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Dublin: 11°C Monday 19 April 2021

'A civil war kicked off. Our training ground essentially got overtaken by the Russian army'

As he prepares for his last game in professional football, ex-Ireland international Darren O’Dea reflects on his career.

Darren O'Dea earned 20 caps for Ireland.
Darren O'Dea earned 20 caps for Ireland.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

DARREN O’DEA ADMITS he was never the most naturally gifted of footballers.

However, like most people who carve out a career in the game, what the Dubliner did possess was a voracious work ethic, along with a steady temperament and strong self-discipline.

As a result, such traits took him to some extraordinary places in a career with no shortage of remarkable moments.

After all, how many other 20-year-old defenders get to face AC Milan at the San Siro in front of over 60,000 people and hold them scoreless twice over the course of 90 minutes?

How many other British-based Irish players have helped their clubs win back-to-back league titles? Or been part of international squads for major tournaments? Or played in countries like Canada, Ukraine or India?

And having experienced all of these memories, today, at 12.30pm, O’Dea will line out for his last game as a professional footballer, as Dundee take on St Mirren — the same club he made his senior debut against.

At 32, O’Dea has decided to hang up his boots. The experienced defender believes he is still capable of playing at the level he is currently at for another few seasons at least. But now, another passion, coaching, is set to take priority in the Irish star’s life. It is a path he has been working towards for four years. O’Dea has completed his Uefa A license and spent the last few seasons coaching Dundee’s underage teams, in addition to captaining their senior side. After today, he will take up a full-time role in charge of Motherwell’s U18s side.

It has been a frustrating end to the former Ireland international’s playing career. Earlier this month, he was part of a Dundee side that lost 1-0 at home to Hamilton — the club’s 10th straight defeat and a result that confirmed their relegation from the Scottish Premiership.

Yet O’Dea says this unfortunate outcome had no bearing on the decision to retire and that he was planning on hanging up his boots at the end of the season regardless.

“It’s not a decision I’ve taken lightly. It’s something that has been on my mind for a long while now. I’m very clear in what I want to do. I’m comfortable with it.

My kids will come out onto the pitch with me [today], which is nice, because obviously my family has been a huge part of my life and my career. I’ve had a career that has spanned over three different continents. So to share the day with my family is important.”

Stepping off the pitch and onto the sidelines will not be especially easy, though O’Dea is adamant it is the correct call ultimately.

“It’s very hard to get your head round giving it up willingly. I know how fortunate I am to have made a career out of playing.

“I kept getting the same advice: ‘Play as long as you can.’ The only difficulty I had was settling in my mind that this was the right decision for me.”

Soccer - Celtic Training Session - Lennoxtown The late Celtic coach Tommy Burns had a big influence on O'Dea's career. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

It has been quite a journey for O’Dea, who started playing football for Granada in Deansgrange as a child. He came from a sporting family. Both his parents played basketball at a high level — his father represented Marian in the national league, while his mother even lined out for Ireland. He has cousins too who represented Westmeath in Gaelic football and one who spent time in France playing rugby, though interestingly enough, there is no soccer lineage that he knows of.

Around the age of 10, O’Dea joined renowned Dublin schoolboy side Home Farm. Even back then, he was having to make significant sacrifices as he attempted to give himself the best chance possible of a career in the game.

“It was on the other side of the city,” he recalls. “My mum would take me from school. I’d go straight to the train station. I’d go out by myself on the DART at 11 years old. I met my dad at Pearse Street. We’d walk from there to his car and go out in the traffic to Home Farm. I’d be getting in late at night. I did it three times a week. Twice for training and then playing. It was a fantastic upbringing at a brilliant club.”

In 2003, Celtic came calling. O’Dea was in his mid-teens at the time and moved over to Glasgow a year after completing his Junior Cert.

I didn’t get close to doing my Leaving Cert, so obviously it’s a massive and risky commitment to do that. It’s one that doesn’t pay off for every player, the majority probably. I would suggest trying to make a career in the League of Ireland and moving at 20 or 21 is more advisable. But listen, I can’t look back and say I’d change anything. It’s a decision that’s life-changing, and one you’re probably not ready to make at that stage. But I was one of the lucky ones that it worked out for.

“The thought of it was enjoyable and the buzz of signing for a club like Celtic, but it’s far too young to be leaving home. I was just lucky I had a support base with the coaches I had around me. My digs lady — I’m still in touch with her now. I met her a couple of weeks ago.”

It was telling that upon announcing his retirement, O’Dea singled out one individual in particular as having a major influence on his career — former Celtic player and coach Tommy Burns.

Not too long after O’Dea made his first-team breakthrough at Celtic, Burns tragically died of melanoma in 2008 at the age of 51. 

“I genuinely mean it when I say there’s a good chance I’d have never made a career in football if he hadn’t been in my life, never mind playing for Celtic,” he says.

“He was comforting at times, at times he was very tough, but he always knew how to get the best out of you and make you feel right. Even though he was one of the busiest guys at the club, he seemed to always have time for everyone. That was the mark of him. He’s someone I’d owe a large percentage of my career to and going into coaching, he’s someone who I look back on and think of, someone I’ll always carry with me.”  

Source: Troll Club/YouTube

O’Dea made considerable progress in his early days at Celtic and was handed a first-team debut against St Mirren in the Scottish League Cup in September 2006, when he was aged just 19.

“I remember the left-back, Lee Naylor, was struggling with an injury. I came in during the morning and did a gym session. I knew I’d be involved, but I thought I’d be on the bench at best. It went really well. I got my first start and we won 2-0. 

“Some players make their debut and drift. I probably kicked on after that. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I ended up working harder, if anything.”

While others were still ahead of him in the pecking order at Celtic, O’Dea was already a valued squad member. Six months after his debut, with some players unavailable, he was selected to start for the club’s two most important games of the season.

Having come through a group that included Man United, Benfica and Copenhagen, the Scottish champions faced a daunting fixture with AC Milan in the knockout stages, a side who reached the competition’s final and semi-finals in the previous two seasons.

The Serie A club had some of the best players in the world at the time — Paulo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf, Kaka, Filippo Inzaghi, Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso were among those to feature over the two legs. Brazil legend Cafu, meanwhile, was an unused sub. O’Dea was playing the matches mainly because first-choice centre-back Steven Pressley was cup-tied. Yet the youngster, who had only just turned 20, more than held his own.

The first leg ended scoreless, as did the first 90 minutes of the second leg at the San Siro, before Kaka’s 93rd minute goal broke Celtic hearts. Despite the disappointing outcome, it was a gallant effort from O’Dea and his team-mates, with that Milan side going on to beat Liverpool 2-1 in the final of the competition.

I probably had played 8-10 games before that. To play against AC Milan in the Champions League, I genuinely believe one of my biggest strengths as a player was my temperament and the strength of character I had. For a young lad to go into that environment was extremely difficult. It was something I relished and it stood me in good stead for the rest of my career. If you can play in front of 60,000 at Celtic Park and 65,000 in the San Siro, you’re probably going to be able to play in most environments. And the fact that I did well gave me a lot of confidence going forward.

“I was always a strange character in terms of nerves. I actually get more anxious before smaller games and games that were a little bit flat. I’ve been like that throughout my career — the bigger occasions I always seem to rise to and enjoy, and the more calm I got.

“I had fantastic players around me that helped me and a top manager [Gordon Strachan]. I was accepted massively by the Celtic fans because of maybe being a youth product and coming through the system. So I had a lot of support — that was a huge part of it.”

Soccer - npower Football League Championship - Ipswich Town v Nottingham Forest - Portman Road Darren O'Dea worked under Roy Keane at Ipswich. Source: Stephen Pond

Yet despite this extremely encouraging first season, O’Dea’s progress at Celtic slowed somewhat thereafter. After making 14 league appearances in his first campaign, he played six times the following season and on 10 occasions in 2008-09. 2009-10 was an improvement, as he lined out for 19 games, though it proved to be the last season he put on a Celtic shirt for a competitive fixture, as his frustration at the failure to become a regular with the Hoops grew.

“I’d look back and learn from decisions I made. But I’ve absolutely no regrets. A lot of the decisions I made, if I’d done it differently, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now in terms of coaching.

“I look back at the time I left Celtic, I was probably a bit impatient to be a regular first-team player. But then I think, would I have travelled around the world [if I stayed]?”

While still at Celtic, O’Dea had three stints on loan in the Championship at Reading, Ipswich and Leeds respectively. The player’s time with the Tractor Boys coincided with Roy Keane’s tenure as manager there, while he also trained with the Irish legend during the Corkonian’s brief end-of-career spell at Celtic.

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“He was someone I supported as a boy growing up at Man United and Ireland, and looked up to,” O’Dea explains. “He left halfway through the season [at Ipswich], which is not unusual in the Championship.

“If you’re giving 100% and you’re maxing out for him, you shouldn’t have an issue. 

I remember my wife was heavily pregnant and [Roy] was very accommodating with my family and understood [what it was like] being away from Glasgow. So I couldn’t say anything bad about him.”

It was in 2012 that O’Dea finally opted to leave Celtic permanently, after almost a decade representing the club at various levels. He was left underwhelmed by a couple of offers from Championship teams, and so opted for a less obvious path, joining Major League Soccer side Toronto FC, with whom he spent two seasons.

“It changed me as a person, going abroad, in how I saw not just football but life itself,” he says.

“Toronto was probably one of the happiest periods of my footballing life. It was a fantastic city with brilliant people. I’m actually going out on holiday there in the summer — I’m still very close to a lot of people out there.”

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Watford v Blackpool - Vicarage Road O'Dea pictured during his Blackpool days. Source: EMPICS Sport

O’Dea has less happy memories from his time at Metalurh Donetsk, the Ukrainian Premier League outfit he joined for the 2013-14 season.

“It was probably the toughest year of my life. But I learnt more that year about myself and football than I did in my whole career [elsewhere]. Different training methods, different styles of play. I played with eight Brazilians in the squad. There was a mixture of different nationalities around the world and I had to adapt to the different culture with Ukrainians and Russians, a tough living environment.  

“The Russian and Ukrainian people are very soldier-like. They take instructions very well and they don’t show emotion a lot of the time. They just get on with it. I questioned instructions all the time. I come from that environment, British football, where I showed all my emotion all the time.

“But I learned to adapt and understand that just because they weren’t showing emotion [doesn't mean] they weren’t feeling it.

I lived maybe 10 years in Britain whereas I was starting to see from Toronto to Ukraine and India after that there’s so many different ways of playing football. The biggest thing I took from it was understanding people are different. There wasn’t a right or wrong way to how you behaved or did things, whereas I had lived in a bubble with British football where you thought there was only one way to be and you had to show how much you were committed to everything by your facial expressions.

“But these guys were just as committed as anyone I’d seen. The Brazilians likewise. They get called ‘laidback’ sometimes, they’re far from it. They’re as hard-working as anyone.”

O’Dea spent just one season at the club. He intended to stick around for longer, having signed a three-year contract, but fate intervened. The War in Donbass broke out and the concerned player felt there was little choice but to depart the country.

“That was the reason I left. A civil war kicked off. The training ground essentially got overtaken by the Russian army. The whole state of Donestk was. We had to move out of Donetsk and play four hours from there. It was impossible to live in. I’m pretty sure within 18 months of me leaving, they merged with another club and essentially went out of business, because they couldn’t actually function. They were out of their own city.

“We would be advised at times there’d be protests and stuff and you’d read the next day that there had been fatalities. I was living right in the middle of that. So it wasn’t a great situation. But I was one of the lucky ones that can up sticks and leave. Obviously, the people of Ukraine had to stay and live in that, which is the saddest part.”

Imago 20150922 Nicolas Anelka was O'Dea's player-manager in Mumbai. Source: Imago/PA Images

O’Dea returned to the relative safety of England and signed a short-term deal with Championship outfit Blackpool in December 2014. The club was a mess and already looking likely to be relegated when he joined. The Irish defender made his debut amid a catastrophic 6-1 loss to Bournemouth. The situation did not improve greatly thereafter, as they finished bottom of the table and were relegated, with O’Dea making 20 appearances in total.

“Just as I left Ukraine, I broke my ankle — the biggest injury I had in my career. I did all my rehab at Celtic and needed a place to go play football. Blackpool afforded me a chance. It was always a stopgap.

“It was a club that was in turmoil at the time. It was the perfect fit for me. I needed somewhere to play. I did that, got fit and moved on.”

O’Dea’s next destination was another adventurous, left-field choice. Despite being linked with a return to Toronto, in the summer of 2015, he officially joined Indian side Mumbai City. As if the move itself was not extravagant enough, he was also managed by former Chelsea and Arsenal star Nicolas Anelka.

It was a bit strange, to be honest,” he says of the India move. “The set-up didn’t work for various different reasons. Nico is a nice guy who I got on well with and was obviously an unbelievable player, and still was even at his age out there.

“The manager situation for plenty of different political reasons didn’t work, but Mumbai was a fantastic place to go and experience. At times it was a bit of a surreal experience, but one I’m glad I had.”

The defender made just nine appearances for the club, despite having originally intended to be there for the long haul.

“The plan was always to go out, play in the Super League, make really good relationships in Mumbai and go back out. The league only ran for three months. I think it was September/October to December and then it wouldn’t start again until the following year. I went, came back, and that’s what brought me to Dundee. I went there in January, signed the contract until May. I was going to go back to India, but history will tell you I didn’t. I ended up really enjoying my time [at Dundee] for five months and signed a three-year contract after that.”

Having spent a number of years rarely staying longer than a season or two at a club, O’Dea finally found some stability with the Scottish Premiership outfit. He played four seasons at Dundee, his longest tenure at any team aside from Celtic, and was appointed club captain less than two years after joining.

“It’s been brilliant. Obviously, this season hasn’t gone well. But because I’m coming to the end, it’s a case of trying to enjoy the length of time I’ve been here rather than focusing on the last couple of months, which have been very tough. And to be honest, the reaction I’ve had from fans and people has been fantastic. I’ll enjoy [today] with my family. And I’m really looking forward to going into the next part of my life.”

Soccer - FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group C - Austria v Republic of Ireland - Ernst Happel Stadium Giovanni Trapattoni handed O'Dea his Ireland debut. Source: Mike Egerton

But for all the enjoyment he has taken from his club career, there is one experience that stands out above all else — representing his country.

“I wouldn’t swap anything for the caps I had for Ireland,” O’Dea adds. “It was the pinnacle, playing for your country and with a squad that qualified for the European Championships.”

Despite featuring over the course of the qualification campaign and being named Young International Player of the Year, O’Dea was an unused sub for all three Euro 2012 matches against Croatia, Spain and Italy. Nevertheless, he still has fond memories from this bittersweet era.

Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Shay Given were top players and great professionals to share a dressing room with. What people forget or often fail to mention is our group had Italy, Spain and Croatia. Italy and Spain were the two finalists [at Euro 2012]. Croatia had Modric, Mandzukic and Srna, a top team. If you were in a group with anyone of them and this is when Spain were world champions, we were going into it as serious underdogs.

“It was obviously still a real downer. The supporters that had come with us, as always, were brilliant. There were thousands of fans outside the hotel every day.

“I look back on it as an unbelievable time in my career and something I’m probably most proud of.”

Such experiences would not be possible if O’Dea’s discipline had been lacking at any stage. This quality is integral for footballers at the highest level, and the soon-to-be coach will be passing on that message to the Motherwell youngsters he is set to work with.

“It’s probably similar in life — if you’re attitude and commitment is 100%, you’ve got a chance. I look at myself and think of the career and level I played at and then look at my natural abilities as a footballer, which are probably limited. But with Celtic, I got educated in the right way and I maxed out. Every time I trained and played, I was constantly giving my all. That’s why I had a career, with limited resources.

“I look at young players now with fantastic ability, but if their attitude’s not right, they’ve no chance.”

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Andy Dunne look at Ireland’s past in Super Rugby, the creative shift needed in Irish rugby and Peter O’Mahony tells us about his love of gardening..:

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