John O'Brien had only just fought back after a long period of recovery from a persistent Achilles' tendon injury when Ajax USA visited Amsterdam in February 2004. He'd returned to the first team just weeks before the trip. Our (mostly American) attendees considered themselves lucky to see him in action against ADO Den Haag and PSV. How lucky they were (and how UNlucky John is...) soon became clear. The PSV fixture is still his last game for Ajax to date.
O'Brien had sustained an injury. Again. This time it was his hamstring. For a while, it seemed like Ajax were going to give up on him and not offer him a contract extension. They did, in April 2004, but we haven't heard from John since. Ajax USA did hear from John's fans. How is he doing? Is he training at all? When will he be back? Is there any news? Alas, we had to reply that we didn't know either. So we decided that it was about time to give the man himself a quick phonecall. That was today. Thanks to our friends in the Ajax press office, who were - as usual - happy to set it up for us. Plus, our gratitude to Ajax.nl for use of these photos...
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Monday 05 July. The day after Greece surprised the world and itself by winning Euro 2004. Ajax's Dutch, Swedish and Czech internationals were on vacation. The first training of the new season was scheduled for Wednesday, the 7th, so the ArenA training pitches were going to be deserted for two more days. Deserted? Not quite... One man was already running, stretching and doing exercises with the ball. That man was John O'Brien, first with Ajax physio Pim van Dord, later with fitness coach René Wormhoudt. Johnny O'Brien, fit at last. He couldn't wait until Wednesday. He wanted to do something. Be ready for training. ready for a new season.
By the time of the first pre-season friendly at FC Omniworld, however (on the 10th), O'Brien had dropped out again. A minor re-aggrivation, reported Ajax.nl. Nothing serious. But O'Brien once again missed the De Lutte training camp. Then he missed the U.K. friendlies. And the Amsterdam Tournament. And the start of the season. The "minor re-aggrevation" was once again serious enough to keep him sidelined for six weeks at least. Another injury. Will it ever end, John?
"I'm almost there now," O'Brien says. "I really am. I trained with Young Ajax last week, a few times even with the first team. We're talking about full group training here. With ball. I did everything. I was supposed to play with Young Ajax this week."
The game he was supposed to play was yesterday night, against the amateur team of Stormvogels Telstar in the town of IJmuiden, the final pre-season friendly for the Ajax reserves before the start of the Beloftencompetitie ('Talent Competition'). John O'Brien? He did not play.
"Minor hamstring injury. Left hamstring. I sustained it in training, on Monday."
Another setback... More delay... Isn't that frustrating?
"Of course it is. It's very frustrating. But this really is a minor knock. There is no damage and I should be back in training next week. But yeah, it's frustrating. I always try to tell myself: this can happen, it's not much of a problem. I force myself to look at the bigger picture: it's August and I know I'm almost there."
A familiar site: John O'Brien working solo with Ajax trainers. [Photo: Ajax.nl]
February to August... That's half a year. And it wasn't your first persistent injury, either. Did you ever lose faith? Or was there always light at the end of the tunnel?
"The light at the end of the tunnel was always there. Definitely. If I'd really lost faith, I think I could not have carried on working. At a certain point I stopped planning, though. I forced myself to not think about the ultimate goal, but only about the next step. At first I couldn't do anything. Then I started running. Then I was ready for some heavy fitness training. Last week I did everything. I look forward to every next phase. Being able to train hard was enough to make me really happy last week."
What was the hardest time for you?
"I got injured in February and it took me much longer than expected to return to the pitch. In April and May things started to improve. The period in between was hard. In March, in particular, it was sometimes very hard to stay optimistic."
That was the period of your contract extension talks with Ajax.
"That's right. That made it even harder."
Can you tell us about your new contract? What's the deal?
"It's what we call a 'performance contract' for this season. I have a relatively low basic salary now. Low for Ajax standards, anyway. On top of that I get match premiums if I play. I don't get those if I don't play. The latter is the key difference with a 'normal' contract, where you usually do get your match premiums if you're injured."
Wasn't it hard to accept that deal? Didn't it feel like they've lost faith in you?
"Actually, no. I mean, let's face the facts: I've been very injury-prone for quite a long time now. I think it's perfectly normal and reasonable that Ajax have their doubts. I can't blame them. You know, there's even a very positive side to it. I feel less pressure now. I feel less guilty about being injured."
What about the American national team? Do you ever hear from them?
"Oh, yeah! I'm in touch with Bruce Arena very regularly. He sends me e-mail every once in a while and he's called me a few times. He asks me when I will be ready to return, which is a good sign. It's really good to know that they're interested. They're in the middle of the World Cup qualification right now. The 2002 World Cup was such a great experience. Now I really know what those World Cup qualifiers are for, what the reward is. I really want to play a few of those qualifiers."
John O'Brien etched a place in US soccer history when he scored
against Portugal in the 2002 World Cup. [Photo: CNN/SI]
Well, okay then: when will you return to actual competitive action?
"What can I say? You know... I can come up with a plan, imposing deadlines on myself, but I've learned that it's a better idea not to do that. I want to focus on the next step. I hope I can do fitness training early next week. Maybe I can be back with the group later next week, or otherwise the week thereafter. But let's say that I hope I can play my first game - probably with the reserves - in the third week of September or so." (MP)
John, thank you very much for - once again - taking the time to answer our questions! We'll see you soon!