That's the dream
As extra-time began in the fiercely contested League Cup Final of 2009 between Celtic and Rangers, the chap beside me in the Celtic end of Hampden muttered, ‘First goal is vital, if we get it we’ll win this.’ No sooner had he spoken those words when Shunsuke Nakamura curled a free kick into the crowded Rangers penalty box. A player in green and white met it with his head and the ball, a white blur, flew perfectly over the head of Alan McGregor and into the net. The 26,000 Celtic fans filling one half of Hampden erupted and as we went slightly mad in the Celtic end I recall shouting, ‘Who scored? Who got it?’ I soon found out when those around me began to praise young Celtic centre back Darren O’Dea. It’s history now that Aidan McGeady’s late penalty made it 2-0 in the dying seconds but it was O’Dea’s goal which knocked the stuffing out of Rangers who rarely threatened after that. It was for some, his finest moment in a Celtic shirt.
Darren’s career has taken him all over the world. He has played for Celtic, Reading, Leeds, Blackpool, Ipswich, Toronto, Metalurh Donetsk (Eastern Ukraine) and most recently for Mumbai City in India. The modern footballer has to go where the game leads him but I think this particular player would remember his years at Celtic most fondly. He was and remains a Celtic fan and lived the dream that many of us who love the hoops would give much for. Darren’s experiences during his time in Glasgow both on and off the field demonstrate the level of pressure Celtic players live under. I spoke to him recently and he kindly agreed to talk to me about his career and the characters who helped him become a Celtic player and indeed an international player with Ireland. We started at the beginning…
Tirnaog: You grew up in Dublin, what was your childhood like there and were you always into football as opposed to rugby or GAA games?
Darren O’Dea: ‘I had a great childhood. I was hyper active as a kid and would never be in the house, always out on the street playing football or getting up to mischief. I never had any grass to play on so all my football was played on the street. As I grew older I became more and more obsessed with football. A lot of times I’d be out alone and would be playing by myself just kicking a ball against a wall. I remember one of my friends parents’ calling round to my house to ask my parents would I stop calling for my mate to come out and have a kick about. It was at the time of exams so studying was important to the parent but for me, I was always out and never indoors. Me and my mates played against other "estates"... I think this toughened me up as we'd play against older boys at times and 9 times out of 10 a fight would kick off. I remember when I was about 12 my dad shouted me to come back to the house. There was 3 parents there complaining I'd given their boys a "doing" earlier on during a match we had. My dad was obviously ready to give me into trouble then realised that the boys were all 13/14 and there was 3 of them against me. I don't have brothers or sisters so I never had anyone else to back me up. And I think that stood me well in my life... I was always asked to play GAA and did so in school and was then asked repeatedly to go play for a team called Kilmacud Crokes. My mum wanted me to play GAA as the players are so well respected in Ireland she thought it would help with getting a good job. Obviously to become a professional footballer was a dream many boys have so GAA probably seemed more realistic to her but I never ended up playing GAA other than when I was in school.’
Tirnaog: Cherry Orchard FC are known for producing good young players in the Dublin area and guys like Willow Flood and John Daly came through their ranks. What was your route into the professional game?
Darren O’Dea: ‘Yeh, Cherry Orchard are a fantastic club but I came from Home Farm which I'd say is arguably regarded as the best schoolboy club in Dublin if not Ireland. It was based on the opposite side of the city to me and twice a week I'd take a train into the city to meet my dad after his work and then He'd drive me to training from there.... I went on many trials with different clubs in England but on a pre-season tour with home farm we went to Scotland. There was a 4 team tournament in Largs with us, Celtic, Preston and a team from Newcastle (Wallsend possibly).... I played against Celtic and we beat them 2-0 and I bagged the 2 goals. It was after this I got invited over to the UEFA cup match against Blackburn and as we say the rest is history.’
Tirnaog: You arrived in Glasgow as a 15 year old. How much of a culture shock was that to you and how did you cope?
Darren O’Dea: ‘Truthfully after my first 6 months I wanted to chuck it. This might sound very arrogant but I hated the matches we played in. We'd win 5 or 6 nil every match and it was no challenge. But the biggest struggle I had was just being away from home. This is when Tommy Burns became so pivotal in my life. He was obviously the guy who signed me but when I was young and struggling he was a guy that could lift you with just a 2 minute conversation. I remember speaking to my dad saying I wanted to leave and as far as I'm aware he rang Tommy to tell him. That night tommy was around my digs. He never mentioned he'd been speaking to my dad. He just came for a chat. By the time he'd left I was focused and ready to go again. Without him I wouldn't have got through the first couple of years there.’
Tirnaog: You played in the Celtic youth and Academy sides. Who were your contemporaries in those sides and how do you rate the football education you received at Celtic?
Darren O’Dea: I played with people like Simon Ferry, Paul McGowan, Rocco Quinn, Aiden McGeady, Charlie Mulgrew. There is plenty more that have made good careers as well. We played against the likes of Charlie Adam, Stephen Naismith, Ross McCormack and Lee Wallace. The education we had was first class. A lot changed the year I arrived. Tommy upgraded the youth side of things and we had the best of care. We were monitored scientifically in every training session and it was great, tough work but great. Also the education I received in how to become a good person was the most important. You have to remember at 15-19 you should be at home learning these things from your parents but at Celtic we were taught right, taught to have respect for everyone. Whether that’s when you’re playing, training or just waking down the street, you've a heavy responsibility of representing a club of Celtic’s stature. Obviously at times you'd do the wrong thing and would be told in no uncertain terms what was expected from you.’
Tirnaog: Your respect and affection for Tommy Burns is well known. What were the qualities which made this Celtic legend so special to you?
Darren O’Dea: I've covered this in one of the last questions. But if you ask anyone who really knew him one of his main qualities was whether you were a first team player, youth team player or canteen staff he could make you feel like the best person in the world. He had time for everyone! (Possibly why his time keeping was horrific)... He just had a great way about him. I always thought I was Tommy’s favourite. That he looked after me a little more than others but I guarantee if you ask any other player they'd say the same. He made you feel like the number one. Just a true legend!
Tirnaog: You played in Cup Finals, Old Firm games and Champions League matches for Celtic. What are your happiest memories of those times at Celtic Park?
Darren O’Dea: ‘My happiest memories are obviously the cup final I scored in against Rangers, my debut against St. Mirren in the cup and my league debut away at Dunfermline. There was also my Champions League debut at Copenhagen. This might sound clichéd but every time I played regardless of results was special. I knew through my knowledge and then my education that to be a Celtic player was special. I look round the world and I think Man Utd is like that. Real Madrid, Barcelona. and Liverpool too and when you represent those teams it's different. You’re special and I knew that. They are the teams with the long histories and great traditions. Celtic is certainly one of them.
Tirnaog: Who were your toughest opponents in Scotland ?
Darren O’Dea: ‘As a team- obviously Rangers. That rivalry was fantastic. I loved it. You'd say as a player we just concentrate on ourselves but it was a lie with Celtic and Rangers. Rarely we'd kick off at the same time so you'd always either know there result or know you had to win to put the pressure on them. It was something I loved. Despite some of the nonsense you get between the fans, it was actually a fantastic rivalry. I enjoyed it. I won some and lost some but the memories from that gave me a buzz that's hard to replicate elsewhere.’
Tirnaog: Living in Glasgow’s goldfish bowl is always tough on players at Celtic or Rangers. How did this impact on your day to day life in the city?
Darren O’Dea: It affected my life completely. I broke into the first team at 18/19 and at that age you’re still young and carefree. I'd go out regularly after games for a few drinks and a night out. And I'd regularly have some sort of abuse thrown at me. It became normal almost. I once was walking into a shop on Buchanan Street when 2 lads started shouting stuff at me. I was with my now wife who got a bit of a fright. I confronted them and warned them if they had anything to say, to say it to my face. When I turned my back to go back inside the shop they shouted abuse again and sprinted off up the street. Now bear in mind these were probably 30year olds. I was 20. So you become a little paranoid, always wondering if the guy staring at you is thinking "Aww there’s O'Dea the Celtic player" or "There's that O'Dea, the Fenian bastard!" (Haha!) But that was the life and I can't say I didn't enjoy some of it. It was part of it all. Obviously, one scrape I got into during a night out was well published in the media. What was meant to be a nice team dinner and night out ended up with me in the Jail. It was 21. All part of growing up and growing up as a person was obviously difficult at Celtic when you’re under a microscope. Once my wife became pregnant I stopped going out. I knew my own character. I'm a lad that can't walk away. I was always advised "just walk away, you have more to lose"... Well my personality doesn't allow me to do that. I'm very confrontational if someone comes at me and I fight fire with fire. But I'm smart enough to know that, so I stopped going out. I knew I couldn't be a dad and be getting into scrapes and the like. I live in Glasgow and I could count on one hand how many times I've been out in the last 5 years in Glasgow.’
Tirnaog: You played for FC Metalurh Donetsk in the troubled eastern part of Ukraine. How did you find life there and was it a tense time?
Darren O’Dea: ‘It was a new experience, completely different type of football, different culture and just an all-round good experience. Obviously with the troubles it was hard at times but it's an experience I'll never forget and learned so much from and I'm delighted to say I have done it.’
Tirnaog: You have represented Ireland at under-17, under-19 and full international level. What does it mean to you to play for your country?
Darren O’Dea: ‘I think to anyone who knew me as a Celtic player knew how much it meant to me and that I always gave absolutely everything I had in every minute I played but playing for Ireland was even bigger than that for me. That was the dream. To represent your own country is something that makes me prouder than anything else I've done in football. I have 20 caps and every one of them is special. It makes me proud. I don't think there is a bigger honour than representing your country.’
Darren O’Dea is still a young man at 28 but has packed much into his football career. Representing Celtic and of course, his beloved Ireland, remain for him the high points. That ‘confrontational’ personality developed in those rough street games of his boyhood in Dublin may well have helped forge him into the determined player he became and few of us who saw him wear the hoops ever doubted his commitment or courage. You got 100% from Darren and we Celtic supporters respect that in any player who represents our club. He learned much from his great friend and mentor Tommy Burns about being a player and being a decent man. Tommy cherished Celtic and its ideals and he’d be proud that so many who knew him personally and professionally still strive to live up to them. Darren O’Dea gave his all for the club every time he stepped onto the field and still holds Celtic in his affections.
We wish him well in all he does in the future and know he’ll face whatever life throws at him with the same determination he showed to get on the end of Nakamura’s free kick at Hampden in 2009. Once you’re a Celt, you’re always a Celt.
Hail Hail, big man. Tommy would be proud of you.