English footballers earn moves abroad through various different ways. Some have agents which secure them moves, some come through the American college system and others write to clubs to convince them to give them a trial. But for Danny O’Brien it was through a friend, who had built a very successful career abroad, that his footballing adventure in Finland would be kick-started.
“The move to Kraft came about from Richie Dorman, who plays for SJK,” he says. “I was on loan at Chester at the time and I wasn’t 100% sure if I wanted to stay in England to sign for Chester and play in the National League.
“I wanted to play higher or at least experience something different with my playing career and with Richie having played for Kraft years ago, I decided to go there.”
At this time, O’Brien was on his third loan spell away from his parent club, Wigan Athletic. Having started his career with Aston Villa, where he was part of the squad who won the NextGen series in 2013, he had made his first team debut for Wigan in a League Cup tie in 2016 but a change in management saw his chances limited.
“It was a proud moment for me making my debut for Wigan. It’s my local football club and of course I’d have loved to have built on that debut at the time but a few weeks after that, the manager got sacked and that changed everything.”
So last year, after his loan spells, the midfielder decided to follow in the footsteps of Dorman, a Chester-born defender who hasn’t looked back since moving abroad in 2011, and join third-tier Finnish side Kraft.
It was a move which he wouldn’t regret. He fired in seven goals in 18 matches as he became an integral part of the third division side based in the largely Swedish speaking town of Närpes. His time away from home back in the UK ensured he was settled and ready to contribute on the pitch as soon as he made the move.
“Having moved away at 15 to Birmingham once I signed for Villa, it made the move to Finland pretty easy. Finland is a nice country and living in Närpes, which is such a small town, meant I made close friends there. I still visit there regularly to see them all and to watch Kraft play.”
His impressive performances saw him catch the attention of Dorman’s current side, top flight side SJK, and at the start of this year, he made the move to the join him and several other Brits at the club who won the top division in 2015.
“SJK is a big club over here,” he says. “The facilities are brilliant with a really good brand new stadium.
“Once again, Richie helped me with the deal. He explained to me that if I did well, I would get my chance in the first team. That was the reason I signed here because there was a pathway for me. Luckily it’s paid off so far.”
Initially playing for the club’s under-23 side who compete in the same division as Kraft, O’Brien fired a hat-trick in his first game and then scored against his old side in a blistering start to his career with his new club.
The first team bosses took notice and promoted the 22-year-old to the first team, meaning a jump of two divisions. He has since made six appearances for the first team alongside his old mate Dorman and fellow Englishmen Billy Ions and Jordan Mustoe.
“There has been a step-up,” he admits. “It’s a lot different but I trusted in my ability to be able to make that step up.
“The standard of the league here in Finland is good. There’s a lot of good players in it, I would say it’s a better standard than what I played in England. My first team chances where limited back home so I only played regularly in the National League and the Veikkausliiga is better than that.
“It makes it a lot easier as well having the other British lads in the team. I have an ex-youth team mate from Villa Joonas Sundman in the team as well so that was another familiar face when I first came to SJK.”
SJK are currently hovering above the relegation spots in the Finnish top flight, the Veikkausliiga, but with O’Brien now being given his chance and Ions back from a lengthy spell out due to injury, hopes are high that they can turn a slow start into a strong finish.
It will take all of O’Brien’s determination and focus to improve his side’s fortunes this year and by hearing from him, it is clear that he is not thinking too far ahead when it comes to his future career path.
“For me, this season is about developing at SJK, getting as much game time for both the first team and the U23 team.
“At the minute I’m in a good situation. I’m getting my chance in the first team and also topping my fitness in the U23 matches.
“Regarding to playing in other countries, I’ve always said if the deal is right I’ll play anywhere so I’m open to playing elsewhere but at the minute I’m firmly concentrating on Finland.”
O’Brien trusted his ability when leaving his home in Lancashire at 15 to move to Birmingham. He trusted his ability when he made the move to Finland and he trusted it again when making the step-up to SJK. So far, through hard work and dedication, it has never let him down and don’t be surprised if he keeps on progressing. This 22-year-old is going to keep on making an impression.