One of English football’s more unusual traditions is the initiation song. Every signing, shortly after their arrival at a club, must sing in front of all their new team-mates.
It is intended to be an embarrassing few minutes for the person holding the microphone — a way to break the ice and introduce themselves to the dressing room.
For Lewis O’Brien, such moments have proven more an opportunity than a challenge. His performances of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition at three of his previous clubs — Bradford City, Huddersfield Town and Nottingham Forest — have been so good that some speculated he might have a career in entertainment to fall back on.
Whatever initiation he has to go through at his new club DC United (if any), his most impressive performances at all three clubs have come where it matters most: on the pitch.
And though the circumstances that led to O’Brien playing MLS are certainly unusual, what is not in question is that the league has inherited a young player with all the attributes to be one of the best players in the league.
When Forest completed a £10million ($12.3m) joint deal to land O’Brien and defender Harry Toffolo from Huddersfield in July 2022, it was seen as an astute piece of business. Several other clubs, including Leeds United, had been monitoring the progress of O’Brien.
It took only two games for Nottingham Forest for one of his team-mates, Moussa Niakhate, to compare O’Brien to former England and Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere in an Instagram post. In his second appearance — a 1-0 win over West Ham United at the City Ground — O’Brien produced a man-of-the-match performance and prompted head coach Steve Cooper to predict he could get even more out of the dynamic ball carrier.
O’Brien, 24, excelled in the Championship with Huddersfield Town last season, with his performances seeing him regarded as one of the brightest talents in the English second tier. Cooper had been a fan of O’Brien long before he produced standout performances for Huddersfield against Forest in the Championship play-off final that Forest won 1-0 at Wembley Stadium, securing promotion to the Premier League for the first time in 23 years.
When asked, long-serving Forest midfielder Ryan Yates encouraged his head coach to sign O’Brien, having gone toe to toe with him in the Championship. Forest wanted midfield players who could run with the ball and swiftly transition defence into attack. In O’Brien and Orel Mangala, who was signed from Hamburg for £12million, the club’s recruitment team felt they got exactly that.
“Lewis is a great ball carrier, he has a good engine and is great technically. He is tactically good as well,” said Cooper after O’Brien’s arrival. “Lewis is driven to do well. I had a good conversation with him about that and it is important to us.
“We can get even more out of him, which is the exciting bit. I had a positive talk with (Ryan) Yatesy about him because they had a few good ding-dongs. There is a real mutual respect between them.”
O’Brien and the rest of the Forest squad — which was bolstered by 22 additions in the summer transfer window of 2022 — were united by the same goal: to prove that they were a good enough squad to compete in one of the most competitive environments in world football.
There are many who believe O’Brien has been unlucky not to get more of an opportunity to do exactly that.
All six of O’Brien’s Premier League starts came before mid-October when he suffered a bout of illness, which took a lot out of the midfielder.
His stats, when compared with other players in Europe’s top five leagues over the past year, demonstrate O’Brien’s qualities as a high-energy, versatile midfielder. His average of 3.24 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes puts him in the 80th percentile among his peers, his 2.00 progressive carries has him in the 79th percentile and his 1.08 successful take-ons puts him in the 75th percentile. His 2.0 blocks per game put him in the 97th percentile and show that he is useful out of possession as well.
During a loan spell at Bradford in 2018-19, O’Brien started 38 league games and made two substitute appearances, scoring four goals. What made that impressive was that Bradford had four managers during that time. Michael Collins left four days after O’Brien signed, before David Hopkin, Martin Drury and Gary Bowyer had spells in charge.
“His attitude had a really good impact on the team. He was never arrogant, he was humble and he never stopped listening, even when he had established himself as an important figure,” said Adam Chicksen, his former Bradford team-mate, who now plays for Notts County, in a previous interview with The Athletic.
“He was so good at being in the right position; he would break lines and get into dangerous areas. He was always on the move. He could strike a ball really, really well. He was a smart, intelligent player.
“His passing was so clean, so smooth. There was never any bobble. You never worried about getting a ball from him. He had a bit of everything.”
Tommy Elphick, who played with O’Brien at Huddersfield, believes his character is a big asset.
“Lewis is a throwback when it comes to what he stands for and his morals — the way he works,” said Elphick. “Lewis would do the work of two men. His endeavour is what stood out, but that was not his only attribute. He will always give himself a chance of success, just through the sheer amount of work he is willing to put in.”
The fact that O’Brien was allowed to move was a reflection on the business Forest did in the January transfer window, when they added Premier League experience in Jonjo Shelvey from Newcastle United and two quality Brazilians in Gustavo Scarpa and Danilo from Palmeiras. He remained a respected figure among his team-mates.
But O’Brien found himself further down the pecking order and Forest sanctioned a loan move to Blackburn Rovers. The Championship club were minutes late submitting vital paperwork on deadline day and, after a lengthy appeal, the move was eventually blocked, leaving Forest furious — and O’Brien disappointed.
He was not included in Forest’s 25-man Premier League squad, which had been filled, and, though he continued to train with the first team, he knew he would not be eligible for matches.
“The lad has been completely let down and so have we. We agreed to let Lewis go and play somewhere else, which I wasn’t 100 per cent in favour of but I understand where he was and what he wanted to do,” said Cooper at the time. “We had a lot of offers (for O’Brien). He has had a choice and it didn’t get through and he has been let down. We love Lewis, he is a fantastic lad and a good player. We made the decision to allow him to go out on loan, because we felt it was the right thing to do.
“He wanted to play football. I commend him for that and didn’t stand in his way. We are working on trying to fix something that suits him, there are options, but they are limited.”
Those options, because he would not be allowed to move to another UEFA club outside of the transfer window, amounted to a move to Saudi Arabia or MLS. And it is under Wayne Rooney that O’Brien will look to prove himself all over again.
DC United have an option to make the move permanent — but that is a requirement when MLS clubs take players on loan and it is regarded as an unlikely prospect at Forest.
In the meantime, whether he has to sing or not, O’Brien remains a young man who is capable of making a big noise in MLS.
(Top photo: Lewis O’Brien scoring for Forest against Fulham in the Premier League in September 2022; by Marc Atkins via Getty Images)
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