How Newcastle opened up a new world for O'Brien

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It was a lean Thursday lunchtime for the young England class of February 99. Of the 15 World Cup wannabes who played in the Under-21 team's 2-1 victory against France at Derby that month, not one was named in Sven's final 23. There was no place for Matt Jansen, Jamie Carragher, Frank Lampard or Lee Bowyer. There was no place for Gareth Barry's central defensive partner too. But, then, Andy O'Brien had already received his call-up for Japan and Korea – in a roundabout way, at least.

By Thursday morning, two days after his place in the Republic of Ireland squad had been announced, the Newcastle centre-half had yet to receive official confirmation. Asked what Mick McCarthy had said to him, he replied: "I've heard nothing. I only heard it on the radio at quarter to eleven on Tuesday morning. Shay Given was winding me up, saying, 'Oh, have you not had a phone call?' I was ecstatic when I heard my name."

And with good reason, too. Just 14 months ago O'Brien was facing a future in the First Division with Bradford City and had yet to figure in McCarthy's World Cup qualifying plans. But then, on 21 March last year, came his £1m move to Newcastle.

"I look at where I was 14 months ago and what sort of season I could have had if I'd stayed at Bradford," O'Brien mused. "I would have been scrapping away in the First Division. Now I'm going to the World Cup and hopefully playing a part in it. It's an incredible sort of turnaround.

"If it weren't for coming here under the guidance of Bobby Robson, and us having such a good season collectively, maybe I wouldn't be in this position. Newcastle finishing fourth in the League has helped me a lot, I'm sure. And I have to say that Gary Doherty is very unlucky not to go. He was part of the plans but had a bad injury all season. So somebody's loss has been someone else's gain.

"Even if I look at my position here, I was a substitute at the start of the season until Aaron Hughes got injured. I took his place and he came back in at right-back. Bobby Robson stuck with me at centre-half. It just shows you how somebody's misfortune can lead to somebody else's chance."

It shows you, too, that O'Brien has proven himself to be a top-flight central defender. Newcastle might have their lingering problems at the back but the 22-year-old has become central to his manager's long-term plans. Robson gave him a five-year contract in March. And now McCarthy, who knows a thing or two about central defensive play, has given him a passport to Japan and Korea.

Like his international manager, O'Brien happens to be a Yorkshireman of Irish descent. He was born and brought up in Harrogate and still lives there. His girlfriend works at Betty's, the celebrated high-class tea rooms in the North Yorkshire spa town. His father's parents are from Limerick, though – a fact that was onO'Brien's mind when he made his one and only appearance for the young England team three years ago. "It was a friendly game, so I knew it wouldn't tie me," he reflected.

It was only a matter of two months later that O'Brien was playing for the Irish Under-21s and pledging his international future to the land of his father's father and mother. "I would have said I'd made the right decision even if I hadn't been picked for the World Cup," he maintained.

"First and foremost I enjoyed the Irish camp more than the English camp. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to pick which country I wanted to play for." Unlike the wannabes who failed to make it on to Eriksson's World Cup list.