O'Brien has a nose for danger

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The Independent Football

It just so happens that the chant the Toon Army have adopted for Newcastle United's No 5 is a repetition of the player's name to the tune of "Any Old Iron". "Andy O'Brien, Andy O'Brien, Andy-Andy-Andy O'Brien." It rang loud, clear and true at Old Trafford last Sunday. O'Brien endured a knock-out blow, a bloodied and battered nose and a gashed lip. And still the attacking might of Manchester United couldn't break the 24-year-old iron man at the heart of the Newcastle defence.

Four days on, the wounds had healed. O'Brien's nose was still red, but that was nothing to the natural glow of satisfaction at having, with more than a little help from the equally resolute Jonathan Woodgate, succeeded in holding Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ryan Giggs and Co at bay on their own patch. "It's OK," O'Brien replied when asked how his face felt in the aftermath of the pummelling it took in the goalless draw. "I don't know if the pictures in the papers made it look worse than it was. My girlfriend's a photographer so I know what they can do now with digital photography, zooming in on things. It did look a bit of a plasticine face."

It was not the first time the O'Brien visage had taken a bit of a savaging. He broke his nose twice last season and, though he wanted to play on when it happened at Sunderland in April, Newcastle's medical team were unable to staunch the flow of blood at pitch-side. He underwent surgery in the summer, and it was reported that his career might be curtailed if he took another serious bang on the nose.

"I think it was exaggerated," O'Brien said. "They said, when I had the operation, I couldn't take too many more bangs. But, looking at the pictures in the paper, I think it can stand a bit of pressure. It'll take some breaking. I'm not sure what they did in the operation, but the bleeding is 100 per cent better than it was. Before, it wouldn't stop, but last Sunday it stopped straight away. I was pleased about that."

It has been equally pleasing for Newcastle that their seepage of goals has been similarly staunched. Sir Bobby Robson's side face Fulham at St James' Park tomorrow night looking to keep a fifth successive clean sheet. Since their 5-0 thrashing at Chelsea on 9 November, they have conceded four goals in 11 matches - just one in the last seven.

"I was reading somewhere that Shay [Given] has the most clean sheets in the Prem-iership," O'Brien said. "Shay's a top goalkeeper, but I think it says something for the defence too. People don't tend to give it too much praise because the No 9 [Alan Shearer] and the other scorers are the big names. People might say it's harder to score goals than to stop them but we've done well. I think the whole thing about the defence goes back a few years, to Kevin Keegan's time, when Newcastle were always labelled an attacking team. I think that's stuck a little, but statistics prove there has been an improvement with the defence."

Statistics, in fact, show that the Keegan team at Newcastle were not quite as cavalier as their reputation. When they were overtaken in the Premiership title race of 1995-96, the season of that 4-3 epic they lost at Anfield, they conceded only two goals more than Manchester United. Sir Bobby's Newcastle side boast the best defensive home record in the Premiership, with just six goals against in 11 matches. It remains to be seen, though, which central- defensive combination Robson chooses for the visit of Fulham, and for the trip to Anfield in the FA Cup on Saturday.

The Newcastle manager cited a thigh injury as the reason for Titus Bramble's absence and O'Brien's selection alongside Woodgate last Sunday. The evidence at Old Trafford suggested that O'Brien and Woodgate ought to be the natural choice, but Robson has been a resolute admirer of the error-prone Bramble. "I look at it long- term," O'Brien said. "If I'm playing more games than not, then I'm happy."

In his post-match press conference at Old Trafford, Robson called O'Brien "nothing fancy, just a good defender". Such a prosaic appraisal sits well with such a pragmatic young Yorkshireman [his Irish-born father qualifies him to play for the Republic]. O'Brien learned his central-defensive trade with Bradford before his £1.5m move to Newcastle in 2001. Until the gearbox broke recently, he still drove a G-registration Saab.

"What does that say about Andy O'Brien?" he was asked. "My dad gave it to me," he said. "I don't know if that means I'm a tight-arse or what."