04/09/2014 02:52 EDT | Updated 06/09/2014 05:59 EDT

Toronto FC fullback learns lessons the hard way, now lauded for character, drive

TORONTO - Ask people who know Bradley Orr and the reviews of the veteran English fullback are glowing.

A great teammate. An experienced professional. A player to watch and learn from.

"He's a fabulous member of any squad," said Toronto FC captain Steven Caldwell, who's known the 31-year-old Orr for more than 15 years and shares an agent. "A real character, a real winner."

That character, in part, was forged the hard way. As a young man, he made mistakes that led to jail.

Then the Liverpool native learned from them.

If Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is looking for someone to mentor 21-year-old Raptors centre Jonas Valanciunas, charged this week with drunk driving, it probably need look no further than its sister soccer team and Orr.

He made headlines in 2006 when he was one of three Bristol City players jailed for their part in a nightclub brawl. A fourth player was given community service.

Orr and a teammate were sentenced to 28 days in jail. Wales international David Partridge was given two months behind bars. The players were also suspended and fined two weeks' wages by their club.

"Soccer Heroes in Prison Shame" was the headline in England's Sun tabloid.

It didn't help that just days before sentencing, Orr was sent off for attempting to head-butt a teammate during a nationally televised game.

Some eight years later, Orr believes his biggest mistake was just being at the Romeo Browns nightclub.

"Not a lot of people actually know the story and what happened," said Orr, who doesn't shy away from his past or his missteps.

A teammate — "not necessarily a friend" — was thrown out of the nightclub and then became involved in a brawl with bouncers, two of whom were also charged later.

"Things got out of hand. It was wrong place wrong time," said Orr. "He ended up getting a beating. I tried to stop it, got caught up in it and ended up finding myself in prison at the age of 23.

"Not ideal but I probably wouldn't change it, because from that, a lot of thought and reflection went on. I decided there and then it's either give it everything you've got and try to make the most of this amazing opportunity that I'd been given. Or I'm going to find myself like many other lads around the same age, and certainly from the same city, on the scrap heap where you've got a bit of ability, you've got the talent but you haven't quite got the mentality or the maturity or the discipline to succeed."

Orr said he made "little adjustments," worked on his weaknesses and "really knuckled down and gave it everything."

"It's eight years down the line and I'm still playing football for a living. I've got an amazing family here with me. I've got a lot of people who mean a lot to me."

Many of those stuck by him during those "dark times."

"I was a young lad, I was distraught. I thought my career was finished. You think the worst at that age and I had 23 hours a day to think about it in a cell."

"I'm just glad I learned from a mistake, in a positive way," he added. "The outcome since then has pretty good so far. I think I've had a decent enough career and one I can look back (at) with pride.

"Even though that was an isolated incident and I'm not proud of it, I certainly wouldn't change it because it's probably helped make me who I am."

Orr pleaded guilty based on advice that he would get some kind of community service. His father and girlfriend came to court, expecting to drive him home.

Instead he was taken directly below to the cells.

Orr's soccer journey featured stints with Newcastle United, Burnley, Bristol City, Queens Park Rangers, Blackburn Rovers, Ipswich Town and Blackpool before joining Toronto FC on loan in late January.

He spent the bulk of his career with Bristol City, playing more than 225 games between 2004 and 2010.

At 31, Orr is one of the grey beards on Toronto FC's squad.

Only Dwayne De Rosario (35), Caldwell (33) and Jermain Defoe (by less than a month) are older.

Orr showed his value Saturday in Columbus when injuries and suspension pressed him into service as centre back, alongside 21-year-old rookie Nick Hagglund.

Toronto blanked the previously unbeaten Crew 2-0 with Orr one of three TFC players subsequently named to the MLS team of the week.

The performance out of position is just why manager Ryan Nelsen acquired Orr.

"For me, we needed just hardened guys who have kind of seen both sides of the tracks, if you know what I mean," Nelsen said. "Just so our young guys can learn what it takes to be a pro, to win away (games), to do the little things that it takes to be a good team. And you generally learn that from experience."

Nelsen knows talent is not everything. Character plays a huge role in how far a player goes.

"Our young guys have got to see that. Because it's the best lesson to learn, that they've got to do a lot of ugly stuff before they can kind of get to that top."

Ask Orr about Hagglund's performance in Columbus and the veteran beams.

"He was fantastic. I was delighted for Nick. His attitude towards his profession is absolutely (a) different class. He comes in every day really willing to learn and work hard. And they're the type of lads who you want to see do well."

One of the reasons Orr opted for MLS was he wanted to take himself out of his comfort zone and test himself. He has not regretted the move.

Orr, who came to Canada with his wife and five-year-old twin boys, has marvelled at the passion of Toronto's fans for sports.

"It's really mind-blowing," said Orr.

He is also blown away by Toronto FC's set-up

"How can you not love this place?" he asked, pointing at the club's well-appointed training centre. "The facilities are world-class. The city's fantastic."

"So far I'm loving it. Hopefully that can continue and I can't see no reason why not," he added.

Orr has jumped right into Toronto's sports community, taking in both Leafs and Raptors games.

He's also not afraid of getting out among the fans.

A lifelong "big, big" Liverpool fan — his 21-year-old nephew Jon Flanagan plays for the Reds — Orr recently found out where the local supporters' club was based. So he and Caldwell, with sons in tow, dropped in to see a recent Sunday game over breakfast.