By Damian Dolan
Newport County’s Mark O’Brien knows a thing or two about fairytale endings and the Dubliner is hoping to be part of another in the FA Cup Fourth Round on Saturday, at the expense of Tottenham Hotspur.
O’Brien, 25, ensured his place in Newport folklore when his 89th minute goal kept the South Wales side in the football league on the final day of last season.
On Saturday, the defender could be tasked with doing what few defences have managed this season, or in the previous two seasons, stop Harry Kane from scoring.
Throw in the likes of Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, and it would appear a forlorn task for the League Two side, but O’Brien and his teammates are relishing the prospect.
“I get to test myself against one of the best [player’s] in Europe,” said O’Brien, who arrived at Rodney Parade in January 2017.
“You watch them every week on Match of the Day or Sky Sports and you see how good they are, and to then have the prospect of playing against them, it’s more excitement than nervousness.
“We know it’s going to be a tough ask, but we’re all looking forward to it and we have home advantage. We’re relishing it, but when they see the pitch they might not relish it as much.”
A draw would, of course, offer Newport County a mouth-watering replay at Wembley, but O’Brien and his teammates aren’t thinking in those terms.
While Spurs headed to the warmer climate of Barcelona to prepare for last Sunday’s Premier League clash with Southampton, an ambush is being prepared in South Wales, and O’Brien believes all the ingredients are there for a giantkilling.
Rodney Parade has already proven itself to be a fortress during this cup run. After beating Walsall of League One and fellow League Two side Cambridge (both at Rodney Parade) to reach the Third Round, Newport produced one of the upsets of the round when they came from 1-0 down against Leeds to win 2-1, thanks to Shawn McCoulsky’s late header which had Rodney Parade rocking.
Only a few months earlier, Leeds had dished out a 5-1 drubbing to Newport at Elland Road in the Carling Cup.
When you score in the 89th minute for a famous #FACup upset 🙌
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) January 7, 2018
“They’re [Tottenham] going to have to travel to South Wales and they’re going to have to deal with the pitch, which isn’t going to be as smooth as they’ll be used to,” added O’Brien, who made his debut for Derby when he was 16 and spent five seasons at the Rams before leaving in 2015.
“You wouldn’t know if they’re going to be able to play the football they can.
“They will have a lot of top players playing, but our pitch turns it into a man-to-man battle and if we can turn it into the kind of game that we want, and ruffle them up a bit, the FA Cup has proven that there can be upsets.”
It was at Rodney Parade that O’Brien scored one of the most famous, and most important, goals in the history of Newport County.
A dramatic final day of the 2016/17 League Two season saw the Welsh side facing the drop, with relegation rivals Hartlepool leading Doncaster Rovers 2-1.
Needing a goal in the dying minutes to save their League Two status, O’Brien was thrown forwards. The rest is history.
A ball in from the right was controlled on the chest by O’Brien, who then volleyed the dropping ball into the net. It was only his second-ever goal. Rodney Parade went wild.
“I was shouting to the sideline to go up front, because as a defender you can get a flick on or cause a bit of confusion, and it might fall to a striker who can produce that kind of finish,” said O’Brien, who has also enjoyed spells at Luton, Motherwell and Southport, and is a former Republic of Ireland Under 16, Under 17 and Under 19 international.
“It was an instinctive moment, and it was probably just as well that I didn’t have time to think about it because it could have gone anywhere. As the ball was dropping perfectly I just thought ‘I’m going to hit it’ and thankfully it went in.
“When my family found out that I’d scored the goal my phone didn’t stop ringing for two weeks.”
It was the culmination of a run rightly dubbed ‘the great escape’. Newport had looked resigned to relegation when Mike Flynn took over as manager, but an extraordinary sequence of seven wins from 12 games gave the club hope.
They’ve carried that momentum in to this campaign, and a club which could so easily have been playing in the National League this season, is instead eyeing a place in the League Two play-offs, and promotion.
Something which was inconceivable 12 months ago. ‘He [Mike Flynn] put the pride of Newport back into the club. It’s a family orientated, close-knit club, and when we do well it lifts the whole town, not just the club,” said O’Brien.
“I never realised that until the end of last season, when it brought everyone together. The fans have started coming back and they’re now seeing a completely different team. There’s a different vibe about the place and everyone’s getting on board.
“We’re enjoying our football. We know we’re a good enough side to compete with anyone in this league – last season wasn’t a fluke.
“We have the support that can make our stadium a fortress. Not many teams want to come here and play and we thrive on that.”
It would be brave man who would bet against Kane and Tottenham in their current form on Saturday, but the FA Cup deals in fairytale endings and O’Brien knows a thing or two about those.