With Mark O’Brien hanging up his boots with immediate effect due to needing heart surgery, we take a look back at the last three-and-a-half years he spent in the amber jersey and the legacy he leaves behind.
The Irishman joined County in January 2017, on a short-term deal from Luton and slotted straight into the defence as the Exiles looked to turn their form around and haul themselves out of the relegation zone.
His debut ended in defeat against Stevenage – an eighth successive league defeat – but he helped put a stop to that run with a 1-1 draw the following week against Colchester United.
His influence grew and County kept three clean sheets in their next five games, picking up seven points in the process. However, costly defeats to Cambridge United, Mansfield Town and fellow strugglers Leyton Orient left them 11 points adrift with just 12 games to go.
But what looked like the end of the road was actually the start of the Great Escape. Michael Flynn was promoted to manager and the Exiles produced an incredible run of form, with O’Brien playing a key part at the back.
Six wins from 11 games – five of which were 1-0 victories – meant that three points on the final day against Notts County would be enough to retain the Club’s Football League status.
O’Brien had formed a strong partnership with fellow new recruit Mickey Demetriou at the heart of the County defence but the duo were to make big impacts in both boxes.
Demetriou put the Exiles ahead from the spot but Jorge Grant’s equaliser coupled with Hartlepool United taking the lead against Doncaster Rovers spelled trouble for County.
Then up stepped O’Brien, who controlled a David Pipe cross before volleying the ball into the bottom corner to send the majority of the bumper 7,500-strong crowd wild and write his name into the history books at the Club.
Scoring one of the most important goals of the Club’s history ensured his name would never be forgotten in South Wales but he added to his County legacy in the seasons that followed.
He was a constant in the defence alongside Demetriou and Scot Bennett during his time at the Club helping to earn 47 clean sheets in his 127 appearances.
After narrowly avoiding relegation, the Club enjoyed memorable runs in the FA Cup and were minutes away from a possible promotion to League One with O’Brien at the heart of the team.
Since the Great Escape, relegation has never been a worry with the Club looking forward rather than over the shoulder.
A top-half finish in 2017/18 showed the progress the team made while an impressive FA Cup run led them to the fourth round where they were beaten 2-0 by Tottenham Hostpur at Wembley after holding the Premier League outfit to a draw at Rodney Parade.
The Irishman didn’t get many minutes in the latter rounds of the cup with Flynn opting to keep with his in-form defence after O’Brien had picked up a red card against Lincoln City.
However, he got his chance in the following season as the Club went one better and made the fifth round, this time losing out to Premier League champions, and eventual cup winners, Manchester City.
O’Brien always led by example and was rewarded with the captain’s armband as the Exiles forced a replay against Middlesbrough before outclassing the Championship team at home. This came after a stunning 2-1 victory over Leicester City in the previous round.
Pep Guardiola showed County plenty of respect by naming a strong side when they visited Rodney Parade and O’Brien more than matched his Premier League opponents with the two sides only separated by one goal before the visitors pulled away with two late strikes.
That didn’t distract O’Brien and his teammates from the league as they forced their way into the play-offs. He played every minute of the semi-final double-header against Mansfield Town, which ended in a nervy 5-3 penalty shoot-out win and another trip to Wembley.
A performance full of passion, spirit, determination and hunger saw County push Tranmere all way, even after O’Brien was sent off on 89 minutes, but a goal at the death by Connor Jennings ended the promotion dream.
After putting plenty of smiles on the faces of the fans, O’Brien could have called time on his County career at that point but the centre back penned a two-year deal to stay at the Club and was named club captain.
He continued to make history as the team went on a club-record 17-game unbeaten streak in League Two while making Rodney Parade a fortress with a defeat against Salford City in November ending a 16-game unbeaten run at home in the league.
O’Brien has always played with integrity, leadership and heart and his presence on the pitch will be missed. But he can look back on his time at the club with great pride and we will never tire of seeing his goal against Notts County.
Thank you for everything OB.