LEWIS O’BRIEN’S first inkling as to how tough life as a footballer can be came via social media on transfer deadline day in August.
Just seconds after his loan move from Huddersfield Town to Bradford City had been announced via the latter’s official Twitter account, the then teenager’s mobile phone started to ping.
‘Who is this nobody?’ was one of the first messages to pop up on his feed, closely followed by ‘We want a new striker, not this’.
O’Brien, without so much as a second’s action in senior football to his name when making the short move across the West Riding, had unwittingly become caught in the crossfire between Edin Rahic and supporters angry at the chairman’s handling of the club.
Jst days earlier City had been booed off both at half-time and full-time during a home defeat to Wycombe Wanderers so tensions were running high as the clock ticked down towards the closing of the window. Nevertheless, the less than warm welcome still came as a shock.
“I will be honest and say it knocked me back a bit,” O’Brien this week told The Yorkshire Post. “I was wondering if this is what it was going to be like at Bradford.
“I had been tagged in to the original message and still had my notifications on. All these messages were coming through and most of them were not very nice. But, after a bit, I started to think, ‘Well, I will show you’.”
O’Brien has certainly done that. With City set to reach the halfway stage of the season when hosting Scunthorpe United today, the midfielder is already the standout candidate for Player of the Year.
Even in the truly dark days of October when Bradford lost all six games, the Terriers loanee stood tall. Other, more experienced team-mates, may have hid as the flak flew, but O’Brien never did.
No wonder Hope Akpan told this newspaper just last weekend that O’Brien was “an old man in a young body”. Mention of Akpan’s praise is the one time during our interview when the words dry up, almost as if he is embarrassed to be singled out for praise.
Otherwise, though, someone who joined Huddersfield’s Academy at the age of 10 speaks like he plays, with conviction and bundles of energy.
“Things were difficult when I first got into the team,” said the Littleborough-based 20-year-old. “But I just had to take things in my stride.
“The move had come totally out of the blue. I was supposed to be going to Harrogate for a training session when I got the call to say Bradford City wanted me on loan.
“There was a lot to take in at first. My debut, for a start, wasn’t the best as I came on at Blackpool with us 2-0 up and yet we lost 3-2. Afterwards I was thinking, ‘Was that down to me?’
I was not expecting to play anywhere near as much as I have at Bradford ... I came off the bench against Blackpool and have been in the team ever since.Lewis O’Brien
“But so many people at the club helped me, and in particular ‘Bally’ (David Ball). He really took me under his wing. We travel in together to training and there is no way I would be as outgoing or outspoken on the pitch as I am without Bally helping me.
“When we were really struggling we spoke about what was happening. He told me I was experiencing the very worst side of being a footballer at the start of my career, but that it would get better.
“I took comfort from that, as if this was the worst then I could handle it. Plus things would eventually get better, which is exactly what has happened.”
O’Brien’s impressive bow in senior football is good news for Bradford and Huddersfield. He signed a three-year contract extension with the Terriers before moving to Valley Parade and is highly regarded at the John Smith’s Stadium.
Academy coaches Mark Hudson and Leigh Bromby are in regular contact with someone who followed in the footsteps of club captain Tommy Smith and Philip Billing by joining Town’s youth set-up after taking his first steps in the game elsewhere.
In O’Brien’s case he spent three years at Manchester United before being released at nine. Huddersfield spotted him playing at a tournament in Todmorden.
“I was not expecting to play anywhere near as much as I have at Bradford,” added the midfielder, who has started the last 15 league games under David Hopkin.
“I had confidence in myself and my own ability. But, having never been out on loan before, I thought the best I would be able to get in the first few months was a place on the bench, maybe coming on for 15 or 20 minutes.
“Then maybe I could build up from there. Instead I came off the bench against Blackpool and have been in the team ever since.
“Playing at home for the first time against Charlton in front of 15,000 fans was incredible.
“I was used to playing in front of 50 to 100 people at Canalside (Huddersfield’s training base) where you can hear every word shouted by the players.
“I did once play in front of a decent crowd for Huddersfield in a youth team play-off, but they were all either parents of the players or friends.
“It was not like the sort of crowd you get in League One.
“Results have been better lately. Getting a big win like last week (4-0 at home to Walsall) was important and now we have to build on that against Scunthorpe.
“After that we go to Sunderland on Boxing Day. Last year I was at home on Boxing Day, watching the football. I had a season ticket at Manchester City, but they were not playing.
“This year will be a bit different and, hopefully, we will go into it on the back of another good result. The spirit in the camp is brilliant and it feels like the Bradford City that everyone had told me about before I joined.”