George O'Brien A Remembrance
Friday, 20th Mar 2020 09:24
Back in January the Daily Echo wrongly reported that George O'Brien one of the Saints legends from the 1960's has died, sadly we can now report that he has passed away.
Back in January although I was glad to hear the news was a little premature, I felt a tribute to a man who was truly one of our great goalscorers was in order, so I repeat it again for those who missed it or just want to remember him.
George O'Brien was from an era when players were bought and sold by club's without sentiment, what would he have been worth in today's transfer market?
Only 3 players scored more goals for Saints and those 3 players are without dispute the 3 greatest players to play for the club in it's entire history in Mick Channon, Mathew Le Tissier and Terry Paine, only Ron Davies and perhaps Rickie Lambert could perhaps be mentioned in the same breath and even those two scored far less than George O'Brien for the club.
Which makes it sad is that for many Saints supporters the name of George O'Brien will mean little, but he was like Lambert five decades later, the man whose goals fired Saints from the third to the top tier of English football, sadly unlike Lambert his reward was not a lucrative move to one of the top club's in the country and a massive pay day that would have seen him comfortable for the rest of his life.
O'Brien joined Saints in August 1959 from Leeds United and although he did not score on his debut on the opening day of the season, he went on to score 23 goals as Saints won the then 3rd Division, ironically he was not even Saints top scorer than accolade went to Derek Reeves who netted a club record 39 League goals.
The following season Saints were back in Division 2 and joined by O'Brien's former club Leeds who ironically had been relegated from Division 1, Derek Reeves found it harder to score as Saints consolidated themselves back in the 2nd tier, but no such problems for George who again scored 22 goals in 41 League appearances as Saints finished a credible 8th.
O'Brien formed a formidable partnership with firstly Derek Reeves and then the fledgling Martin Chivers with the diminutive O'Brien at only 5ft 6 playing off both of those target men centre forwards.
Now he was the recognised top goalscorer for the team and hit 28 League goals in 61/62, 22 in 62/63, 16 in 63/64 & 32 in 64/65 his best season as Saints really started to be a team pushing for promotion to the top flight for the first time.
He missed just one game in that season and still only 29 as the 1965/66 season started he was in his prime.
This season started well for both George & the team, he scored 11 times in 16 games but his season was interrupted by hepatitis and little dd he know at the time he had played his last game for the club by November 20th, two days short of his 30th birthday.
George was only 2 short of the then club record goalscorer Bill Rawlings 156 League goals, but he would never get the chance to beat it when Ted Bates traded hi to Leyton Orient in the deal that brought Dave Webb to the Dell in March 1966 with Saints heading to the top flight.
Ted Bates must have thought this was good business, after all he had Martin Chivers, Paine, John Sydenham and a youngster called Mike Channon breaking into first team contention, but it was brutal and symptomatic of how footballers were treated little better than possessions to be bought and sold at the time, they could not leave even when out of contract unless the club deemed to sell them, yet they could be sold at a whim with little in the way of being able to resist.
Certainly George was bitter at the way that the club had treated him, after all he had started the season as it's main striker and a certainty to become it's top goalscorer ever at the time.
In the excellent book All The Saints George is quoted as saying that he was quite bitter about being kicked out the door at the Dell, but that it was in his words "his own stupid fault for going" in that he ignored plenty of advice from team mates to stay put and that he may have ignored that advice to "spite Ted Bates"
George quite rightly thought that had he played in Division 1 at the height of his career then he may well have come into contention for a Scotland cap and was irked that the Saints manager seemed happy to sacrifice him long term to strengthen the defence for the last few games of the promotion season.
He was also upset that the club had promised him a testimonial and that after he had left they reneged on this promise meaning that he was unable to say goodbye properly to the Saints supporters who had been so appreciative of his contribution in almost 6 years at the club
Indeed if he had not contracted the disease then it would be likely that had he played the whole season he would have added to the 154 League goals he had scored for the club and bypassed not only the 156 that Rawling's scored, but also the 160 Paine eventually ended up on 8 years later and the 161 Le Tiss netted and if he had another season the 185 from Channon.
He may well have also overtaken Le Tiss's 208 in all competitions if he had played in the top flight in the following season and maybe been close to Channon's 228 which in the interest of fairness also included more goals in other competitions, Channon though netted 9 in Europe a competition neither Le Tiss or George had the chance to test their mettle in.
His goals per game ratio was better than all three of those above him in the overall rating being a goal every .64 games.
Selling him at that moment when he stood on the brink of being the Top League goalscorer ever was the equivalent of substituting a player as he is about to take a penalty that would give him his hat trick or indeed much worse.
At Leyton Orient George was never happy and scored only 3 goals in 17 games before moving to Aldershot barely 9 months after leaving the Dell where he netted 8 in 41 in two seasons, but by now he was broken by his treatment by Saints & Ted Bates in particular and his heart was not in it and he returned to Southampton to become a publican at the Waterloo Arms in Freemantle .
It was there I encountered George as the Sunday team I played for would meet in there for a drink and we would sometimes try to tempt him out of retirement, he would always refuse saying he still had his boots but he had not used them since retiring from the professional game.
I also remember the day after Saints centenary game against Everton in 1985 being in the pub when the door opened and Terry Paine and John Sydenham walked in for a reunion.
George only ever returned to the Dell when he did some part time scouting for Terry when he was at Hereford and Coventry, sadly he would never forgive the club for the issues surrounding his departure although he loved the City of Southampton and the Saints supporters..
In 1990 he moved briefly to Edinburgh before returning to take over the Star & Garter a goal kick away from the Waterloo in Freemantle and then became a taxi driver.
So George O'Brien's standing in the list of Saints goalscorers is immense and although he has not yet joined those immortal Saints above, it is perhaps fitting that we pay tribute to him now.
A younger generation will perhaps not have heard of George O' Brien so it is fitting that they do so now when he is still with us and they can perhaps ask their Father's and Grandfather's whether they saw George play.
He played just before the era of TV coverage and long before the Sky Football generation so there are few video clips of him playing and mainly black & white photos of him in action, but that does not diminish his standing in the list of not only all time great Saints goalscorers, but in the list of all time great Saints players.
Photo: Action Images
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