Republic of Ireland international Aiden O’Brien has revealed how football saved him from London’s knife and gang culture.
The Millwall forward grew up in the Harvist Estate, close to where Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium is today.
For 17 years the Harvist was O’Brien’s home. Some of his best memories were created there – playing football with his friends in rain, hail and snow – but it is also the place where he learnt about the horrors of gang culture and knife crime.
He witnessed brutal things on that estate, most of which he does not yet feel ready to discuss almost a decade later. There was more than one close escape, fleeing from situations where he would have been “robbed, beaten up or, worse, killed.” On one occasion he even had a gun pointed at him.
Several past acquaintances have ended up behind bars, others are no longer here. And if it was not for “the game that saved me”, O’Brien could easily have been among them: another grim statistic of an epidemic that is devastating the capital.
When football.london met the 25-year-old at Millwall’s training ground last week, the conversation was punctuated by O’Brien saying that he is not blowing things out of proportion, that this is just a grim, necessary portrayal of what life is like for a young person in a tough area that is neglected by those in power.
“People will read this and think I am over-exaggerating,” he said. “That is fine, I’m not here to simplify it. I don’t want sympathy because I wouldn’t change that past for the world. It’s made me who I am today.
“There are things that happened that I still don’t want to talk about in an interview but they would make you understand why football really did save me. There were scenarios, stuff that could have happened in a split second where I knew that I had to get out of there or I’d be dead.”
The dynamic was complex. On the Harvist there were two groups separated by age and the older lot would guide the younger ones in an uncomfortable direction. O’Brien was spared the worst of it because they knew of his footballing ability.
“The older group told me that I wasn’t going around getting involved in what the other younger lot were getting involved with because I had potential,” he says. “They looked after me, covered me up and hid me away as they thought I had a career ahead of me.
“I always have them to thank for that because as a young kid you just want to be around your mates and do some silly things. I could have easily, easily, easily gone down that path but with a little backing from them and a lot from my family it kept me on the straight and narrow.”
Despite such protection, how many times does he remember witnessing rival gangs descend on the Harvist looking for trouble?
“Ah, mate, it must have been more than 100,” he said, eyebrows raised. “It was the norm. I know it seems hard to believe and some will ask, ‘does that really happen?’ On the estate that happens nearly every single day.
“Some people are just blessed not to be in that environment. It’s the luck of the dice, you know. You’ve never heard of a good council estate, have you? There is always some problem, always someone in there who does something bad.”
O’Brien is proud of where he came from and occasionally returns, even though his mum has moved into a different estate in Islington and his dad has relocated to Kent.
He also has a pair of tattoos on his back which offer a constant reminder: one of a boy with a football in front of a council estate, the other a simple N7, Holloway’s postcode.
“There are loads of estates around Islington and they’d have names and become rivals,” he continued. “If I was to walk into another estate without a load of people with me I’m risking getting stabbed, beaten up or robbed. That’s how it was.
“It’s a turf war. When people come to your estate, they won’t come alone. They will come with 30, 40 people – with knives, balaclavas, dogs. If they come alone they know the same thing will happen to them.”
While he had a trial with Arsenal, who judged him too short, he was scouted by Millwall at 15 during a match in a local Islington league.
When he joined the club’s academy he was “still a rebel and the club probably hated me” but his first coach, Larry McEvoy, persisted, ensuring that he was turning up to training and keeping out of trouble when he returned north of the river.
Then, at 17, Scott Fitzgerald, Millwall’s Under-18 manager, decided that it was time to move O’Brien into a house near the training ground because he could see the trap the talented striker was heading into.
He is indebted to both, believing that they were crucial to his development as a man even more than as a footballer, and every time he lines out for his club he is repaying the faith they showed in him.
“Larry knew what was going on and was really good with me,” he said. “He spoke to me about it, and Scott knew exactly what was going on as well. He took me to one side and told me I had no choice: ‘you’re going into digs.’ He knew I had to be pulled out and if he gave me a choice I’d have stayed with my mates.
“So he pulled me out, which is probably the best thing he could have ever done. [The house] was around the corner from here and I’d sit there after training thinking I’d want to be with my mates. After a while that died down, though, and I was just thinking ‘football, football, football.’”
All of this goes some way to explaining why he would like to be viewed as a role model for kids in a similar position.
He may not have a superstar profile, or millions in the bank, but his story should be an inspiration to young people in estates across London that are just like the Harvist.
“It shows that no matter how deeply you’re in or what background you’re from, at the back of your mind you should always believe you can make it out. That’s what I had.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, as long as you have the right mindset you will be fine.
“As much as you want to be with the gang, or family as they call it, you have got to be more clever about what you are doing because you’ve got a talent. All you have to do is put your mind to it, work hard and hopefully you’ll be able to get here.”
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