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Mark O'Brien

"It went from the extremes of making my debut to the extremes of the doctor telling me I could die within a year."

- Written by Katie Scott

Why are we telling this story?

At the age of 16, Mark was told he may never play football again due to a heart condition. 11 years later, he is proud to say he achieved all he set out to following that day, both in and outside of football. But it wasn't without its struggles. Mark talks us through the ups and downs of his career and why he believes life outside of sport is so important. 


  • Name: Mark O'Brien
  • Sport: Football
  • Team: Derby County, Motherwell, Luton Town, Southport, Newport County
  • Position: Defender

“I was lucky enough to get scouted by Derby County whilst playing locally in Ireland and flew away at 15 and by the end of that season, when I turned 16, I made my debut for the first team.” 

Following this breakthrough season, Mark went for a routine medical, which changed his life. 

“The surgeon told me my heart was 3 times the size it should be and if I don’t get the operation done this year, I’m going to die. So, it went from the extremes of making my debut to the extremes of the doctor telling me I could die within a year.  

“I didn’t really understand. I only really asked the doctor ‘am I allowed to play football’. Even though he’s telling me I need open heart surgery, I only asked, ‘can I play football’, so I wasn’t really understanding what was going on. He told me that I’d probably never play professionally again, he said I’d be lucky to play down the park with my friends. 

“So, I had the operation in October 2009 and I got back playing in April 2010, then I felt as though I was on the road to recovery and everything is fine again. Through my career I’ve had to have a scan every year to see if I was allowed to play the following season. 

“It molded my career really because it made me get the best out of every season that I played or every scenario I was in. I’ve had career threatening injuries along the way, but I felt as though because I got back from open heart surgery, I can get back from anything. 

“Fortunately, I ended up playing over 200 professional games. I played professionally for 11 years. I got 11 years out of the valve I was told I probably wouldn’t get a year out of.” 

Two years ago, Mark had to have a second open heart surgery, which negatively affected his mental health. 

“I know what open heart surgery is like but having to retire from football, not having the distraction of football really like took a toll on me. I struggled mentally with the retirement, with the recovery, with losing all my fitness, I struggled with everything.

“I reached out to people who were in sport who have retired and they reached out to me because people could see I was struggling. I started to realise what was good for me was being able to relate to other people or people being able to relate to me. 

“The more I started to appreciate the smaller rewards the better I was feeling and they turned into bigger things, to where my days turned out better, my weeks turned out better and everything just started to come together again and more opportunity came from it. 

“It’s kind of led me to the path that I’m on now to where I’ve found myself comfortable speaking out about things, I’ve felt myself inspired to help others because I’ve had that many people help me. 

“I feel I can relate to a lot of people, where they might have gone through certain struggles in life, or they might have family members who have gone through struggles and I just feel as though there’s a lot of me to give to people and I just want to spread that awareness and help people” 

Mark’s advice to younger sportspeople is to, “Go and play and enjoy yourself and make memories with teams and make history for yourself. They’re the things that will live with you when your career finishes because the money, the fame, the followers on Instagram and Twitter will all come and go, but it’s the memories you’ll have, with the people that you’re playing with and training with each day that will live with you forever.” 

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