The former attacking midfielder may not be known to many football fans, but the Irishman is a cult hero to some due to his bizarre career.
For our young readers, especially those born after the turn of the millennium, the name Ronnie O’Brien may not mean much. Which makes the story of a man who played for Juventus after being released by Middlesbrough, and nearly won Time magazine’s Person of the Century award, even more interesting to tell. The story of how O’Brien almost appeared on the cover of Time is one that saw him become one of football’s first memes, amid a move that wouldn’t seem out of place on Twitter in 2022.
The prestigious American publication conducted an online poll to determine its Person of the Century award. Cultural and political luminaries, from Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill to Elvis Presley and Albert Einstein, were on the list.
However, Time also allowed people to submit their own nominations – and amid one of the first major incidents of an online trend hijacking a public vote, O’Brien quickly led the vote.
Time, however, stopped the fun, removing O’Brien and changing the rules. “Fancy contestants who don’t fit the spirit of the title won’t be counted,” was their sardonic response. Einstein won the vote instead.
For O’Brien, it was just one of many strange occurrences in a career unlike any other professional footballer.
Born in Bray, Republic of Ireland, O’Brien impressed in youth football in his home country as an attacking midfielder and was signed aged 18 by promotion hopefuls of the Middlesbrough Championship in 1997.
While O’Brien enjoyed success at youth international level – Ireland won the 1998 UEFA Under-16 Euros, a side including John O’Shea beating Italy 2-1 in final – he couldn’t make the breakthrough for his club.
Indeed, Boro’s manager, Bryan Robson, never gave him his first-team debut.
O’Brien was therefore released in the summer of 1999 and was perhaps looking to find his feet in the English lower tiers and seek first-team chances.
However, his agent Steve Kutner – who also represented O’Brien’s Boro team-mate Paul Merson – sent a video of his highlights to some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Juventus.
The Old Lady is convinced and so O’Brien signs a five-year contract with the team managed by Carlo Ancelotti.
He became the third Irishman to sign for Juve, following 1910s midfielder Matts Kunding, and more recently ex-Arsenal star Liam Brady.
News of the capture of one of their fringe players by Italian giants sent shock waves across Teesside. A rather shaken Robson was unimpressed with the idea that O’Brien was the one who got away.
“Ronnie O’Brien is not good enough,” the Boro boss said. “People are jumping at the ceiling because he went to Juventus, but he hasn’t done anything yet. Good luck to him. I hope he does very well and proves me wrong .
The summer of 1999 was a turbulent time at Juve. Their squad included all-time greats including Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids and Alessandro Del Piero, but other first-team stalwarts Didier Deschamps and Angelo Peruzzi had moved on.
With the Intertoto Cup to manage in July and August, Ancelotti was ready to experiment with his first team.
After appearing in three friendlies, O’Brien was benched for clashes with Romanian side Ceahlaul Piatra Neamt, before getting his big break against Russian club FC Rostselmash – now known as FC Rostov – in the second leg of their semi-final clash. .
O’Brien was introduced for the final 13 minutes with Juve already leading 9-1 on aggregate, but the grainy game footage shows him applying himself well: running up and down the right wing, winning a free kick on the edge of the Rostselmash box before placing a key block tackle in Juve’s area to halt a Russian attack.
He might have had to get on the scoresheet but deflected two shots wide wide, while his best chance saw Pippo Inzaghi throw a pass over the defense, only for the young Irishman to give up. place in a hurry Del Piero.
It was O’Brien’s shot to strike – he was in a much better position and only had the keeper to beat from six yards out – however, Del Piero hit the shot and, with his body off balance, the screwed beyond the far post.
This would turn out to be the only senior action O’Brien has seen for Juve. He was sent on a series of loans from September 1999 over a period of three years, with Swiss club Lugano, in the Italian lower leagues at Crotone and Lecco, and back in Britain with Dundee United in the Premiership Scottish.
Despite becoming one of the first internet sensations, O’Brien failed to light any of his temporary clubs and, in the summer of 2002 – three years into that five-year deal – he was released by Juventus.
However, the story does not end there. O’Brien’s fascinating career then took him to MLS, as he signed for Dallas Burn – now known as FC Dallas – in 2002, and really found his feet. He scored on his debut in a 2-1 Cup win over San Jose.
His 2003 season was marred by a broken leg, but the following year O’Brien really shined, making 29 appearances, providing 10 assists and two goals, and helping Dallas reach the MLS Play-Offs. He was named to the league’s 2004 Team of the Season and was selected for the prestigious All-Stars Game.
2005 was even better, with six goals and 12 assists in 30 appearances, another Top 11 and All-Star Game selection, and Dallas second in the Western Conference and fifth in the play-offs.
Things went downhill afterward, however. O’Brien fell out with Dallas coach Colin Clarke and a move to Toronto FC was marred by a knee injury.
The 2008 MLS season saw him sign for the San Jose Earthquakes, but after 28 appearances that campaign, O’Brien made the surprise decision to retire from playing, aged just 29.
Since hanging up his boots, O’Brien has settled in Dallas, playing golf and even coaching at his former club’s academy for a brief period.
A successful life and career – far beyond that of a mere meme, or one of the weirdest signings of all time.
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