BURNABY, B.C. – Vancouver Whitecaps center back Andy O’Brien was ready to call time on his pro soccer career.
It was the end of the 2011-12 English Championship season. The former Irish international had played just one match during the second half of the campaign after telling Leeds United manager Simon Grayson that he’d never play for the club again, and it looked like his time in the sport was up.
At the time, newspapers in Britain speculated his initial refusal to play a match in November against Burnley was due to transfer interest from West Ham United – or perhaps as a result of verbal abuse from Leeds supporters after a poor individual start to the 2011-12 campaign.
Grayson publicly fumed about the player’s refusal to play, but after the club examined the situation in further depth the true cause of O’Brien’s decision to withdraw himself from selection became clear: He was battling depression.
“With football, with suffering from depression, you can paper over the cracks if the team’s winning,” O’Brien said following a training session in Burnaby on Tuesday. “But certain things off the field happened and things were not very good on the field – so I’m glad I [sought] the help of the [Professional Footballers Association].”
But even once he started to get the support he needed, O’Brien thought it might be time to put away the boots. Then he got on the line with Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie.
“I’m not going to lie,” O’Brien said. “Had I not come here, the potential was for me to retire at the end of what would be the [United Kingdom] current season. That’s the extent that I was thinking – coming here, I’ve had a new lease of life … the manager did say to me prior to signing here that he knew that I was maybe not in the best of places at that particular time, but he said, ‘If you give me the chance and the opportunity, I’ll do my best to put you in a better place.’
“With his help, with the staff’s help, with the supporters’ help and the city in general – the people have done that so I’m very grateful for that.”
Rennie’s faith in O’Brien’s ability to bounce back has been rewarded in a big way.
The towering defender was arguably the club’s top performer in their opening round playoff defeat to the LA Galaxy in the 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs, and despite Vancouver’s late season nosedive, the ‘Caps might not have made it into the playoffs at all had it not been for the Harrogate, England, native’s steady showings at the back.
“When we recruit players and we have players be part of our team, we don’t just look at them as a number on the board,” Rennie said. “We look at them as a person and we try to have a positive impact on their life, whatever that might be... we want to be helpful in all they want to do in their life and I think Andy has bought into that and has appreciated it, and we’ve been the ones to reap the benefit of him being here.”
This week O’Brien is talking about his own battle with depression as telecommunications company Bell, one of the Whitecaps’ partners, is carrying out its “Let’s Talk” campaign – which promotes open discussion about mental health issues throughout Canada.
“What a great campaign,” O’Brien said. “It’s called ‘Let’s Talk,’ and that’s what it’s about. I didn’t want to talk about it. There’s a stigma associated with it, but hopefully barriers have been broken down.”
Martin MacMahon covers the Vancouver Whitecaps for MLSsoccer.com.