Irreplaceable & Loyal – Jim O’Brien

Jim O’Brien… where do we begin?

The mid-January free transfer from Bradford City that we all thought was brought in to help the club survive the drop to the National League, but what he has developed into for Notts County has been so much more. The Scott with the experience, now the longest serving current Notts County player, a heavy favourite amongst the fans and a guy who one day will inevitably one day depart a legend of the Lane. 

But, to begin with, let’s begin with that signing in January 2019. When Jim was first brought into the club, especially considering the situation it was in at the time, it was a huge risk for him. A huge risk in the sense of that Jim not only has vast EFL experience at a number of good quality clubs higher up in the pyramid, but also experience playing at the top level in Scotland so joining a club that was on the brink of relegation to non-league and then on the flip side entering financial turmoil was a huge risk. But, ultimately, one now we are more than grateful he took. One thing you can safely say about the remainder of that horror show of a season is that Jim ranks highest next to the likes of Craig Makail-Smith in the category of players that you could genuinely watch and tell that they were playing with all they had in order for the club to retain their ‘World’s Oldest Football League Club’ status but unfortunately, what felt already inevitable finally reached its point of inevitability. 

Now let’s talk about the summer that followed that…

Not that I want to really, but it is a part of Jim’s time here that he really began to win the hearts of the fanbase. A summer of complete horror, courtesy of a certain ‘businessman’ who shall not be named, but Jim remained in the flock of players, Neal Ardley and his staff who remained and set the club up for pre-season, when another season as a professional football club was not guaranteed and in fact, looked more and more unlikely as days progressed. At that point, it would have been easy for Jim to go elsewhere, and it would be naïve to believe that he was short of offers. However, his class was well and truly on display throughout the summer of 2019. Chris and Alex Reedtz completed the takeover of the club, and then the new season followed shortly after. That was a season of highs and lows for Jim, but started with a huge high as he netted the opening goal of the season against Stockport County. But, I say lows too as he did suffer from injury too and one that sticks out hugely to me is the one away at Chesterfield in the Trophy, where he received that nasty, deep gash around his thigh area. That season in general though was all about stability, we could simply have not asked for much more as in reality, there was once an extremely high possibility that season was never going to happen for us. Yet, against all odds, Notts managed to reach the National League play-off final. The first of two finals in a Notts shirt for Jim, and although this one not as glorious as the most recent, still a chapter in his story at Notts County worth reading as it was almost an award for the loyalty showed to the club throughout the previous summer. It is hard to disagree with fans when they say that day would have been so much different with supporters, but that day of hurt led to an even sweeter day of jubilation the next time round but we will get to that.  

The next season, Neal Ardley departs, and Ian Burchnall arrives but one thing that does not change is Jim being a regular starter. The biggest testament to a footballer is being favoured by a new manager, and it is no surprise that Jim was considering he runs himself into the ground on a weekly basis for this football club. That hattrick away at Maidenhead United deserves all the plaudits as it is very rare for Jim to get one, but most importantly of all and this was throughout the previous season and the 20/21 campaign, it was the Covid-19 pandemic and that meant a time where fans were obviously not present inside football stadiums. This period in particular was an extremely difficult time, that is no secret, but what is also no secret was the wonders that the club worked to ensure the fans were still in touch with the players from afar and the well-being of the supporters was also the club’s number one priority along with what was happening on the pitch. A part of that pandemic I personally will never forget was when the players called supporters and had chats with those who needed it most. Jim, in absolutely no surprise at all, was amongst that group of players who were involved in ensuring supporters got the support they need, and that will never be forgotten.  

It would be easy to talk through Jim’s 21/22 campaign, but that ended in the worst pain ever felt at a football game and in honesty, the season that followed was so much more memorable and that transition was courtesy of the arrival of Luke Williams. For me, Jim’s best time as a Notts player has been under Luke Williams. If you could paint the perfect manager for Jim, it would be Luke. I believe the pair complement each other so well, and when Jim eventually calls time on his playing career, it would come as no surprise if Luke Williams included him in his coaching team, but we will get to that.  

Last season was absolutely incredible, no doubt Jim would have hoped to have played a bigger role on field at times, but off the field I believe he played the biggest of them all. It was a rollercoaster ride, but through those rides you need the experienced, mature heads to show their class within the group and that was something Jim definitely did for the team. Football is a strange game in the sense of that only one player wears an armband and is the club captain, but when you have players like Jim around and playing actively in games you have multiple leaders. It felt like the perfect ending to a love-hate relationship with the Vanarama National League, we wanted the title that is no secret, but I personally would not change that day at Wembley for it. Jim was one of the four players left from the Notts side that went to Wembley with Notts in 2020, the other three being Sam Slocombe, Connell Rawlinson, and Richard Brindley. It is undoubted the day meant a lot to all, but an extra bit to Jim who was there on that day at Swindon Town when the away end was full of emotion, there that summer when the club looked like no more, there when we got so close to glory and then stumbled on several different hurdles, to the promise land of success at Wembley Stadium. Although Jim was an unused sub that day, I do doubt he minds now as in the back of his mind all that mattered was that promotion, and he can eventually leave one day knowing he achieved what he set out to do all along.  

“I am so proud of yous man. I never played in the game, but I feel as though I did. I am so proud of yous. You never gave up and trust me, these days do not come round often so please enjoy it. Best day of my career, so please enjoy it.” You may recognise that quote, it was from the clip of Jim’s speech in the dressing room at Wembley Stadium. We will never find another player that prides himself off playing for this club like he does, who cares for it as much as he does and that is why I said at the beginning, a free transfer from Bradford City who turned out to be so much more. Irreplaceable, and that is the biggest fact of them all.  

What is next for Jim after Notts? Who knows. What I hope however is that he joins the coaching set-up here. Why is pretty straight forward, he has been a regular the past five years, and a face you will certainly miss when it is no longer here. Jim has all the right attributes to be a great coach in an already great coaching team, under our fantastic Head Coach. However, if it is not here and it is somewhere else, then one thing that is for sure is that the man will never have to buy a drink in Nottingham again and would be more than just a guest back to Meadow Lane in the future.  

Loyalty in the game these days is hard to come by, yet Jim made sure we understood he was one of the few who remain with it. Four, turning five years of service, that level of loyalty is what a club like Notts County deserves and needs and courtesy of Jim O’Brien, it has received it.  

*Article provided by K-Ci Rennicks (Notts County Correspondent).

*Main image @Official_NCFC Jim O’Brien with the National League Playoff Final Trophy.

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