As the debate over 'granny rule' players rumbles on, Aiden O'Brien confirms his Irish passion runs deep
"We should be able to pick players from this country, absolutely. And not have to rely on certain rulings or the grandparents rule.”
THE words offered up by Martin O'Neill were among his final parting shots as Ireland boss, yet they evidently did not apply to Millwall forward Aiden O’Brien.
While Jack Grealish turned his back on the Boys in Green and Declan Rice continues to ponder his international future, O’Brien is a ‘granny rule’ player who comes into the Irish equation with a very different mindset.
In fact, it would be hard to find a player who exudes more passion for the cause than this 25-year-old who has plotted his way through the underage international set-up before scoring on his senior debut for Ireland against Poland last September.
He may have been born around the corner from Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and grew up idolising Dennis Bergkamp, yet O’Brien has green blood running through his veins and in 2019, his chief dream is to be a key part of a revived Ireland set-up under new boss Mick McCarthy.
In the final months of the O’Neill and Roy Keane regime, O’Brien was one of the few bright lights and when you spend half an hour in his company, it is easy to appreciate why.
As he sat down for an exclusive interview at Millwall’s training HQ in south London, O’Brien tells of his Irish background growing up in London and how he is relishing the chance to link up with his Ireland team-mates for the first Euro 2020 qualifiers in March. Incredible
“All my life, I have been saying I want to play for Ireland, I want to score my first goal in a green shirt and now it has happened,” begins O’Brien, who helped Millwall to an FA Cup win against Hull on Sunday. “Hopefully that goal in Poland is the first of many for Ireland.
“Being given the honour of wearing the shirt is just incredible. I played through all the underage teams, but to be in the senior side and to score on my debut was a dream come true.”
The emotion O’Brien exudes as he reflects on what he admits is ‘the greatest moment of his career’ is deep rooted, as this is a young man on a mission to honour to two very special people in his life.
“My passion for Ireland comes from my nan and grandad, Theresa and Patrick,” he says.
“I used to go to their house every day after school and they would always be talking about Ireland and how much their country meant to them.
“It’s sad for me that they are not here any more because they would have loved to see me score that goal, but in my heart I can say that everything I did in Poland was for them and for my family, who were so proud.”
O’Brien speaks with the enthusiasm of a kid who has just found the last sticker to complete his collection and it’s this kind of drive and desire McCarthy will demand when he looks to rebuild the nation’s trust in an Ireland team that lost its way under O’Neill.
“Mick McCarthy called me and I think he has done the same with all the players,” added O’Brien, who confirmed he never received any phone calls from O’Neill or Keane during their five years overseeing the Ireland set-up.
“It was just an introduction call and it was great to chat to him. It’s a good sign that he wants to get to know his players and hopefully I can get picked for the first squad in a few weeks’ time.
“I am also looking forward to working with Robbie Keane in the new Ireland coaching set-up because he is a true legend of Irish soccer and I’m sure he will be putting on some great finishing sessions at the training ground.
“Scoring goals has been a problem for us for a while now and it would be nice to think that I can be part of the solution to that.”
While O’Neill evidently lost faith in ‘granny rule’ players, Yorkshire-born McCarthy is unlikely to be of a similar frame of mind after a period that saw our national team put on a life support machine and in rapid need of an adrenalin boost.