Mick O’Brien – Part 3

By Gavan Bergin

“Journeyman: a hired worker;  a worker whose apprenticeship is completed; someone who is competent at his trade.”  (Oxford English Dictionary)

When the 1923/24 season began, Michael O’Brien was made captain of Leicester City Football Club. He was a natural leader and the job brought out the best in him. He started the season by playing 22 consecutive games for Leicester and he was often their best player. He scored in his second game as captain, and from then on he was increasingly effective going forward. A month into the season, his all-round abilities were pivotal in the three straight victories that got Leicester’s championship campaign going. On September 8th 1923, against Leeds United at Filbert Street his defending was to the fore as he led Leicester to a 2-0 win that put them up to fifth in the league. A week later, on September 15th, in a  2-1 win away to Leeds, Mick was in the thick of it again, this time going forward, and he “took audacious liberties, leading several attacks himself,” according to the Leicester Daily Mercury.  After Leicester’s next game at home to Port Vale on September 22nd  the Leicester Evening Mail said “thanks to Mick O’Brien’s genius in defence, City demonstrated their superiority in a 2-0 win that put them into third place in  Division Two.” For the next two months Leicester stayed in the top ten of the league table.

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

On December 29th 1923, against Stockport County, Mick played his 22nd consecutive game of  the season, leading Leicester to a battling 1-1 draw that kept them in the hunt for the league title. But his great run ended there: he missed the next four games, and things started to go wrong for him and Leicester. With Mick in the team, Leicester had 8 wins and 7 draws from their first 22 games. Without him, they had 4 defeats from their next 4 games, and they conceded 13 goals. They also dropped from ninth in the league to fifteenth in his absence. In late January 1924, after a month out, Mick returned to action and rallied Leicester to five wins in six games, which moved them up the league to seventh place. But, by that stage of the season they’d already lost too much ground on the leaders. Before they could catch up again, they were overtaken by another bad run of results, and that put them completely out of the running. In the end, despite all the early promise, they finished twelfth in the league.

At the end of that season Mick left Leicester. He’d been there for more than two years which was about as long as he ever stayed at any club. He was a true journeyman, a professional footballer for hire, who was highly competent at his trade. Whenever he signed for a new club, there was no fanfare: he arrived, quietly and efficiently went about his business, then moved on to the next job. And, for a reliable player like him there was always another job.

In June 1924 he joined Hull City. He made his debut for them at the start of 1924/25 season and he was terrific. In January 1925 he was made captain of Hull and under his leadership their league performances were much improved. Having finished in seventeenth place the previous year, in Mick’s first season they finished tenth in Division Two  After playing the 25/26 season with Hull, he moved  to Brooklyn Wanderers, a team in the American Soccer League, which was the first professional football competition in the USA. It didn’t work out, the league folded and Mick returned to England in August 1926. 

In December 1926 he was signed by Division One Derby County. At last, after so many years in  the League, Mick had the chance to play for a top flight club. Unfortunately, the opportunity came a bit late – he was already 33 when he joined  Derby and he spent most of his time with them playing reserve team football. That must have been disheartening, but Mick reacted like the professional he was. He worked hard and played every game with his trademark intensity, intelligence and skill, and before long he was made reserve team captain. His excellence in that role led to calls for his promotion to the first team. The Derbyshire Journal said, “Mick O’Brien, with his inspiring coolness and methodical passing has been a grand general of the reserves. He belongs to the older school, but he has been so brilliant that it is difficult to understand his being kept out of the first team.”  Those words didn’t change anything, and Mick never got promoted out of the reserves. In the end, he played only three first team games during his two seasons with Derby. Perhaps their management thought he was past it, or perhaps they thought he was just not good enough to play in Division One. Maybe they were right, but he was also too old to remain stuck in reserve team football, and he was too good to stay anywhere he wasn’t wanted. It was time to move on. 

In June 1928 he joined Division Three Walsall. He played 37 league games for them during the 1928/29 season. He left Walsall after that one season, and in the summer of 1929 he moved back to his old club, Norwich City, who were in the Football League  by then. He played 64 Third Division games for Norwich over the next two years and then he was on his way. In June 1931 he signed for Division Three Watford; they turned out to be his last club. When he joined them he was 38, and the end was coming fast, but he wasn’t finished yet .There was no slowing down, no taking it easy, and certainly no throwing in the towel from him. He just did what he always did, he gave his all in every  game he played. He played 61 League games in two seasons with Watford.

Mick retired at the end of the 1932/33 season. He had played 305 games in the Football League plus 27 in the FA Cup during his long career. He was 40 years of age and he was finished as a player, but Mick O’Brien wasn’t finished with football.

The story of Mick O’Brien concludes next time (next issue: early December 2023).

Read more:
Mick O’Brien – Part 1
Mick O’Brien – Part 2
Mick O’Brien – Part 4