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Friday 23 March 2018

O'Dea rises above Celtic's calamities

One Irishman has been a bright spot in Celtic's dark season, says Peter Geoghegan

Q ueen Elizabeth famously described 1992 as her annus horribilis. Celtic and the British monarch have never had much in common, but this has certainly been as horrible a season as any in the Glasgow club's illustrious history.

Out of Europe before Christmas; powerless to prevent Rangers running away with the Scottish Premier League; thrashed 4-0 by lowly St Mirren; unceremoniously dumped out of the Scottish Cup by second division Ross County . . . Tony Mowbray's revolution cost him his job and the Parkhead board a reported £40m.

But, if there is one positive to be drawn from a season to forget, it's the form of Irishman Darren O'Dea. While all about him have lost their collective heads, the 23-year-old Dubliner has established himself as first-choice centre-half, winning plaudits and even captaining the side following the departure of Stephen McManus.

Having joined from Home Farm at the age of 15, the tall, broad-shouldered O'Dea has literally grown up at Celtic. During his formative years he watched first hand as initially Martin O'Neill and then Gordon Strachan led the Bhoys to a succession of silverware and, in the former's case, within a whisker of the UEFA Cup.

"Winning today is what counts at Celtic, nothing else. You've got to come in and be successful from the start, otherwise you're gone," O'Dea says, a photograph of former centre-half Bobo Balde lifting the SPL trophy framed on the wall behind him.

O'Dea knows better than most the vertiginous standards expected of a Celtic player. Having first come to prominence with a stellar display during the away leg of the club's last 16 Champions League tie with AC Milan in 2007 -- after which none other than Paolo Maldini praised the youngster's performance -- he subsequently found first-team opportunities at Parkhead hard to come by.

Despite scoring in the 2009 League Cup victory over arch rivals Rangers, O'Dea started the current season on loan south of the border with a then-struggling Reading. "It was my decision to go out on loan. I argued for the move, and many people here didn't want me to go."

O'Dea, who has lost none of his Dublin accent, speaks slowly and with no little consideration as he recounts the difficulties of breaking into the Celtic first-team. "I was always treated as a young lad at Celtic, which was fine when I was 19 or 20 but I was 22, not a kid anymore. I knew I needed to get away from here so people could really see me properly."

The loan move paid immediate dividends; while Celtic struggled to adjust to life under Mowbray, O'Dea was garnering valuable first-team experience. By the time the Irishman returned from Reading at the turn of the year, many former team-mates had been moved on, the bulk following Strachan to Middlesbrough, and O'Dea found himself playing regularly for the first time in his Celtic career.

Already a full international -- he won his first, and so far only, cap against South Africa back in September -- O'Dea is diplomatic about his future Ireland prospects, preferring to concentrate on his club football. To his credit, he doesn't flinch when asked about last month's ignominious 4-0 reverse at relegation-threatened St Mirren, Celtic's heaviest defeat outside the Old Firm in 30 years.

"That was . . . embarrassing, just awful," his head shaking as he struggles for fitting adjectives to describe the torrid night in Paisley that cost Mowbray his job. "That game will live with all of us for the rest of our lives and rightly so -- it's just not acceptable at a club like Celtic."

It's a bright, warm Friday afternoon in the east end of Glasgow and outside Celtic Park is a hive of activity, buzzing with autograph hunters and camera-happy tourists straining to get a glimpse of Hoops' stars such as Robbie Keane and

Aiden McGeady. But, O'Dea explains, the atmosphere at the ground after the St Mirren game was very different. "When the first team bus arrived back that night, lots of fans were waiting for us. They gave us a piece of their minds -- which they had every right to do."

O'Dea speaks with affection for his former boss but feels Mowbray's departure was inevitable. "I can't say I was surprised to see it happen, but we all played our part in (the sacking). We weren't good enough and in the end that cost the manager his job." The Irish international's on-field performances may have won him many admirers, but this season O'Dea has had to contend with making the front as well as the back pages.

In February, one Scottish tabloid ran a story alleging that a Glasgow drug baron threatened to blow his kneecaps off following an altercation in a city centre nightclub. "It was absolutely nothing. The guy was kicked out of the club and about five minutes later I left. Next thing you know it was all over the press. I don't go out in Glasgow anymore, though. It's just too much hassle."

In the meantime, he thinks interim boss Neil Lennon has what it takes to turn things around. "I'd like him to stay on. He's worked with great managers -- Martin O'Neill, Gordon Strachan -- and he brings that determination, that will to win with him."

Whether Lennon survives Celtic's tempestuous season remains to be seen. But while Keane and a host of misfiring signings seem certain to leave Celtic Park during the summer, Darren O'Dea is one man with a bright Parkhead future ahead of him. Perhaps it hasn't been such a horrible year for Celtic after all.

Dundee United v Celtic

Sky Sports 3, 12.15

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