o'DEA: i know i have talent to be a euro star
AT 25 he is no spring chicken, and he admits that his selection as Ireland's young player of the year for 2011 at such an age was a tad strange.
But Darren O'Dea feels that he is only now really starting to deliver on the potential that he showed when breaking into the first-team at Celtic when just a teenager.
That form is coming just at the right time with club and country, as Leeds United boss Neil Warnock is a big fan of the Dubliner, while O'Dea is firmly ensconced in the Ireland squad and is seen as next in line for a central defensive berth should Richard Dunne or Sean St Ledger be injured. Barring injury, O'Dea is certain to make it into the 23-man squad for the Euro 2012 finals.
Just like Dunne and his painful clash with the running track in Moscow last year, O'Dea is willing to shed blood for the cause, as he took a blow to the head while in action for Leeds against Middlesbrough last week, causing his manager to remark, "I love to see a bit of blood on a centre-half's head".
O'Dea smiles at the reference to his head wound, but there's a lot to smile about these days. "I got an elbow to the head, I had a gash and came off to get my head strapped up in that game and the manager was cheering me, he was happy to see the effort I'd put in," O'Dea says.
It may have taken a while -- he made his Champions League debut for Celtic way back in 2006 -- but O'Dea, on a season-long loan deal from Celtic to Leeds, is now having his best run of form.
"Over the last three or four years a lot of coaches have told me that I could be a very, very good player but I just never got enough games," O'Dea told the Evening Herald.
"I went to Reading on loan and I didn't play, it didn't work out. I went to Ipswich on loan but played at left-back which didn't really suit me. And when I was at Celtic I just didn't play enough.
"This is the first time in my career that I have played week in week out in my natural position and it's no surprise to me that I am getting the benefits and playing well. I feel stronger and more confident than I ever did.
"It's not rocket science, I was never really a regular at Celtic so it was hard to get my confidence up but between my first game at Leeds and now I have come on so much, and I feel I can keep improving.
"I think my career has only really started this season. I won things at Celtic and played in the Champions League but it's only this season that I've played on a weekly basis and from that I have managed to get my best form," added the ex-Home Farm man.
"When I broke into the Celtic team I showed that I could play at any level -- SPL, Champions League. I just never got a chance to show I could do that every week. It's easy to do it in one-off games, it's hard to do it on a regular basis," added O'Dea, who has established Dunne as his role model.
"Just look at Dunney, he's been playing every week in the Premier League for something like 13 or 14 years, and it's only when you do that that you can claim to be a top, top player, so that's what I am aiming for.
"I know I have the potential, the coaches and the people at Celtic knew I had the potential but I just had to show it on a weekly basis. The more I play, the better I will get."
The same could be said for his Ireland career. It took time for his Ireland days to take off -- he made the squad for the first time against Wales in 2007, made his senior debut in 2009, but didn't make his competitive debut until the win at home to Macedonia last year -- but impressive form in games like the away ties against Macedonia, Russia and Andorra have seen O'Dea establish himself ahead of contenders like Paul McShane and Damien Delaney.
"The Czech game last month was great for me but just being involved in international football is brilliant for me. Every time I am involved it's such a good feeling because there's no prouder moment than when you play for your country," says O'Dea, who has a position on the squad Giovanni Trapattoni should take to the Euros.
"It's great to see young players coming through but, for me, now is not the time to be experimenting but it's the time to get ready for what's ahead of us in the summer.
"It's so long since we qualified for a finals that we need all the experience that we already have in the squad, and the players who are in the squad now are really ready for the big tests that we'll have in the summer.
"There are no guarantees for anyone and I'm not assuming that I will be on the plane to Poland, but the manager has shown his loyalty all along -- if you do the business for him he will stay loyal to you.
"People have been willing to play through an injury for this manager, that's the respect we have for him and the desire we have to play for our country."