Exclusive | Lyon’s Jake O’Brien: ‘It’s been a crazy, very emotional season. We defied the odds.’

Jake O’Brien (23) joined Olympique Lyonnais for a meagre €1m fee back in August 2023. He arrived as a relatively unknown quantity and judging by Laurent Blanc’s comments upon his arrival at the Groupama Stadium, little was expected. However, he has established himself at Lyon, carving out a place in the defence, finishing a the club’s second top-scorer in Ligue 1 and collectively, participating in one of the great comebacks in recent sporting history. 

As recently as February, Lyon were still in the relegation zone, however, over the second half of the season, no side has picked up more points in Ligue 1 than Les Gones. That form saw them shoot up the table to a finishing position of sixth. Regardless of the result of Saturday’s Coupe de France final against Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon will be playing European football next season, but a season that risked being so disastrous for OL could yet end in silverware. Ahead of the game, Get French Football News spoke with O’Brien. 

Talk us through you’re opening days and weeks at Lyon. Laurent Blanc, OL manager at the time, said that you were ‘under evaluation’. Did it feel as though you were playing for your career at the club from the offset?

I had it in the back of my mind that I could break into the team, eventually, and be given my chance. It took a few games to get in but once I got in, played my first game, and showed the fans what I was about. I haven’t looked back ever since. It’s been a very eventful season and I am grateful for the opportunity. 

Since breaking into the first team in October, you’ve looked unphased. How do you explain your quick adaptation to Ligue 1 and life in France? 

I am someone who is open-minded, and open to trying new things. Trying new things has never phased me. Coming here, it was a different country, a different culture, I had to adapt to it but it only took a few weeks to break into the team and then it was about learning from others, adapting to the surroundings and the culture throughout the season. 

It’s of course not the first time you’ve moved abroad, having gone from Cork to play at Crystal Palace…

It’s very rare my pathway, it’s been very different to the ordinary route. Coming out of Cork, not many have made it across. It is difficult to get spotted and be seen, compared to if I were in Dublin or in England and then you could progress into the academies. Where I lived, you need someone to watch you and it’s very difficult and it was during Covid times. Palace watched me and invited me over and I didn’t look back. 

And then to France. Very few Irishman do that and in fact, you’re the first to do so since Tony Cascarino in 2000…

I think a lot of Irish never try their hand in Europe. Even in the media, it’s just about England and progressing through the levels there. I was very open-minded. Lyon are a huge historical club in Europe and I thought, why not try my hand there? I suppose it’s worked out for me. 

You arrived at Lyon with the club mired in crisis. The images of the Capo berating the team after a 4-1 defeat to PSG in September went viral. How did you experience that moment? 

I have never experienced anything like that before. It was something different. Obviously coming to a big club like this, we weren’t in a good position at the time, there wasn’t a great atmosphere around the club and we weren’t playing well either. The fans had the right to tell us what they were thinking. It took us a few games to adapt to what was going on and get points on the board. 

There wasn’t an immediate uptick in results, but in hindsight, was that an important moment in the season?

There were lots of things that weren’t going right at that point, it took us a while to get points on the board but it could have been one of the moments that kick-started our season. It put more pressure on all of us as a team and then eventually, since the break we have kicked on with Pierre. With the new signings, the best atmosphere around the team – it was what we needed. It is a good team now and we’re all really close. 

Could you grasp why there was such a lack of performance, given the quality of the squad?

It was hard to put it down to one thing. It was very strange because in terms of the quality we had in the team, you look at all of the players on paper, we have a better team than most. Everything that could have gone wrong for us at the start of the season did then we had a bit more luck on our side, a better atmosphere on the side, we thrived on it. 

Fabio Grosso, who lasted only seven games as manager, said the fear of relegation was real. Was it for you too? 

I suppose it was in the back of our minds because we were in a bad position but personally, I never thought we were going to get relegated. It didn’t make sense to me that with the squad we had, we could get relegated. It didn’t make sense in my head. It was about getting a few points on the board and kicking on and you’re seen since that break that we have shown people what we are about. 

He was of course then replaced by Pierre Sage. How do you explain the turnaround under his leadership?

There has been lots of change with the managers but I’ve learnt a lot from all three. All three are good managers Pierre has brought a good atmosphere around the team, a togetherness to fight for each other. We’re all playing for him and ourselves. We really wanted to play for him. It’s not just a coach, he talks to you as a person, not just a player, to try and bring you on. 

Could you say that the comeback is one of the greatest in recent sporting history?

Definitely! It’s been a crazy, very emotional season. We were given a 0% chance of getting out of it and we did and didn’t just get out of it, we got Europa League as well. In February, our aim was to look at seventh, which would have been Europa Conference League but we have gone beyond that. We have defied the odds and pushed on. 

And of course, against PSG on Saturday, it could yet end in silverware…

I think we have a lot of momentum going into it. We have the fans behind us and a good atmosphere in the team. PSG will be the big favourites going into it, as they always are but I can only see a win for us. I’m sure the lads here think the same. We have the quality and the players to do it. We will look to win and not just sit back.

Would you say it’s the biggest game of your career?

Definitely yeah. It’s a huge game, not just for me but for the club. To end on a high would be great. 

There was a period in time in December when you were Lyon’s top-scorer, above Alexandre Lacazette. Where do these striker’s instincts come from?

It was great to be the top scorer for a short while. I knew Laca would kick on eventually and he’s got many goals now so he is well out of my reach! I’m always wanting to add goals to my game because I’m a physical defender in both boxes. Obviously, that part of my season was a bit of a shock to be top scorer; I probably shouldn’t have been there. Laca finished as the second top scorer in the league so it speaks for itself. 

You also earned your first Ireland call-up this year. How was that experience?

It was a great honour to get the call to play for my country and play for John O’Shea because he is a player I looked up to when I was younger. I can learn a lot from him, he is a great manager. It was a huge honour. I know I didn’t play but I hope to in the future. 

Featuring in European competition will certainly help you achieve that. Does that give you the desire to remain at Lyon too?

I think most important is games, you progress as long as you’re playing. At my age, it’s very important. I still have a lot of development to do. There’s no point saying I’m the finished article because I’m not and there is still a lot that I can work on. It’s exciting to see where I can go from here. There is no better club to do that than at Lyon.

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Could Lyon push into the Champions League places next season?

Definitely. If you see how we played in the second half of the season, if we start better than we did last season, which I think there is no doubt that we can and then finish strong like we have this season, there is no doubt that we can get Champions League and even push further up the table.

Does that mean challenging PSG?

I think long-term, we have to push because it’s a very historical club and we need to be winning titles. I think we need to push higher and challenge PSG – that’s very important. That can start this weekend. It would be great to stop them from taking another cup and winning one ourselves. 

GFFN | Luke Entwistle

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