Mick O’Brien – Part 1

by Gavan Bergin

Mick O’Brien was born on August 10th 1893 in Kilcock in County Kildare* His family emigrated to England and he grew up in County Durham. He took up football in his teenage years and by the time he was eighteen he was playing for the famous Blyth Spartans club, in the amateur North-Eastern League. Having made his name as a top player in that league he was scouted by Glasgow Celtic, who signed him in 1912. That move could’ve been his big break but it didn’t work out. He spent a year with Celtic without getting into the first team. In 1913 he went back to the North-Eastern League. He was too good for that level of football though, and soon enough he was on the move again.

In December 1914 Mick was signed by Brentford FC a semi-professional club in the Southern League Division Two. He spent five years playing in midfield and defence for Brentford before moving up a division to the Southern League Division One when he joined Norwich City in August 1919. At that time he was already 26 years old and he’d been stuck in the lower leagues for nearly ten years. He must have wondered if he’d ever make it any higher than the Southern League. He didn’t have to wait much longer because in May 1920 he was signed up by Queens Park Rangers who were in the Football League Third Division. Mick was a professional footballer at last!

Mick O'Brien, footballer
Mick O’Brien, footballer

And he was more than ready. When he joined QPR he was in his prime. His years of playing in the lower leagues had taught him all there was to learn about defending in English football. He had experience and talent. He was powerful in the air, he ran fast and tackled hard, and he was an expert at reading the game. On top of that, he was perfectly built for a defender: he was very tall and very strong, with a broad back, wide shoulders and sharp elbows that made him the bane of the opposition He could play any position in the back line, but he excelled at centre-half where he was the defensive rock, breaking up dangerous attacks again and again. He was good on the ball too and his accurate long range passing from the back started many attacking moves.

But Mick’s main job was defending and he did it very well. QPR were much more effective with him in defence. In 1920/21, they conceded only 33 goals in 42 league games. That outstanding record was integral to an impressive all round performance by Rangers who came third in the Third Division that season. Mick played a major role in that achievement and maintained his high standard of play at the start of the ‘21/’22 season and earned himself another move up the divisions. On March 16th 1922 he was signed by Division Two Leicester City.

He was badly needed by Leicester. They had won only once in their last seven league games and their defence was in disarray. They needed sorting out. On March 18th 1922, Mick made his Leicester debut in their Division Two game against Notts County. That game took place at Filbert Street, Leicester’s home ground, but the team hadn’t given their crowd much to cheer about lately. In the last three home games they had two defeats and one draw. Their supporters knew how bad they were, especially at the back.

So, when Mick walked onto that pitch for the first time as a Leicester player, the home support was watching closely to see if he was the man to sort out the defence. They soon found out what he was
made of. As soon as the first whistle sounded, Notts County were on top. It was they who looked at home at Filbert Street. They ran and they pressed and they pushed and they controlled the play all through the early stages. As the Nottingham Journal reported: “the Leicester folk were shown the prowess of the Notts forwards, who exerted themselves sufficiently to stretch the City backline who were tested throughout the fifirst half.” But though the danger was great and constant, and the chances were many and close, they didn’t convert. Mick was standing tall and strong in defence for Leicester and the rest of the back line did likewise. They resisted and withstood and somehow survived all the intense pressure. The score was still 0-0 at the end of the first half.

In the second half they endured again, and their clever, aggressive defending helped Leicester slowly but surely take control of the match. Soon enough Notts County were left on the floor, disheartened and demoralised by their inability to capitalise on their early dominance. Midway through the second half the visitors were no longer a serious threat. And it was Leicester’s time to shine. It was their turn to dominate, to attack in numbers and cause endless trouble to the opposition. And they did, creating chances aplenty, coming close with near misses and forcing saves out of the Notts keeper. They came close, so close they almost broke through, they nearly put the ball in several times and more. But they could not score. And now they were the frustrated ones who just could not find that damned elusive opening goal. And so time passed, and passed, without any breakthrough for Leicester and the situation started to get desperate for them. There was danger in their dominance as well. Because once or twice the Notts County attackers roused themselves to launch swift and perilous counter-attacks that could’ve meant disaster, if it weren’t for Mick and the other defenders who stayed alert to intercept, block and clear the danger.

Nevertheless the biggest problems for Leicester still were at the other end. Their hopes of winning the game were dwindling and fading away with every moment that passed without a goal. Ten minutes of the second half went by; then twenty minutes and thirty minutes elapsed and still they hadn’t got a goal. And as the game went on, deep into the second half, all the way to the seventieth minute and beyond, with the end approaching fast, the scoresheet blank and the deadlock unbroken. But no one was giving up, certainly not Leicester who broke forward yet again just as the clock began counting down the final fifteen minutes of the game. They launched an attack like they had so many times before but this time everything went right and they scored! They were 1-0 up. That goal was scored in the 75th minute and before the end they scored two more and won the game, 3-0.

That was their first win for over a month, and it put them eighth in the league table. The hard pressed City supporters were delighted and according to the Hinckley Times they celebrated hard with, “late night singing, shouting and disturbing the people.” Another local paper, The Leicester Evening, hailed Mick’s performance in the match: “The directors of Leicester City made an important and enterprising bit of business by signing Michael O’Brien. In terms of physique he is a splendid specimen and he can play any position in the backline with the greatest facility. On his first appearance for City he made a good impression and amply justified the decision to bring him to the club.”

Unsurprisingly, after his super debut Mick stayed in the team and their defence continued to improve. Having conceded 16 goals in their previous six games, they conceded only four goals in his first six games. By the end of the 21/22 season he was first choice centre-half for Leicester.

*Some online sources say that Mick was born in England, in Ushaw Moor, County Durham.

Read more:
Mick O’Brien – Part 2
Mick O’Brien – Part 3
Mick O’Brien – Part 4