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O'Dea is on the glory trail

BACK IN the Celtic side with the captain's armband around his arm -- and that's where Ireland international Darren O'Dea intends to stay for the rest of the season.

Earlier this season the 22-year-old returned to Parkhead after a disappointing loan spell with English second-tier side Reading -- the Royals managed just one win and conceded 15 goals, in O'Dea's eight-game stay at the club.

But the former Home Farm player has been restored to the Celtic side by boss Tony Mowbray for the last three games and was captain for the last two, and he's likely to start again in central defence tonight as the Bhoys take on Hibernian, hoping to cut the seven-point lead held by table-toppers Rangers, who are themselves in action away to St Mirren.

Hibs at Parkhead tonight is the next challenge, and the fact that Celtic's website was yesterday trying to flog tickets for a game which would usually be a sell-out underlines some of the frustration felt by Celtic fans as they watched their team fall seven points behind major rivals Rangers.

For O'Dea, the challenge is to prove that he's good enough to stay in the side.

"It's good to be back at Celtic and back in the team," says O'Dea. "When I was down at Reading I missed the intensity of it all, because playing for a club like Reading is different to life at a place like Celtic. It was good for me to get some games in with Reading but Celtic is the club I want to play for and the place I want to succeed, so I am happy to be back and in the team.

"Now my aim is to stay in the team and help the team win back the league title here. I have played in the last three games and been captain as well, that's a massive honour for me. When you see the legends who have been Celtic captain in the past, and there I am with the armband, it makes me very proud and makes me even more determined to succeed and prove to everyone that I deserve to be here.

"I spoke to Tony Mowbray when I came back from Reading a few weeks ago and he just said to get my head down and show him that I should be in the team," added O'Dea, who managed just three Celtic appearances in the first part of the season before being sent on loan to Reading.

"He has said that the best players will play; there are no favourites or agendas in his mind; he'll pick the strongest XI every week. Now I know that it's up to me to show I should be in there.



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"I have to work hard in every game and in training every day to prove that I should be in the starting 11. As far as I am concerned I am here to stay for the season, there are no more loans planned, from what I know.

"I am in the team now, striving to stay in it and do as well as I can."

O'Dea struggled to get a game under old boss Gordon Strachan but may get more opportunities under Mowbray. "Maybe it's a case of a fresh start under the manager as he's only been here since the summer," says O'Dea.

"I am also a bit older now than when Strachan was here. I have played around 60 games for Celtic now and almost all of them were under Strachan, so I owe him a lot, he was the one who brought me through and he did more for me than any other coach. He really developed me as a player. I didn't get as many games as I'd have liked under him but he did help my career a lot."

Things are going well enough at Celtic now as the Bhoys are unbeaten in the three games since his return to the side, but O'Dea's time at the Madejski Stadium was not a successful one for the Championship club. Yet the Irish defender says he benefited from it.

"I am glad I went to Reading and I learned a lot about the game in the time I was there," he says.

"Brendan Rogers was a great manager and a good bloke, but there are other people at the club who were bringing it down. Brendan was one of the good things about the club and I owe him a lot, it's just a pity that other people at the club were not helping, and I think Reading, as a club, will struggle until those people are gone. As a coach and a manager, Brendan taught me a lot and I still have a lot of time for him.

"I was moved around a bit when I was at Reading, I played centre-half and full-back. I had no problem with that, Reading had a few injuries and they needed people to fill in, so it wasn't a problem to play left back or right back.

"It was a good experience for me just to try something different. I've been at Celtic since I was 15 years old. I was 18 or 19 when I made my debut. I have been at the club all along and didn't have loan spells when I was younger, before I went to Reading.

"So to get out and go somewhere else, somewhere away from the goldfish bowl of life at Celtic, was good for me. I played eight games against good opposition and good players, maybe it should have gone better than it did, but I picked up a lot of experience there. I improved from working there."

Tonight's game at Parkhead has added spice for O'Dea as he knows some of the Hibs side very well. Anthony Stokes, who has scored 13 goals for the Edinburgh club, was in the Irish U21 side with O'Dea, while in-form midfielder Liam Miller -- reckoned to be one of the best midfielders in the SPL this season, with hints of transfer bids from bigger clubs -- was an old team-mate in the early days at Celtic.

"Stokesy is a good mate of mine and I'm delighted to see him do well with Hibs this season. Sunderland didn't work out as well as he'd hoped, but he has turned things around at Hibs and he's one of the best strikers in the SPL now," says O'Dea.

"Liam was in flying form at Celtic just as I was coming into the club. He's been very good for them (Hibs) in midfield this season and Liam is one we'll really have to watch tonight."

Defence has been a worry for some Celtic fans this season as injuries and frequent changes have made the backline look a bit leaky.

"Celtic have let in a lot of goals this season: 21 goals conceded in 20 games is a lot for a club like this, so it is a concern. But the only stats that count at the end of the season are the league standings. If we have let in 150 goals but still won the league, that's all that counts. I'm confident we can go on a good run now, keep things very tight at the back and put Rangers under some real pressure in the next few games," adds O'Dea.

"Both of the Old Firm have dropped points this season but I think that's a credit to the other teams. The likes of Hibs and Dundee United especially have done well against the two of us.

"We have a very tough time ahead. We have two games a week for the next four weeks, so the next month will have a big say in who comes out on top in Scotland this season."

O'Dea also has an international dimension to his ambitions now, having finally made his senior Ireland debut as a sub for Paul McShane in last year's friendly win over South Africa.

"I have said all along it's hard for someone like me to talk about international football when I'm not in the first-team at my club, but if I get a run of games at a club like Celtic I'll get noticed, and things could take off then," he says.

"For now, my mind is on playing well for Celtic and keeping my place in the team. If the management team think I am good enough they'll pick me, I can't do any more than that," concludes O'Dea.


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