The Weekly Read: 'Irish clubs should be beyond just getting a glamour tie' - Dundalk FC captain O'Donnell
DCU assistant manager and Dundalk FC captain Stephen O’Donnell on the Collingwood Cup, his youth abroad and July’s Champions League qualifiers
When not leading Dundalk's charge for a second SSE Airtricity League Premier Division title in a row, Lilywhites skipper Stephen O'Donnell works alongside Declan Roche in a coaching role at DCU and understands the benefits of college football to any young footballer.
Many players participating in the Collingwood Cup are, or will be, playing in the League of Ireland alongside O’Donnell in the future and the Galway native is adamant that the 'halfway house' of college football aids the transition between underage football and the League of Ireland.
''College football is like a good intermediate between underage and senior football. It’s a good stepping stone,'' he said.
DCU travelled to Galway in February for the Collingwood Cup, a competition for third-level colleges, where they were beaten 2-1 by hosts NUIG.
Despite the 'disappointing' first round exit, O’Donnell is confident that DCU’s young side will improve in the coming years and rectify their poor record in third-level football.
''There should be good times ahead with that group of players. A lot of our best players are first years – I’ll be disappointed in the next couple of years if we don’t go very close. UCC won the final and I’d like to think we’re as good as them; they were a little older.''
The FAI recently revealed their plans for a national U17 league commencing next September with the objective of creating a clear pathway for young players who don’t go to English academies to still play at the highest level.
O’Donnell was one of many teenagers who left school to pursue a career in football abroad and upon reflecting on his decision to quit school at the age of 16, the midfielder rues being lured to Arsenal at such a young age.
''If I had the choice again, all things being equal, I probably wouldn’t have went (to Arsenal). I would have done my Leaving Cert and joined a team in Ireland. I wasn’t really mature enough or ready enough to go over. Definitely if I had the chance again I’d stay at home.
''If you’re a good young player and you force your way into a League of Ireland team at 18 or so it won’t be long before you end up over in England.''
After departing Arsenal in search of first team opportunities, the Galway man established himself at Falkirk before returning to Ireland to join Bohemians in 2007.
''I wasn’t really happy with the position I was playing in at Falkirk, they offered me a new deal but I wanted to play more centrally; I was on the left side. I left Falkirk thinking I’d get something else in England, but nothing ever materialised, I wanted to get back playing and ended up joining Bohs and haven’t left Ireland since.''
The 29-year-old scored one of Irish football’s most historic penalties to send Shamrock Rovers through to the Europa League group stages and will attempt to do the same again with Dundalk in July. He’s optimistic about his side’s chances in the Champions League qualifiers, but is aware of the potential for a difficult draw.
''It all depends on the draw. They are all going to be tough games,'' he said.
Dundalk will be unseeded and may face as stern a test as a trip to Scotland to play Celtic, but they may also draw Welsh minnows, TNS, which would constitute a considerably easier challenge. O’Donnell, however, has no desire for a glamour tie and is concerned only with progression to the third qualifying round.
''We’re aiming above just turning up, we want to go as far as we can and we’re well equipped to do that. We beat Hajduk Split away last year and if the game had gone on another 10 minutes we would have progressed. Dnipro beat them by the odd goal and now they’re in the final. You never know what can happen in football on any given night.
''We’re a good young team and we’re fit and enthusiastic. It was most lads’ first experience of playing in Europe last year so I think that’ll bring them on a lot.
"Irish clubs should be beyond just getting a glamour tie and then going out, we’re looking for bigger things."
O’Donnell’s ambitions reflect a widespread change in attitude of the League’s European representatives in the last decade.
Where previously Irish clubs harboured little belief in progress and viewed Europe as a holiday they now not only realise that they are capable of progress, but also understand the financial implications of success.