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O'Neill delighted to unearth Aiden O'Brien

 

By Daniel McDonnell

The look on Aiden O'Brien's face after his goal for the Republic of Ireland in Wroclaw on Tuesday tackled the notion that international friendlies are meaningless.

To O'Brien, this meant the world. For the 24-year-old Millwall player, this was a moment to rank with anything else in his career.

His header in Poland capped a fine display, with the international debutant coming out of the shadows to make a strong case for involvement in future games.

Martin O'Neill is short of options in that department. At the start of the year, the pecking order of Irish attackers would probably have kicked off with a first four of Jon Walters, Shane Long, Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan.

O'Brien was a fringe member of the squad who wasn't really part of the discussion.

He doesn't even play as a number nine for his club, where he has started every league game this season as a wide player who tends not to see out the 90 minutes.

With the Republic short of options, his best route to more caps could be through the middle. That's already been a feature of his story at underage level. O'Brien was part of an U21 generation that was short of attackers and found himself leading the line in a 4-5-1.

A striking aspect of his performance this week was his quality when it came to holding the ball up and bringing others into the game.

O'Brien is a strong runner who tried to get in behind on occasion, but he's also technically assured and dropped in to support the midfield.

"I thought O'Brien did exceptionally well in a position that he doesn't play regularly," said O'Neill. "But I could never have envisaged him having a problem with it. He was strong, I thought his enthusiasm was great and he gave us a little bit of energy."

Dennis Bergkamp was O'Brien's childhood hero.

"The way he used to manipulate the ball was amazing," he said.

With Declan Rice in the news, O'Brien's back story is topical. He qualifies for the Republic through his maternal grandparents and, similar to Rice, he was first approached by the FAI's talent scout Mark O'Toole.

O'Brien was also approached by England's underage department when he was 17, but he opted to stick with the Republic and made his way up through the age groups.

"When I was 17 I was offered England and Ireland and I chose Ireland - all of my family are Irish. Even though I am from England it doesn't mean I am English, my background is all Irish, always has been and I am so proud to be out on that pitch, playing for the Irish nation, playing for legends like Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill and having people like Seamus Coleman around," he said. "There were a few tears after. I had been dreaming of this moment for a long time and my family too. My nan and grandad are fully Irish and I know they were looking down on me."

Last week, O'Neill hailed his commitment ahead of this double header, suggesting that he had personal family reasons that others would have used as an excuse to arrive late - the player opted against doing so.

At Millwall, he is popular with the fans as he came through their ranks yet he had to be patient when it came to getting first-team opportunities and it was during their stint in League One that he really got a proper crack at senior football.

In his formative days, O'Brien was sent out on loan to a series of unglamorous destinations - Hayes & Yeading, Crawley Town, Aldershot and Torquay United - before making a first league start in September 2014 in a Championship campaign where Millwall would be relegated.

He made over 50 appearances in the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons which both culminated with a crack at the promotion play-offs and they eventually did the business at Wembley second time around. Shaun Williams was a part of that mission too.

O'Brien does have a back catalogue of skilful goals and his header from Callum O'Dowda's cross was routine by comparison. He is confident about his own poaching ability.

"I've always been a goalscorer, whether I play out wide, in behind, up front," he said.

"I always know where the ball is going to drop and I always score goals. I can back myself from any position I play in... that I'm going to get a chance.

"Nine times out of 10, I'd back myself to put it in the net and that's what happened. I got my one chance and I put it in the net."

Meanwhile, O'Neill has claimed he is still in the dark about Rice's intentions amid suggestions that news on the player's international future is imminent.

The West Ham youngster made himself unavailable for the games with Wales and Poland after interest from England turned his head.

However, it's believed that the Irish camp are now reasonably confident the 19-year-old might stick with them for the long haul.

In the aftermath of the draw with Poland, O'Neill said he was unaware of any update.

"I don't know any more than you do at this particular juncture," he said. "There's no point in me commenting here positively or negatively until I get to talk to the people again."

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