'I probably wasn’t mature enough to go over to England at 15'

Stephen O’Donnell chats to The42 about his early days at Arsenal and his development into one of the League of Ireland’s best players.

Stephen O'Donnell has become a key player for Dundalk in recent seasons.
Stephen O'Donnell has become a key player for Dundalk in recent seasons.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated at 17.26

DURING A RECENT interview with The42, Shamrock Rovers legend and outgoing Bray Wanderers boss Harry Kenny was asked to name a modern player that reminded him of his former team-mate John Giles.

Kenny, of course, was quick to point out that no Irish player was currently at the level of Giles, but there was one player he identified that shared some comparable traits — Stephen O’Donnell — who similarly to the Leeds legend likes to play the ball to feet and try to dictate games.

That gives a sense of the respect with which the Dundalk star is held in the league. Few current Premier Division players have achieved more than the 31-year-old midfielder, who has five league titles with three different clubs, in addition to two appearances in the PFAI Premier Division Team of the Year.

But having won three titles on the bounce with the Lilywhites, 2017 was a rare disappointing campaign by their high standards.

In the second half of the season, they were the league’s form team, but it counted for little, as the significant lead Cork City had established at the top of the table proved insurmountable, while Dundalk were also pipped on penalties by their arch rivals in the 2017 FAI Cup final.

A couple of factors were key in denying Stephen Kenny’s side their fourth consecutive league title. The incredible form of Cork and in particular, Sean Maguire, at the start of the season. The loss of key players Andy Boyle, Daryl Horgan and Ronan Finn, coupled with the inevitable time it took for new recruits to adapt. And of course, the fact that the 2016 season involved an intense schedule that saw them play their last Europa League game in December.

O’Donnell is particularly rueful when reflecting on the cup final, with a penalty shootout effectively deciding whether 2017 would be remembered as a good or bad season.

It was a game we probably dominated possession-wise from the second half onwards, but you lose the penalty shootout and whole narrative changes,” he tells The42.

The game had an element of spice owing to a series of provocative pre-match comments. Stephen Kenny, for instance, was not impressed with Mark McNulty’s infamous ‘F*** the Lilywhites’ chant in the build-up. Meanwhile, O’Donnell himself was a talking point, with some debate over whether a Cork player or supporters rang him up to taunt the midfielder following the Leesiders’ 2016 victory at the Aviva, with John Caulfield vehemently denying that his players would act in this manner.

O’Donnell is similarly dismissive, saying that he ignored all this noise and treated the match like a “normal game”.

“There was a lot of chatter, but it doesn’t really matter when the whistle blows,” he adds.

O’Donnell has cherished these last few weeks, spending some time in America as he recuperates from another long, hard season.

Dane Massey and Kieran Sadlier Dundalk's Dane Massey and Kieran Sadlier of Cork City during the 2017 FAI Cup final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Already though, with the fixture list announced last Tuesday, and the first game set to take place in February, the Dundalk captain is starting to prepare for another grueling campaign.

“In the last week or 10 days, everyone’s been back trying to get into a bit of shape, and you need to be at a certain level these days going back into pre-season, whereas years ago, you’d probably just do nothing over the off-season.”

O’Donnell has been adhering to variations of this routine since his teenage years. He grew up in Galway, with GAA and soccer two big passions.

“I played soccer, but Gaelic would probably be my number one sport in the sense of I love watching it,” he recalls.

“But from an early age, once I thought I was decent, soccer did take preference.”

A standout talent from an early age, O’Donnell was offered the chance to join Dublin schoolboy team Belvedere as an 11-year-old, but the thought of travelling up to the capital every weekend was off-putting.

Eventually, it was while playing in renowned schoolboy competition, the Kennedy Cup, that he caught the attention of scouts.

Back then, if there was a good player anywhere around the country, word would spread fairly quickly.”

O’Donnell would subsequently go on to play in Ireland underage sides alongside notable names, including Darren Randolph, Aiden McGeady, Darron Gibson, Paul McShane, Andy Keogh, Leon Best, Joey O’Brien and Stephen Ireland.

The youngster moved over to England as a 15-year-old and joined the prestigious youth set-up at Arsenal — a decision he ultimately came to regret.

“It all depends on the individual. You can get some mature 15-year-olds that are going over to get away,” he says.

“They could go down the wrong side of the tracks if they stayed at home in whatever neighbourhood or wherever they’re living. It could be the best thing that ever happened.

I probably wasn’t mature enough to go over to England at 15 and grasp what it was all about, what it took to be a professional.

“Your athletic shape and size, you are going to be totally different as a 19 or 20-year-old to when you went over as a 15-year-old. So it’s a bit of a lottery. You can never sign a 15-year-old, bar an exceptional talent.

“He could be a tall 15-year-old and small in first-team when you really need to make it and vice versa. So it’s very hard to tell at 15 if a player’s going to make it — it’s far too much of a gamble to take with players education-wise, to leave all that, throw all your eggs in one basket, go over to England on a wing and a prayer as such.

The pathways at the time probably weren’t there (when I was growing up) for young Irish lads to stay in Ireland. Going down the route of getting an education with a League of Ireland club, maybe getting into the first team in the League of Ireland at 18, 19. If you’re good enough then, it won’t be long before people realise it and take a chance on you, whereas now, you have the 15s, 17s and 19s, then the League of Ireland.

“I think it’s a far better pathways for kids. You look at the ratio of lads going over from the League of Ireland playing first team (in England), most of them succeed. The captain of the Irish national team, Seamie Coleman, being the prime example. How many lads in that Ireland squad now have played in the League of Ireland? James McClean, these types of lads.

“If I had a child, that’s definitely what I’d be doing (keeping them in Ireland). Other lads, maybe their hands are forced with their upbringing.”

Seamus Coleman Seamus Coleman is one of a number of high-profile League of Ireland graduates. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Despite these regrets, O’Donnell did take plenty of positives from his two-and-a-half year stint in London, particularly as he arrived at the club during a time when it was flourishing.

“The training facilities were unbelievable — the pitches and the coaching, how you’re taught to play football. We were over there in the time of ‘The Invincibles’.

“So you got to see a home game every second week. You got to see one of the best Premier League teams ever and one of the best teams in Europe, the best players in the world playing every second week, so that was great.

“But I probably wasn’t mature enough or smart enough to grasp it at the time, to give it your best shot and be as dedicated as you should. It’s something I wish I had back then, but everyone’s different and I suppose everything happens for a reason.

I wouldn’t have made that Arsenal team but I’m saying it (in relation to) a bigger career elsewhere. They’re the things you need to be doing.”

After Arsenal, a 19-year-old O’Donnell spent two years playing for Falkirk in the Scottish Premier League — a time he looks back on with mixed emotions.

“(You’d be) playing first-team football and going to Ibrox, Celtic Park, Tynecastle, Easter Road, Pittodrie, all these places.

“The league would have been strong — the Hearts team with (Rudi) Skacel, Paul Hartley and Steven Pressley, and the Hibs team: Steven Whittaker, Kevin Thomson, Gary O’Connor, Derek Riordan, all these players who went on to play for the Old Firm or in the Premier League in England.

“It was a good learning experience. We played with a diamond and I was left of the diamond and found myself out on the left-wing a lot of the time. I wanted to play centrally so that’s what ended my time there (in 2007). But it was great playing in their stadiums with top players.”

Having played in both, O’Donnell believes there is still a gap in quality between the Irish and Scottish top flight.

It’s easy for people to say the Scottish league is rubbish, but on the whole, facilities-wise and all that, there is a big enough gap still, albeit our top teams would definitely compete against the middle-of-the-road to bottom Scottish teams. As a league as a whole, facilities and strength-wise, you’d have to say that the SPL is still a fair bit ahead of the Irish league, there’s no doubt about that.

“You can see that with David McMillan, one of the top players in our league, joining St Johnstone. You still get to play in top stadiums like Ibrox and Celtic Park. The strength and depth of the league is far stronger than the League of Ireland.”

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Soccer - Bank of Scotland Premier League - Rangers v Falkirk - Ibrox Stadium Falkirk's Stephen O'Donnell (left) takes the ball away from Rangers' Nacho Novo during the Bank of Scotland Premier League match at Ibrox. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

That said, O’Donnell feels the gap is narrowing and that the League of Ireland’s standard has improved considerably over the past five years.

“The first place you start is fitness-wise. A really professional environment has taken over the league. That wasn’t there before. Even in the off-season, you’re expected to come back to pre-season in good shape, which wasn’t there before, truth be told.

“There are lads that are far stronger, fitter and quicker now. You can see with what Dundalk did in Europe and the way we played, the last 20 minutes of a European game. We weren’t tiring at all because of a lack of fitness.

We’re as fit as the top teams we were playing. Definitely in recent times, there has been a big improvement in terms of fitness and athleticism and professionalism.”

After returning to Ireland, O’Donnell gradually established himself as one of the league’s top players. He enjoyed year-long stints with Bohemians, Cork, Galway and Shamrock Rovers, before signing for current club Dundalk in 2013.

The Galwegian enjoyed relatively swift domestic success, winning a league title with Bohs in 2008. He then repeated the feat during a short stint at Shamrock Rovers in 2011, before going to enjoy well-documented success with the Lilywhites.

Of Irish club football’s two biggest achievements in Europe over the past decade, O’Donnell has been integral to both. He scored the winning goal from the spot against Partizan Belgrade, as Shamrock Rovers became the first Irish team to qualify for the Europa League group stages. He also captained the Dundalk side that went on a historic Europa League run in 2016.

Because we were the first team ever to do it with Rovers, that was our objective achieved — the rest was a bonus in the group stages.

“The mentality was different in Dundalk, especially after the performance against BATE, beating them 3-0.

“We weren’t really outclassed against (Legia) Warsaw (in the Champions League qualifiers that year), so we knew we could be competitive with whatever group we were in.

“With Dundalk, we were in the group to compete.”

Stephen Kenny Stephen Kenny helped guide Dundalk to three successive league titles. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It was a journey that O’Donnell could scarcely have imagined when he signed up for the club in 2013. At that point, Dundalk had not won the Premier Division title since the 1994-95 season, yet they were about to undergo a seismic shift under the management of Stephen Kenny.

When I joined, the manager was only after taking over. The first game of the season you hadn’t a clue what was going to happen, whether we’d be mid table or fighting relegation. We ended that season coming second, which was an unbelievable achievement considering we were just thrown together on a small budget.

“Gradually, we knew we had the base of a good team and if we could add a couple of quality players in the off-season, which we did, we knew we’d be competitive again, so we went on and won that league and won the next two.

“But I’d be lying if I said I knew it was going to happen.”

O’Donnell adds that being the first League of Ireland side to fully embrace strength and conditioning was key to the Lilywhites’ success.

“We got coached early enough about being the fittest team, everyone bought into that — that was a massive advantage for the first couple of seasons, being the strongest and fittest team.

I think it might have encouraged other clubs and realised what Dundalk were doing. They’ve also put an extra onus now on the strength and conditioning.

“It’s brought up the whole league — everyone’s wanting to match each other — so it’s bringing up the standards year on year.”

Consequently, with every Premier Division team seemingly having caught up with their innovative preparatory methods, regaining the league title in 2018 might just be the biggest challenge yet for O’Donnell and co.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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