Transition time for O’Brien as Reds stick to plans

Jim O'Brien mobbed by fans
Jim O'Brien mobbed by fans
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As a proud Scot educated in the successful Celtic way, the thought of greeting survival as a triumph never sat well with Jim O’Brien.

The 25-year-old was reared on a diet of victories and trophies growing up in Dumbartonshire as a Celtic fan, and then in his youth as a member of the famous Glasgow club’s academy.

SURVIVAL: JIm O'Brien, left, celebrates survival at Huddersfield on the last day of the 2012-13 season. Picture: Dean Atkins.

SURVIVAL: JIm O'Brien, left, celebrates survival at Huddersfield on the last day of the 2012-13 season. Picture: Dean Atkins.

Even when he made the decision to further his career by moving on from his boyhood idols to Motherwell, the only time he wanted to be celebrating in football was when he was winning or challenging up at the top end of a division.

But his philosophy on what constitutes success changed on May 4 of this year when the enormity of Barnsley’s achievement in avoiding relegation from the Championship sunk in.

That day the Reds drew 2-2 at Huddersfield Town, after a contest of intense drama which ended with Barnsley being allowed to play out the closing moments with a keep-ball session because both teams knew they had done enough to avoid the drop.

“Before I came down to England I never understood people celebrating survival, and I never wanted to be one of those players who was just happy to survive,” said O’Brien.

“But, under the circumstances that we did it in, especially with the budget here compared to other clubs, it was really special and one of the best days of my career.

“Most of the lads will say the same. We’re all hard workers, we’ve all done it the hard way so it was pretty special.

“I’ve won cups at youth team and reserve level, but apart from playing at Celtic Park, it’s probably one of the biggest achievements of my career.”

O’Brien’s memories of that day, other than dropping back from his customary position of right midfield to right-back, are hazy, no doubt due in part to the wild celebrations that followed the final whistle.

For his manager, David Flitcroft, the memories are still vivid of a day when the hard work of the previous four months paid dividends.

“It does evoke different memories, unusual memories,” said Flitcroft ahead of a Yorkshire derby that reunites the two protagonists.

“The respect shown from the two sets of fans was something I don’t think I’ll ever bear witness to again. It was quite incredible.

“Our fans showed a class and a style and a real energy to what they did.

“I’ve been in the middle of pitch invasions before and you do feel threatened. But that one was incredible because the Huddersfield fans welcomed the Barnsley fans onto the pitch.

“It’s going to evoke memories, but I need this team to fight and they will fight on Saturday.”

That fight is required because Barnsley have not kicked on yet from that momentous Spring day.

Their League record since reads drawn one, lost three, with 12 goals conceded in those four games. Huddersfield, by contrast, have won three straight games in all competitions and have scored eight goals in the last two. Barnsley, on the flip side, have conceded 10.

O’Brien said: “No heads have dropped. We’re a close-knit dressing room still. We get on and we fight for each other.

“It’s just one of those bad patches and getting that first win on the board can be difficult.

“We trust everything the manager is doing. There’s been spells in games where we are getting there.

“Like I said before, we’re learning. We’ll stick to it, we’ll stick to the plan because we trust the plan.”

If there are any lessons to learn from that draw with Huddersfield, and indeed their remarkable surge to survival last season, it is that when they stuck to their game plan last season, Barnsley were a match for anyone.

The tactics have altered slightly this term, with Flitcroft switching to a more permanent 3-5-2 formation which served the team well on occasion last season.

Part of that alteration has seen O’Brien revert to right wing-back, following his impressive showing against the Terriers in that huge game in May.

“It was my first game at full-back and apart from a few of the lads saying I played really well, that’s about all I remember,” said O’Brien, whose only game for Celtic saw him play on the right side of a back four.

“Last season, Christmas onwards, we set a plan for each game and we stuck to it and we trusted it and it’s no different this season. The results are a little bit different. But we’ve got a game plan going in, we do our homework.

“I don’t think anyone in the league will work harder than our manager and staff in terms of watching dvds and breaking oppositions down.

“What we are getting out of games is not reflecting the hard work that’s going on behind the scenes.

“We’re trying a new system, one that we matched up well against teams last season. We played it when others played 3-5-2 last season and it worked. The permanent transition is proving a little more difficult. We’ve lost a few goals, but we try to remain positive.

“For me, personally, it’s a new position. It’s a lot easier to turn an attacking player into a defender than it is the other way around, so I’ve been working a bit with Martin Scott, who played full-back.

“He’s been talking me through a couple of things. Last week against Blackburn, I was a little too eager to get close to the player I was playing against.

“So it’s a learning curve for me, but in the Championship it’s a steep learning curve.”

,f Barnsley prospered last season matching man for man in that formation, then they will be pleased to see Mark Robins’ side continuing their development as a 3-5-2 unit today.

The fixture is also a reunion for O’Brien and Robins, who was the man who brought the Scot to Barnsley three years ago, right around the time the winger thought the only way to play football was to attack, and the only way to celebrate was when you won a trophy.

How perspectives change.

nick.westby@ypn.co.uk