Sunday marked four years to the day since Jim O’Brien arrived at Notts County after leaving Bradford City. As The Magpies’ longest serving player, O’Brien has seen a lot since he first walked through the door at Notts, from the highs of a Semi-Final victory and derby-day wins to the lows of Playoff heartache and relegation.
The Scotsman first arrived at Meadow Lane in January 2019, as one of nine January signings tasked with keeping Neal Ardley’s struggling side in the Football League. O’Brien made his debut in the 1-0 home loss to Cambridge United on 12th January 2019, before also starting in the 2-0 loss away to Yeovil Town the following week. His third game, a 1-1 home draw with high-flying Lincoln City saw the debut of the vastly experience Michael Doyle and marked the start of a centre midfield partnership that would become a staple of the Notts side over the next two seasons. O’Brien scored his first goal in black and white in the crucial 2-1 victory away at Forest Green Rovers, before a 1-0 victory over local rivals Mansfield Town, their first league victory over the Stags in their last 14 meetings, gave Ardley’s men real hope of survival.
However, a six-game winless home run left The Magpies needing a miracle on the final day of the season. Requiring three points away at Swindon Town, combined with a loss for relegation rivals Macclesfield Town, Notts were up against it from the start, but were briefly given a lifeline when a Kane Hemmings penalty put them ahead shortly after half-time. A late capitulation, resulting in a 3-1 defeat, coupled with an eventual Macclesfield win, consigned The Magpies to relegation from the Football League for the first time in their then 157-year history.
Despite a turbulent summer which saw several dates in court and the players go unpaid for several months, O’Brien remained loyal to the club and battled on as Notts prepared for their first ever season in the non-league scene. An opening day loss away at Eastleigh hit home the harsh reality of life in non-league almost instantly. The former Coventry City and Barnsley man started the season well on a personal note, as he scored the club’s first ever goal in the National League in a 1-1 home draw with Stockport County in the next game. But a double fracture of his arm away at Bromley, followed by a deep gash in his leg during an FA Trophy clash with Chesterfield in December, heavily disrupted his season. The midfielder returned to action shortly before the National League was cut short due to the Coronavirus pandemic and started both games of the Magpies’ belated Playoff campaign, which ended with a bitter 3-1 defeat in an eerily deserted Wembley at the hands of Harrogate Town.
O’Brien bounced back with a strong 2020-21 season, which saw him make 37 appearances in the National League and memorably score a first ever career hat-trick in 4-0 demolition of Maidenhead United in May. Although the season ended in disappointment, as Notts fell to a 4-2 defeat to Torquay United in the Playoff Semi-Final.
His contributions saw gaffer Ian Burchnall, who’d replaced Neal Ardley in March 2021, reward him with a new two-year deal in July. He made 25 league appearances in 2021-22 and started the Playoff Quarter Final which saw Notts concede in the last minute of both normal and extra time and slip to a 2-1 defeat against eventual Playoff winners Grimsby Town.
This season O’Brien is enjoying a resurgence under new boss Luke Williams, with the combative midfielder featuring in 15 of the Magpies’ 27 league games at the time of writing. The 35-year-old came in for criticism from fans in the early part of the season but has battled back with a string of strong performances and scored in the recent away wins over Aldershot Town and Scunthorpe United.
O’Brien is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and his all-action, committed style has endeared him greatly to Notts supporters over the years. While he no longer features as regularly as he once did, O’Brien plays a key leadership role in The Magpies’ squad, with Luke Williams referencing on several occasions the standards he helps to set in training. That said, he is still of great value from a footballing perspective with his constant energy and intensity helping to drive the team forward on several occasions this season.
As the last surviving member of the squad from that terrible day at Swindon, if Notts are to win the promotion that everyone at the club is so desperate for in May, it will likely mean more to Jim O’Brien than most.
*Article provided by Evan Shaw (Notts County Correspondent).
*Main image @TheEFLZone Jim O’Brien signed for Notts County in January 2019.