Andy O’Brien’s appearance at Leicester City was as close as he will come to walking a tightrope.
It goes too far to say that his career with Leeds United rested on that performance – first rate, as it turned out – but O’Brien feared the consequences of losing his footing in the East Midlands.
Any suggestion that his concerns were exaggerated should consider the fate of Paul Rachubka, the goalkeeper whose future at Elland Road unravelled spectacularly in a 5-0 defeat to Blackpool this month. O’Brien witnessed Rachubka’s demise and the hostile reaction of the crowd to his errors. “What happened to him could happen to anyone at any time,” O’Brien said.
Certain players hold enough credit to compensate for critical errors but, in the context of Leeds United, O’Brien knew that he was not one of them. His out-of-sorts display at Southampton on the first day of the season – his only league start before United’s 1-0 win over Leicester on November 6 – came to a head three days later when he was jeered from the pitch at Elland Road when substituted in a Carling Cup tie against his old club, Bradford City.
In mitigation, the centre-back was neither fit nor properly ready for a game at Southampton having missed all but a fortnight of pre-season with a side strain. Both he and his manager, Simon Grayson, have made the effort to take the blame, with Grayson describing it as “my decision” and O’Brien calling himself “naive”. Nevertheless, his long-awaited recall against Leicester came with the understanding that many of those affiliated to Leeds were beginning to doubt him.
What followed was a display reminiscent of the form which led Grayson to sign O’Brien permanently from Bolton Wanderers last January. “To say it was important was an understatement,” he said. “Everyone can make mistakes and I could have made a mistake in the Leicester game. Would that have been detrimental to the rest of my career at Leeds? Who knows. Fortunately the day worked out well.”
It is not certain that Rachubka has played his last game for United but the club’s move to offer Maik Taylor a trial last week suggested the defeat to Blackpool left no way back from him. It was an open warning, not only to O’Brien, about the consequences of performances which come at a cost and undermine the faith of the crowd around you.
O’Brien accepted that he was under scrutiny before the match at Leicester, a game in which Grayson turned to him with Darren O’Dea injured and Tom Lees suspended. Even with that creditable display to his name, he is cautious about his situation at Elland Road.
“I’ve got to be a bit guarded because of what happened (to Rachubka),” O’Brien said. “I played at Leicester and there were question marks over me from certain angles. It’s something I was well aware of.
“Had I made a mistake or a couple of mistakes, were the circumstances going to be the same for me? I’ve played nearly 500 games in my career and it’s something you’re going to think about.
“I didn’t give myself the best opportunity to perform on the first day of the season and I was disappointed with the reaction I got in the Bradford game, but I’ve played professional football for 16 years and I’d like to think of this as one of my qualities – that when things aren’t going the way I’d like them to, I still come back.
“When you get to 32 people start to have more of an opinion on you, but there’ve always been adverse opinions about me throughout my career. If I believed everything people said then I should probably think of myself as the luckiest footballer who ever existed.”
Grayson had previously used O’Brien in Leeds’ Carling Cup game at Doncaster Rovers and again as a substitute against Ipswich Town in late August but the defender, to all intents and purposes, was out of favour for the best part of three months. Prior to his reappearance at Leicester, he had been named on the bench only twice. Suggestions of a return to contention came primarily from Grayson who began to speak highly of O’Brien’s demeanour in training.
“I like to think I’m in the manager’s reckoning again,” O’Brien said. “That performance and result (at Leicester) has wiped away the past 11 weeks.
“I’ve had some frustrating, dark times; times when I wasn’t even travelling with the squad. That’s never happened to me in my career before.
“But when I played against Southampton, I’d only played 45 minutes since the QPR game at the end of last season and I’d done two weeks of training out of six in pre-season. It was probably a bit of naivety on my part and I had a much better chance of performing against Leicester.
“When I look at it, I’ve played 36 games for Leeds and had two indifferent ones. I don’t think those two performances were terrible but I could have been blamed for playing a part in the goals we conceded.
“But to have two indifferent games out of 36 and then find yourself under massive pressure the next time you start is tough – almost a case of if you do it again, where do you go from there? That was a hard position to be in. All I could do was put it to the back of my mind.
“If I do the maths, I wasn’t fit against Southampton and they’ve torn other teams apart this season. They’re at the top of the league. People aren’t interested in that, but I was interested in that. I worked hard and told myself that if an opportunity came, I’d make sure I was in a position to do my best.
“When the chips are down, there’s still a bigger picture and I’ve got a duty to perform and do my best for the team. As an individual I want to achieve things and prove I can still play.”
Speaking about the Elland Road crowd’s treatment of Rachubka during his capitulation against Blackpool, O’Brien said: “The thing you have to remember is that it’s not just a case of how it affects the goalkeeper but also how it affects other players as well.
“Players look at it and maybe start to wonder what will happen if they make mistakes. That’s a consequence. I honestly feel that if we all pull together and play our part – fans, players, staff – then we’ve got an opportunity this season. A massive opportunity.”
O’Brien missed last season’s fire-fight between United and Burnley at Turf Moor, sitting injured on the sidelines as Leeds overcame a 2-0 deficit and snatched a dramatic victory through Jonathan Howson’s 85th-minute goal.
Whether he plays at Burnley tomorrow is one of the more intriguing questions with Lees available after suspension, O’Dea fit and Patrick Kisnorbo as prominent in the quota of centre-backs as O’Brien.
“I don’t know whether I’m confident of playing,” he said. “Obviously I want to play but the other lads have done well. For me, Leicester has appeased the last 11 weeks. It’s frustrating being sat on the sidelines.
“I watched the Burnley game last season and in an ideal world tomorrow’s game will come up 1-0. But a 3-2 win again with Jonny scoring in the last few minutes would do just as well.”