaking to Balls, he explained how his exposure to first team football at a young age benefitted his career.

There was interest from a few clubs. The interest came from Stephen Rice in the Ireland setup, he was at Palace at the time and contacted my agent looking for video footage of me playing. Once that was sent over I was invited over on trial. I was on trial for about ten days or so, played two or three games.

I was thinking for a good few years that I wanted to move across the water, so once I was over there I thought there was no going back, that it was all or nothing...

When you’re at English clubs and they see that you have first team football, your profile becomes bigger. A lot of academy lads that haven’t played first team football, when they’re trying to get loans at other clubs they are taking a risk.

At least when you come over from Ireland and have played first team football, they know they can trust you that bit more. It definitely helps and it matures you as well.

12 September 2020; Jake O'Brien in action against Jack Byrne of Shamrock Rovers during the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division match between Cork City and Shamrock Rovers. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

A spell in the Crystal Palace U23 side would follow, racking up quite a few appearances across 2021. From there, O'Brien would move to Swindon Town on loan in January of this year.

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That was quite the baptism of fire. League Two is known for its physical style of play, with the young defender being involved in a couple of bruising encounters during his first few games.

He would more than adapt to the physical demands, helping the club to a place in the play-offs. Unfortunately, that would end in a penalty shootout defeat in the semi-finals.

Pre-season meant to a return to London and a spell with the first team. The Youghal man would travel on the pre-season tour to Singapore and Australia, playing in packed fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester United.

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It was quite the experience.

The experience over in Singapore and Australia was huge. Playing against those top calibre teams like Man United and Liverpool was big for me, there was huge crowds coming into watch. It was a good experience, getting your fitness up and ready for the season.

It was definitely a bit of a ‘wow’ moment, but once you step on the pitch you forget about that and play like it’s any other team. One of the games there was 60,000 or 70,000 people at it. Obviously that brings a bit more pressure, but it’s good to play in because it pushes you on that bit more.

It was a good experience to test yourself and see where you’re at against players like Darwin Nunez, who just came to Liverpool.

Having had the traditional loan move to the lower leagues earlier in the year, O'Brien once again went down the road less travelled for this season. When the opportunity to move to the continent presented itself, he jumped at the opportunity.

The Belgian second tier is not a league that many Irish players will experience. RWD Molenbeek are a club on the outskirts of Brussels, one that has only been around in its current guise since 2015. The old club had one the Belgian title on one previous occasion, but would fold midway through the last decade.

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It has been steadily rising up the leagues since then. Starting out in the fifth tier, they currently sit joint top of the Challenger Pro League and look primed to make a major promotion push.

Having started each of their last nine games, O'Brien is thriving in unfamiliar surroundings.

I had a few meetings about what’s in store, so I thought why not? It’s a different experience, a different type of football, and that should help me push into the Palace first team.

Playing at Swindon in the lower leagues, you have that physicality and English style of football. I wanted to try something new, a different style of play. It’s similar to the Dutch style, you get it down and play...

Players should be open to things other than over in England. There is more to it, there are different teams, the standard is high in other countries as well. It’s about experiencing different things and not just looking at England. That’s what I’m doing at the moment. It’s a good experience and all part of my development.

I think you mature a lot living away. It’s not just doing stuff yourself, but problem solving as well. There is a new language, you’re in a different country.

As the above video suggests, he is very much enjoying his time in Belgium.

Of course, this spell will be undertaken with his future very much in mind. Working towards a senior breakthrough with both Crystal Palace and Ireland is central to everything he is doing at the moment.

He got his first real taste of international football over the last 12 months or so. O'Brien was an integral part of Jim Crawford's U21 side for the Euro qualifying campaign, one that ended in a heartbreaking fashion with a play-off penalty shootout defeat to Israel.

The player sees a huge amount of emerging talent in Irish football, with the pathway to the senior squad now clear since Stephen Kenny's appointment. It is a route he is keen to follow.

It’s not just our age group, but all the groups down below have players coming through. They’re all very good, playing at high standard in top academies and clubs. It looks good for the future of Irish football...

It just shows that if you do well at club level and are playing week in and week out, there is a chance there (to get into the senior squad). I think if I can keep moving forward and progressing, my time will come.

There is a lot of talent at centre back in Ireland, but I think I can push through.

23 September 2022; Jake O'Brien with his nephew, 3 month old Beau Summerton, after during the UEFA European U21 Championship play-off first leg match between Republic of Ireland and Israel. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Having taken a less traditional route in the game, the decisions Jake O'Brien has made up to this point in his career are now starting to pay dividends.

Considering the ability he has flashed up to this point, the sky is the limit moving forward.

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