From the urban jungle to the Lions’ Den
Aiden O’Brien told David Hennessy about how football saved him from the streets, challenging for promotion to the Premiership with Millwall and scoring on his international debut
“If it weren’t for everyone looking out for me, who knows where I would be right now,” Millwall striker Aiden O’Brien says of turning his back on the gang violence that he grew up surrounded by. “I thank every one of them for that because it probably wouldn’t have been a nice place.”
Born in Islington, Aiden has played for Republic of Ireland at Under 17, Under 19 and Under 21 levels and has four senior caps. The 26-year-old has also been with Millwall since he was a teenager and made his senior debut for the club in 2011.
Aiden witnessed brutal things on his estate and sees how young people can be led astray. Known for his pace with Millwall, he had more than one lucky escape where he could have been stabbed or worse. He even had a gun pointed at him on one occasion.
“When you’re young, you just want to be around your mates: Having a laugh and having fun whether that be getting up to mischief, whether that just be playing football. That’s how it was for me.
“It was football that I chose. You’ve just got to realise what’s more important in life. Do you want to make something of yourself or do you want to go down that long, lonely road which doesn’t really come of anything come the end of it?
A Millwall youth coach, of Irish heritage himself, helped steer the young prospect away from bad influences.
“There was a coach here, Scott Fitzgerald. He’s been a massive part of my upbringing through Millwall. He was in talks with my dad when I was young and he sensed I wasn’t in a good place living back in my estate so he decided that I got put into digs.
“That helped me massively. I didn’t want to do it but I had no choice. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘Look, it’s either this way or no way’. He was a senior family figure in Millwall Football Club that I always looked up to.
“Thankfully I got directed in the football path and look where it’s taken me. It’s taken me to the highest of the highest, playing for my country, playing for Millwall in the Championship, scoring goals against Premiership opposition in the cups. I’ve done so much for this club and obviously I’ve played for my country, scored for my country and that’s all come from a little council estate so why can’t anyone else go and achieve that? Anything is possible in this game. You just got to put your mind to it.”
And Aiden achieved what he put his mind to when he got his first senior international cap and goal for Republic of Ireland in September 2018.
Was it magic to score against Poland on his international debut for Martin O’Neill’s side? “To be honest, that is the word. It was magic.
“I remember it clearly. Martin O’Neill said the team and I was up front. I was like, ‘Okay, let’s get going then’. Got there, nerves were kicking in, stuff like that. Then I ended up scoring. I finished the game and I was a bit shocked at myself. I was thinking at the same time, ‘I’ve been scoring loads throughout my career so let me not be too shocked at myself. This is what I do’.
“Then obviously I spoke to my family, they were all over the moon. Everyone was just kind of crying with joy. I wanted more. Hopefully I can get back playing with the first team and scoring more and more goals and start making a name for myself in the international appearances.”
Of the men who gave him his international chance but have since departed, Aiden says: “Roy and Martin were both legends. I remember my first trip, I was a bit nervous. There were a few big names. They made me feel comfortable from the minute go. I thank them for that.
“They’re approachable. They got everything spot on. I thank them for giving me my debut and playing me a few times and giving me that chance and believing in me. I thank them both.
“My Nan and Grandad were both born in Ireland. My grandad’s from Carrick-on-Suir, my Nan was from Dublin so they were born there, had my mum in London but then obviously my background was all brought up the Irish way. There was a no brainer when it came to England or Ireland when I was young: It was straight Ireland. My whole background’s Ireland and obviously I grew up in Islington, there’s a lot of Irish community there and it’s just been a terrific journey. My family are so proud of me and I want to keep it going.”
Sometimes known as volatile for the behaviour of their fans, Millwall were the club who gave Aiden a chance: “I was 15 years old when I had a trial game. I remember it perfectly, against Watford away.
“I scored two goals in my trial game and from that day I got taken on. I signed my pro contract at 17 and I haven’t looked back since.”
The club were shocked in October when Millwall legend and manager Neil Harris announced his shock departure. However, new manager Gary Rowett has come in and steadied the ship.
The team has been hard to beat since he took control and Aiden tells us why: “From the minute go, he’s come in with his staff and he’s set exactly what he wants from each player, no grey areas so everyone knew exactly what they were doing.
“It shows in the way we’re playing, it shows in the performances and it also shows in where we are in the table so credit to him.
“It’s not unrealistic now, we’re looking to make the play-offs. It’s all about sticking together now at this stage of the season. There’s not a lot of games left. We’ve just got to keep grinding results as much as we can and hopefully we can end up in the play-offs and once we get in the play-offs, we back ourselves to beat anyone and get promoted.”
Aiden has seen some big names come through SE16 as he was at the club when Harry Kane came on his 2012 loan spell: “Harry Kane, Chris Wood, Andros Townsend, they were all here when I was here. Obviously I was in the reserves or 18s or something like that but I trained with them. You could see they had something a bit different to the rest of us. It shows why they’re playing in the Prem now. They were top class lads.”
But could he have predicted Kane going on to be such a Premiership sensation and England captain? “To be fair he always had that eye for goal and you can’t teach that. An eye for goal is something that you’re born with. He would score goals that people would be like, ‘How did you even score that? How did you even see that?’ That gave me a little glimpse of how he can make it up to the very top. He’s gone and done that, he’s smashed records and he’s gonna keep doing that now.”
Aiden has been restricted to mainly substitute appearances this season. Although he has come off the bench to score numerous times, it has been frustrating to not be starting: “You ask any player, they want to be on the pitch. They don’t want to just be coming off the bench for 5, 10, 20 minutes each game. Nobody wants that.
“But at the same time, you gotta do what you gotta do for the team. You gotta be ready. If the manager chooses the team and you’re not involved, you gotta be professional. You gotta keep your head, you gotta make sure you’re ready for when you’re called upon. When you get on, try and do the business.
“That’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve tried to stay professional all the times I’ve been on the bench this season and I’ve tried to make a difference when I’ve come on. That’s all I can do for my team mates, for the club and for the manager.”
Aiden is not the only Irish man at the club. He is joined by Alex Pearce and Shaun Williams who both also have caps for Republic of Ireland.
The squad also includes two Republic of Ireland Under 21 internationals in captain Jayson Molumby and Danny McNamara.
Is there a little Irish group? “This is one big group together. Maybe in other clubs there are little groups here and there. We banter together, we laugh together, we cry together and that’s why I think it’s so special here because we’ve got such a good thing going on inside the camp and that’s taken us a long way.
“Shaun Williams was actually playing on my debut. He’s been a massive friend of mine, a massive part of my journey with Millwall. He’s one of my best mates.
“He’s a top lad and proper pro.”
On Republic of Ireland’s Under 21 captain Jayson Molumby who is on loan at Millwall from Brighton, Aiden says: “He’s been terrific. He’s such a young lad and he’s shown so much experience on the pitch and it’s just refreshing to see.
“I believe that he can go play in the Premier League one day if he keeps working hard and keeping his head down. I can’t speak too highly of him because he’s gonna get a bigger head and I don’t want him to get a bigger head. I want to keep his feet on the ground and him keep doing what he’s doing because what he’s doing for us right now is terrific.
“I can never rule out Jayson Molumby being senior skipper for Ireland.”
On Millwall’s other young Irishman Danny McNamara, Aiden says: “He’s a funny character and he gets a lot of stick for his curly hair.
“On the football pitch he’s a great right back: Solid, quick, he’s got all the tools and he works hard as well so he’s got the right mentality to make it. I think he can play for Ireland as well. He’s definitely one for the future for sure.”