John O’Brien in pensive mood during his playing days for Westmeath.

John O’Brien – a defensive rock for Tyrrellspass and Westmeath

When John O’Brien emulated another Tyrrellspass native, the late and incomparable Mick Carley, by winning two Railway Cup medals in 1996 and 1997, it rubber-stamped him as one of Westmeath’s most accomplished footballers of his generation.

It was a time when the Lake County garnered new-found respectability nationwide after having reached some appalling lows. For his part, John is very keen to downplay his persona achievement, saying: “I didn’t get any game time”.

Football was in John’s genes as his father Jack, a well-known figure in and around the Mullingar area for many years, but who sadly passed away 16 years ago aged just 65, won a Westmeath SFC medal in 1962 with St Mary’s.

The Clonfad man played with the Rochfortbridge-based outfit with football in the doldrums in the ‘Tidy Town’ at that juncture, and Jack played alongside his brothers Joe and Paddy in the defeat of Rosemount. “I still have the original Westmeath Examiner souvenir preview of that game, and when I was growing up St Mary’s were always on the wall at home,” John states.

Thankfully, John’s mother, Kathleen (née Gogarty) is hale and hearty. She is a native of Kilbride in County Meath, and her brother was a Meath panellist when they won the Sam Maguire Cup after a 13-year wait in 1967. John’s brother Barry “never played football”, and he also has two sisters.

John attended Tyrrellspass NS, but football wasn’t an overly high priority in extra-curricular activities there. “We played a couple of challenge games every year against other local schools,” he recalls, before adding: “I went on then to St Joseph’s, Rochfortbridge, who are Leinster senior champions now. In those days, we wouldn’t have been even close to the likes of Coláiste Mhuire in Mullingar, as we had a smaller pick.

“The school has a huge catchment area now. Luke Dempsey was a young teacher in the school at the time and he and Noel Foynes kept football going. I made the school team, but we were the poor relation in terms of football.”

Indeed, John openly admits to having had “a major inferiority complex” when he went into Westmeath minor trials alongside “Coláiste Mhuire lads who had been contesting Leinster finals”. He had already represented his county at U14 level under the tutelage of Dessie Doolin (a Leinster first round loss to Meath was the outcome), but had skipped the U16 grade. In 1989 he was on the minor panel which lost a second-round tie after a replay to eventual All-Ireland finalists Offaly.

“I was a forward and was a very average player. Indeed, I was brought on in normal time and was taken off in extra-time. You can’t really judge a lad as a minor, because the following year I was midfield for the county U21 team and played U21 for three years. Sometimes, something just switches on at that age. It can be down to confidence,” he opines.

It was the aforementioned Faithful County which provided John with an ignominious senior inter-county debut on a December afternoon in Moate that those of us in attendance will simply never forget - and for all the wrong reasons.

John takes over: “We lost by 2-25 to 0-1, a low point for Westmeath football, a match when I came on at half-time as a corner back. I was meant to be playing a delayed minor ‘C’ final that day for Tyrrellspass, but a phone call came the night before to go to Moate. I ended up in the full back line along with the current county manager, Jack Cooney, a close friend of mine still. That was my start to inter-county football! We were rudderless at that stage. There was no structure or anything.

“Thankfully, it turned around quickly enough afterwards and the arrival of Mattie Kerrigan in 1992 was a big boost. I wasn’t involved initially, but a few players decided that things had to change. Huge credit goes to Pat Lynagh and Seamus Whelan for their roles in getting Mattie in, and to both of them for changing the attitude and mentality in Westmeath towards the county football team.”

John returned to the inter-county fray in the autumn of 1993, initially as a corner back before switching to full back. “We had a very young team,” he recalls, “and ten of the lads on the starting team were under 22 years old against Meath in the National League semi-final the following April.”

John (extreme right, back row) was Westmeath’s full back in a sensational NFL quarter-final victory over reigning All-Ireland champions Derry in Enniskillen in 1994.

Many of us recall with great pride the long run to that high-profile game in Croke Park – John Murray’s winning goal from a (very!) close-range free in the final round robin game against Wicklow (“a turning point for Westmeath football as it was always a dogfight to get out of Division 4”), skipper Dermot Ryan’s last-gasp penalty save in the play-off away to Longford, and especially the never-to-be-forgotten quarter-final win in the Enniskillen rain against reigning All-Ireland champions, Derry.

“Mattie changed the whole mindset. Lads would have done anything for him. We got promoted in consecutive seasons from Division 4 to 3, and then 3 to 2. Unfortunately, we were only a National League team and we just flopped when it came to the championship.

“The low point was the Wicklow game in 1995 in Athlone when we lost 0-9 to 0-3 and there was no ‘back door’. Mattie quit that summer, but in the space of five years we had earned some respectability.

“Barney Rock came along then. It was his first county job and he was a gentleman. The first time that we met him, we were surprised that he was so softly spoken. Maybe he wasn’t tough enough, or hard enough, with lads, but as a trainer he was brilliant.

“The training we did under him was fantastic. Before him it would have been ‘old school’ with laps of the pitch and no science involved. We should have beaten Offaly in Tullamore in 1997. Had we won, it would have been the breakthrough. They went on to win the Leinster title.

“I played under Brendan Lowry for two of his three years, but I had a few injuries and was living in Dublin at that stage, and my appetite wasn’t what it should have been. I decided to pull out then.

“There was huge progress in the 1990s, and I would like to think that our senior group, along with Luke Dempsey’s minors and U21s, had a small part to play in the eventual Leinster championship win in 2004 under Páidí (Ó Sé),” John suggests.

Mattie Kerrigan clearly rated John very highly and the Summerhill man promoted him to the Leinster panel with which he won the two aforementioned Railway Cup medals. John reflects: “Dermot Brady started in the second year and he was probably one of the best corner backs we ever produced. The competition meant something then. We were in with lads like Paul Curran and John McDermott, the cream of footballers.”

When he thinks back to his fellow-county men in the 1990s, John states: “Larry Giles, Ger Heavin, ‘Dobsy’ Prendergast, Mickey O’Reilly, Kieran Ryan and Kenny Lyons were all fine players. Luckily, I never had to mark Dessie (Dolan) in the Westmeath championship, or ‘Flan’ (Martin Flanagan) either!

“I reckon the toughest was probably Larry (Giles). He had huge skill, combined with a great football brain and serious strength. Once he got the ball it was impossible to get it off him. He is one of Westmeath’s greats and a gentleman too, on and off pitch.”

Reflecting on tough opponents outside of Westmeath, John remembers “very tough battles against Kevin O’Brien (Wicklow), Ollie Murphy (Meath), Dessie Barry (Longford) and Colin Kelly (Louth),” in the maroon and white colours, and Tony Boyle (Donegal) when John represented DIT, where he was a colleague of current Dublin boss, Dessie Farrell, and Declan Darcy (Leitrim/Dublin), before adding, “the standout player I came up against was in a challenge game against Galway the year after they won the All-Ireland when I marked Ja Fallon for a half, and never got even close to him or the ball! He was in a different class.”

Pictured prior to the Tyrrellspass v Athlone 20-year reunion in 2019 are, left to right, Joe Daly (Tyrrellspass GAA stalwart), opposing captains John O’Brien (Tyrrellspass) and Aidan St John (Athlone), Bernie McHugh (LARCC) and Barry Kelly (match referee).

While John was an integral part of a progressive period for Westmeath football, his club career with Tyrrellspass coincided with the remarkable rise and rise of the sky blue and navy-clad outfit. John recalls: “It was a gradual progression culminating in the senior championship win in 1999, my 11th year playing adult football. We lost intermediate semi-finals in 1988 and 1989, and the final in 1990 to Tang when we were ahead by seven or eight points with ten minutes to go, before winning it in 1991 with Billy Flanagan as manager. He was great for the club. We beat Mullingar Shamrocks’ second team in the final, albeit I was away that summer.

“As a senior team, we lost the semi-final to Shamrocks in 1993. We had become a team to be reckoned with and got to the senior final in 1994 ahead of our time, but a great Shamrocks team blew us away. We had a very young Mark Staunton and an even younger Martin Flanagan, and some very good club players.

“We did nothing in 1995, nor in 1996 or 1997, when Coralstown/Kinnegad and Moate All Whites won their titles. Athlone beat us in the semi-final in 1998 en route to winning, but we eventually got over the line against them in 1999. Captaining that side was the highlight of my football career, full stop.

“Olly Gallagher shared videos with us during lockdown last year, including interviews with people before and after the game. It was great to look back on all that. My father was a quiet shy man, but it was great that he was alive to see that win. I also really enjoyed the 20-year reunion in 2019 and all the banter with the Athlone lads,” John adds.

Ironically, a delay in completing the Westmeath championship meant that the first-time champions were unable to represent their county in the Leinster championship, with Athlone taking their place. When it was suggested to John that understandable celebrations might have led to a ‘ropey’ provincial debut, he laughed when responding: “Funnily enough, we played a league game against St Loman’s the following Saturday and it was one of our best performances. It’s amazing the confidence that winning a championship brings.”

In a remarkable mirror image of his father’s career – Jack won in 1962, but lost the 1963 and 1964 county finals – John also suffered the heartbreak of consecutive losses in the deciders of 2000 (“to Shamrocks in probably the worst conditions a county final has ever been played”) and 2001 (“when a young Garrycastle team pipped us”).

John continues: “I don’t have many regrets, but obviously it was disappointing to have lost two out of three finals. We were good enough to have won all three. I was only a fringe player for our later two wins in 2006 and 2007 (when Tyrrellspass went on to reach the Leinster final). Overall, I was part of the playing squad for 18 or 19 years.

“Besides my parents’ encouragement, underage coaches who had an early influence on me included Mick Carley RIP, Edmund Seery and Hughie Harte RIP, and at senior level, Frank Ryan, one of our own who managed us in 1999, after we had been unusual for that time by bringing in outsiders such as Tom Carr, Liam Harnan and John Maughan.

“I took a break for a while and just went to Tyrrellspass games as a fan. Then I got back coaching underage and was a senior selector under Alan Mangan and my Dublin namesake, John O’Brien. From being completely removed and detached, I was right back in the thick of things again. It was heart-breaking in recent years to lose those finals to St Loman’s, Mullingar. Those defeats I found tougher than the defeats as a player.

“Regardless of results in finals, it has to be a great source of pride for everyone associated with the club to have remained so competitive over the 30-year period since we became a senior club. It is a great achievement for a village with limited playing numbers and small resources.

“You want to see Ger (Egan) and Jamie (Gonoud), and lads like that, winning a championship. They have come so close, and every year they keep coming back even though they are written off by everybody. Denis (Glennon) in the last few years looks like he could play another two or three years.

“I am not involved with the seniors any longer and Davy Byrne is the manager now. It’s very early days and he has only been down once with all the lockdowns, but I have no doubt that the current group will win a championship,” John opines.

John concedes that being involved in inter-county football nowadays is a very different proposition from his days representing Westmeath. He states: “Every ex-player will look back and think that their time was better. If you are a 21- or 22-year-old player there is nothing better to be doing than playing for your county if you have the ability. County football is an elite sport without the financial benefits and there has to be a balance.

“It’s difficult for lads in a county that is not going to compete and some lads will think it’s not worth the sacrifices. Lockdown has given the GAA the time to reassess and take stock.

“It must be disheartening for lads to see the gap with Dublin getting wider. The solution isn’t within Westmeath, it’s a Croke Park problem, and over the years they haven’t been able to address it. Year in year out we’re talking about the same problem, but still I don’t know any county players who are unhappy, as they like the lifestyle.

“When we were playing we weren’t putting in a fraction of the time that they are, but we thought it was a big sacrifice at the time even doing two or three nights a week. It was definitely a sacrifice compared with what the previous generation did. Nowadays, it seems to be five or six nights a week whether in a gym or on a pitch.

“I think the GAA will have to shorten the inter-county season to six months because the amount of games that lads play relative to the amount of training sessions, well it just doesn’t make any sense. The whole GAA community would be much better off with a compact inter-county season and then have a club season with all players available.

“It was always a badge of honour for a club like Tyrrellspass to develop good inter-county players, whereas now some clubs don’t want lads going with the county and having to play all their league games without them, as well as risking injuries. We lost both Ger (Egan) and Jamie (Gonoud) one year through injury. But we’ve also been discussing this for years,” he frustratedly adds.

After secondary school, John studied marketing for four years in DIT. Nowadays, he runs his own consultancy business, Indietel Consulting Ltd, having spent 20 years in the mobile phone industry. He works as an independent consultant with companies helping them to develop new business and opening international markets.

He is currently working with a local business, Decotek Automotive (formerly Iralco), and is soon starting a project with Future Ticketing, an Irish-owned and Tullamore-based sports ticketing company, on GAA-related business development projects.

John, who turns 50 in May, has been married to a Mullingar lady, Siobhán (née McCarthy) since 2004, and they have four children, Anna May (15), Daragh (13), Evan (10) and Sarah (8). He moved back from Dublin to Mullingar in 2003, and is now 11 years living again in his native Tyrrellspass, “1.5 miles as the crow flies” from his home as a child.

Tyrrellspass football remains a huge part of John’s life. He is a member of the club executive and chairman of the club’s underage executive, in addition to coaching the boys U13 side. He reflects further on his beloved club’s rags-to-riches story over the past three decades in particular, as follows: “When I started out as a senior, it was men like Liam Maher and Sean Sheridan leading the club off the field with pitch development works and setting ambitions for the club to become a serious senior football team.

“This was maintained into the 1990s, led by player-chairman Des Scally, Rom Deegan, Joe Daly, and coaches like Frank Ryan, Vinny Hoey, Mossie Slevin and PJ Brady at underage. Des, Joe, Declan Feery, Gerry Sheridan and Frank Martin continued the work into the ‘noughties’.

“There’s no special secret to this other than having the right underage structures in place and making sure our coaches instill the correct values into kids, and helping to develop young players into future senior footballers. As a small village club, our underage ambition is not about winning underage titles. With limited player numbers, that’s completely unrealistic.

“So what we aim to do, and have done successfully to date, is produce four or five players every year from minor grade who can make the step up into the senior set-up. So long as the senior team is successful and we have role models like Jamie, Ger, Denis etc, our underage players will always strive to win senior championships for Tyrrellspass,” he concludes.

Bringing through a few young defenders even half as good as John O’Brien was would be a great start in Tyrrellspass’ ambition to regain the Flanagan Cup.

– Gerry Buckley