As Hibs focussed on facing Aberdeen in today’s lunchtime kick-off, recently-installed first team coach Liam O’Brien could be forgiven for allowing his mind to drift from the task in hand.
Part of manager Pat Fenlon’s backroom staff, the former Manchester United midfielder O’Brien, pictured, would have good reason to reflect on a couple of his career highlights due to the fact Pittodrie harbours reminders of two particular glorious episodes of his playing days.
O’Brien’s time at Old Trafford, which began aged 22, coincided with the five-year spell that current Aberdeen assistant manager Archie Knox spent as Sir Alex Ferguson’s right-hand man. The Granite City stadium itself holds fond memories for O’Brien as, in the latter stages of his playing career, he helped Bohemians to a famous 2-1 win over the Dons, a result that triggered Bohs’ progress to the next round of the UEFA Cup.
“We played them in the UEFA Cup and managed to beat them over the two legs, which was great. That was the last time I was there, which was 11 years ago,” recalled O’Brien.
“I’ve played so many games I can’t remember it that well, but we won 2-1. I think on the night we probably deserved it. Expectations were that Aberdeen would beat us and beat us well, but we were well-organised and had a good go at them. We took them back to Dublin and it was 1-0 to Aberdeen, but we went through on away goals. It was great, and we had a good draw in the next round against Kaiserslautern and we did okay and managed to beat them 1-0 away, which has to go down as one of the greatest away performances from an Irish team in Europe in a long time.”
O’Brien and the Hibs management would settle for similar heroics on the road today, but for now the 47-year-old, who truly made his name in English football as part of a Newcastle United team that won promotion to the Premiership in 1993, is happy to remain patient for the players to deliver success.
“I’d like to think I’m building a rapport with the players. Any player you’re working for, you’re not going to see eye-to-eye with everybody. I’d like to think that the majority of players I’ve worked with have enjoyed working with me. I think when you win things, you can go back and say, “Yes, I enjoyed working with him. He might be ruthless, but he got us over the line and winning things” – that’s what I’m about. I’m a winner, I’ve been used to winning things in Ireland and I won a [English First Division] league medal with Newcastle.”
Upon the appointment of Fenlon as manager three weeks ago, O’Brien may have been expected to arrive as a direct replacement for previous No.2, and erstwhile caretaker boss, Billy Brown. However, Brown has been retained and O’Brien is more than comfortable working in tandem with the former Hearts assistant to co-ordinate training sessions.
O’Brien said: “We’re only getting to know Billy and what I’ve found so far is he’s a lovely man, down-to-earth and very helpful in everything he’s done so far. We’ve hit it off very well, which is very important. We sit down and we talk about what we’re going to do the following day, we plan things out together more or less. I might do something, he might do something – that’s the way we’re working at the moment. We do all the training ourselves – he might help me out, or I might give him a hand. We’ll plan a session based on how many bodies we have, and it’s working at the moment very well.” It is a blessing for O’Brien that his new working conditions are entirely convenient to him, especially because of the personal upheaval involved in his move from Bohemians in Dublin to Hibs in Edinburgh.
“It’s hectic,” admitted O’Brien, who with Fenlon is relieved to have moved from hotel accommodation to an apartment in the Capital. “We’re back in full-time football. We were used to that in Ireland anyway, but we went part-time [with Bohemians] last season, so it will be nice to get back to a full-time environment.”
Despite his exposure as a player to some of the most famous names in British football management of recent times, O’Brien is content as a coach on the training ground. Signed by Ron Atkinson for Manchester United, the Dubliner went on to work under Sir Alex Ferguson, Kevin Keegan and Jack Charlton, but when the time came to retire from playing, his heart was set on an active part in the development of players.
“I like working with the players,” said O’Brien. “A manager to me has an awful lot of other things to deal with. I would be one for making the training sessions are right – that’s what I like doing.
“The most important thing for me is that the players have to enjoy what you’re doing. I wouldn’t do anything that I couldn’t do when I was playing. Everything I put on is football-related anyway and the most important thing is enjoyment and working hard.”
“I’ve always taken a little bit off each of the coaches and managers I’ve had. I had Archie Knox, who I’m going to be involved with today, at Manchester United when I was there for two years. He was fantastic – I wouldn’t have a bad word to say about him. He was very good and very helpful in my development as a player. Then, at Newcastle, when Kevin Keegan came in, Derek Fazackerley was the coach and went onto to coach for England under Kevin. I learned a little bit from him, too. In the international team, there was Jack, and Jack’s a little bit different, obviously! Then, Mick McCarthy I’ve worked with as well – as a player, and as a coach as well – and I enjoyed my time with him.”
O’Brien and Fenlon are embarking on the second chapter of their career as a double-act after pairing up four years ago at Bohemians. While O’Brien says it is too early to assess the value of the players the new management team has inherited, he is encouraged by the sprinkling of quality he has witnessed so far. “I’m still evaluating it, but there are some good lads there. At this moment in time, we’re still looking at everybody – their strengths and their weaknesses.”