BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Aiden O’Brien has got used to hitting his seasonal goals target – with the last campaign probably the first time he has failed to reach his pre-set figure.
The 24-year-old bagged 13 goals in the 2015-16 season and followed up with 15 in 2016-17.
But O’Brien managed only six in all competitions for the Lions as they adjusted to life in the Championship.
Self-confidence is never going to be an issue for the Republic of Ireland under-21 international, who was also called into Martin O’Neill’s senior squad in September 2017.
And O’Brien reckons the untimely nature of his ankle ligament injury – sustained in a rip-roaring 4-3 victory at Leeds on January 20 in which he netted at Elland Road – was a key factor in a lower scoring return.
He missed nine league matches and by the time he was fit the South London club were motoring on what turned out to be a 17-game unbeaten run with Ben Marshall, a classy loan addition from Wolves, occupying his normal role on the left wing.
Millwall had pursued Marshall this summer only for Norwich City to blow them away with a lucrative deal – both in terms of fee and wages.
Four of O’Brien’s goals last season came in the space of three matches in January. But he does not put that scoring spurt down to the impending arrival of a rival wideman.
And there was no celebration on his part that Marshall is not coming back to The Den on a permanent basis.
O’Brien said: “I got on with him. If anything, it would have brought good competition to the camp for me. Hopefully he does well at Norwich and kicks on.
“I feel like sometimes in football you get a spell where you just keep scoring and everything you touch goes in. That’s what was happening at that stage in January.
“I felt like if I kept going, who knows what could have happened? It wasn’t so much the fact that they were going to bring in a player, it was just the fact that it was perfect timing for me with goal after goal after goal in January.
“I got the injury after that and they brought in Ben Marshall, who did terrific. I’ve got no hate towards him or anything like that. He’s a cracking player and a good lad, and I hope for the best for him in the future.”
Once again O’Brien will give himself personal targets to meet. Millwall are still set to bring in a leftsided midfielder before the transfer window closes in early August. Jed Wallace had the right flank locked down.
O’Brien said: “I always set myself a goals target.
“I’m going to do the exact same again. Unluckily for me I got injured at Leeds when I was flying.
“For the last three seasons I’ve been really prolific in front of goal, playing in midfield.
“I just love scoring goals. Whatever game I play in – whether it’s the FA Cup final or not – I’ll always be thinking in my mind: ‘I’m going to score today, I’m going to score’. I’ve always been that way since I was a boy.”
Millwall took up an option to extend O’Brien’s contract until June 2019.
“It’s a great club – I love it here,” he said. “Everyone on the staff is good and there are no egos really.
“Everyone just gets on with what they’ve got to get on with, but there’s banter at the same time. It’s a good balance. I’m buzzing to be here for another year.”
O’Brien reckons manager Neil Harris and assistant David Livermore have eradicated any big-time players who used to fracture the dressing room dynamic.
“There will never be an issue with that while the manager is here,” he said. “The manager and Livers are so against all that kind of stuff, so that could never be the case at Millwall.
“Even if someone was getting too big for their boots or a little bit ahead of themselves then those guys there – and even the players – would knock them down a peg as well.
“Before Neil, yeah there was a few [egos] with past managers.
I’ve definitely seen it in the changing rooms and stuff when I was young.
“The manager’s come in with Livers and he’s taken all of that out and made us one big unit. There’s no one better than others here. The message is: ‘Let’s just go and get the job done’.
O’Brien’s belief surfaces again when asked about the challenge facing Millwall as they prepare for their second successive season in the Championship.
An eighth-place finish has set the bar high. O’Brien did not look for the date of fixtures against high-profile opposition when the schedule was announced.
“Everyone’s going to get the same treatment,” he said.
“I don’t care if we’re against Aston Villa or against whoever. We’re going to be looking to take a lot of points off of a lot of teams this year and I’m going to be looking to score a lot of goals too.
“We’ve got to go again now this season – we had a cracking year.
“We were unlucky not to get in the play-offs. We have got to build on that.
“Now we know that anything’s possible in this league if we have a good run of games. We went 17 unbeaten – we can do that again, we can do more. We believe in ourselves.”
Harris has brought the fear factor back to The Den since taking charge. Norwich, Leeds, Reading, Birmingham, Middlesbrough, QPR, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa were all big clubs who left SE16 pointless.
O’Brien said: “When the fans are with us and pumping at The Den – whether that be 19,000 or 16,000 – we’ve got 12 men on the pitch.
“I’m not just saying that, I actually genuinely believe that.
“Any team that plays us at The Den, when it’s like that, just can’t handle it.
“They can’t do what they want to do with the ball. It’s very rare that they can anyway, you get the odd team that can outdo us on the ball on that type of day – but very rarely.
“If we had that at The Den every week for this season, without a shadow of a doubt we’ll win most games at home.”
Good results for Millwall have led to international recognition for the squad.
O’Brien said: “I hoped that I’d get the chance to travel again with my national team but I knew that I wasn’t playing and that they would have to bring someone else who was match fit, which is understandable.
“This year I’m looking to stay injury free and I’m looking to start the season flying “I want to get back into the Ireland team and show the Irish what I’m about.”