Wales U21 goalkeeper speaks to FAW.cymru about last month's disappointing qualifying results and life at Manchester City.
Billy O'Brien trains ahead of last months UEFA U21 Championship qualifying matches against Bulgaria and Romania.
A 0-0 draw in Bulgaria and a disappointing 2-1 defeat in Romania last month has completely changed the dynamic of Wales' UEFA U21 Championship 2017 qualifying campaign, but for goalkeeper Billy O'Brien, the fact that qualification remains possible for a side that have suffered just one defeat in seven games is enough to inspire belief in what the side can achieve as they head into the final three fixtures.
“They were two games we should have won,” O'Brien told FAW.cymru. “In the first game against Bulgaria we could have been 3-0 up at half-time, and then we start chasing the game in the second half because we feel like we should win, and we almost get caught out and lose.”
Good 0-0 draw away to Bulgaria. Buzzing with the clean sheet. Gutted not to get all the 3 points tho. On to Tuesday now ⚽️ #Walesu21s— Billy O'Brien (@B_OBrien95) March 25, 2016
The Manchester City shot-stopper had every right to be frustrated. Wales went into the double-header against Bulgaria and Romania undefeated at the top of Group 5, and while they conceded their perch to Denmark following the 0-0 draw in Stara Zagora, it was the manner of the defeat against Romania in Medias a few days later that proved as difficult to accept as the result.
“I think we played the wrong type of football for the pitch,” explained O'Brien. “The pitch was sticky and dry in the first half and we tried to pass it short and we were getting caught out and losing the ball. In the second half, when it became a bit wet, we were zipping balls around but we were already losing the game and then we conceded a silly second goal as well. I think the first goal was the one that killed us, the ball has come from our own corner, and a few seconds later they've got a corner because we've tried to do something daft. I think we should have won both games and have the six points, and it was the same for Denmark away (0-0 in October 2015) and Romania at home (1-1 in November 2015) as well. In both of those games we also came off the pitch gutted that we had drawn.”
Great 3-0 win away at Reading. Happy with the clean sheet. Long trip back home now ⚽️— Billy O'Brien (@B_OBrien95) April 11, 2016
But there remains a mathematical chance of success for a side that have suffered only one defeat to date, and for O'Brien the approach for the final three qualifiers is simple. “Win, that's the main thing. I think if we win our three remaining games, and other results go our away, we have a good chance of qualifying or getting into the play-offs in second spot.
"We don't concede a lot, we've kept some good clean sheets and we've created chances in every single game, but I don't know why we're struggling to put it away. I think it will come, because we've come a long way as a set of lads. I think we've got a point to prove now to ourselves against Denmark (in September) because we know we're better than that. We know we can compete with anyone. If you go back five years, teams would look at Wales at all age groups from seniors to youth and think 'yeah we'll beat these, these are a side we can beat', but now, at every age group, we can compete with anyone and beat anyone on our day.”
With international fixtures few and far between for the U21 side, domestic business remains a priority for O'Brien, and the 20-year old currently finds himself competing against the best of the best to prove himself at Manchester City.
You can get stressed when your not playing, but my plan for the future is to get out and get some Football League experience and play some senior football
“There's been ups and downs for me this season,” reflected O'Brien, having had his club opportunities at Under-21 level restricted due to injury. “Manchester City is my home club and it's a dream to be there, and I've been there for ten years now. I've just been offered an extra year on my contract so I can get my mind clear now on what I need to do. It's been a bit of stressful year in the fact that I haven't had the game time that I would have wanted, as I want to play week in, week out. But at a club like City there's competition at all age groups. For example, just for my spot in my team there's three international keepers. But that's what you get at a club like City, and I just want to be there for as long as I can. Every game you have to prove that you can be the best to everyone, and every day I try and get the best out of myself.
“You can get stressed when your not playing, but my plan for the future is to get out and get some Football League experience and play some senior football. I have had a few games at non-league level when I was younger, but while I want to get some more experience, if I play for the Under-21's at City I could have the best manager in the world watching me every week because I'm sure he will have an interest in those games. So, it is a very, very exciting time to be there. I want to play Under-21's for the first half of next season because I think it will be good for me to play week in, week out, and then hopefully clubs in League 1 and League 2 will take a look because that's where I want to go to get some experience under my belt for the future. I always tell myself that I have a long career ahead of me. As a footballer you want to be the best that you can be, but I don't want to rush things, I'm still only 20 and keepers can play into their late 30's if things go well.”
There is no doubt that these are exciting times for Billy O'Brien at Manchester City, and the impending arrival of manager Pep Guardiola next season to complement the significant investment into the clubs Academy infrastructure suggests the future will only get bigger and better. However, things could have been slightly different for O'Brien, if his allegiances as a youngster had been to the red half of Manchester.
“I actually had trials at Manchester United the week after I had trials at Manchester City when I was about 10-years old,” he explained, with a smile. “But I'm a life-long blue, so as soon as City came in it was 'thanks, but no thanks' to United. At the time City were just the side-piece to United in Manchester, but luckily for me things have turned around and now City are one of the biggest clubs in the world, and will be for the foreseeable future, definitely.”
The U21 side return to UEFA U21 Championship 2017 qualifying against group leaders Denmark in September.