By Garry Doyle
With Richard Dunne injured, Toronto defnder Darren O’Dea is playing a central role for Ireland
Millions of Irishmen have crossed the Atlantic in search of the American Dream but only one has made that same journey in search of a Canadian soccer equivalent. In sporting terms, alone, Darren O’Dea’s relocation from the SPL to the MLS was the strangest, and plenty would say, most foolish decision an Irish international has made since… well, since Robbie Keane showed up in LA a year previously, looking for a payday off the Galaxy.
However, money was neither Keane nor O’Dea’s motive. Both had equally lucrative offers in England but none of Birmingham, Charlton, Leicester or Bolton had town centres with the same allure of Los Angeles or Toronto. “The life I have over there is just fantastic,” says O’Dea. “There are not many jobs that allow you to go and see different places. I have a young family. I want to have more kids. And you won’t find a much better place to bring them up. That was a big part of my decision to go there. And the bottom line is that the people are a different breed to us. The way they live their life is more relaxed. In Ireland and the UK, it is rushed, a case of who can get where quickest and who can you push out of the way — whereas over there it is more placid. People stand back and let you go.”
Being let go was the sad predicament O’Dea had to come to terms with last summer. Having stayed with Celtic far too long, when it was clear his time was up two years back, the father of one allowed himself to be farmed out to three different Championship clubs on loan. These sorts of moves do little for a man’s self-esteem, because whether picked or not for their temporary employers, a player knows their value is undermined by the sheer fact the shirt they are wearing is not for keeps.
But with O’Dea came bigger issues. Fatherhood changed his life more than football. At Leeds last year, he found himself in a two-bed flat with his partner and child and left wondering when, or how, he would be able to put down roots. “You couldn’t buy a house because you knew you could be on the road again soon,” he says.
And the road he was on had lost its appeal. “The Championship would make anyone depressed at the best of times,” he says. “It’s twice a week games. No let-up. I’d given it three years. I’d been given promises from clubs and then they’d change their mind. I could have stayed in that League. There were offers. The money was good. But I was drained by the whole experience of last year — the fact it looked like Leeds were going to sign me, before the manager called me in and said he was going in a different direction.”
Soon after, O’Dea was heading off on his own direction, to Poland with the Irish squad. “For 40 days, we were locked up in hotel rooms there and it was mentally painful. So when I got back home, I felt I had lost energy. I didn’t want to train. I wanted a break. I wanted to be alone, so I grew a beard and stuff like that. “The offers from English clubs were grand but I was wondering, ‘Is this all I want out of football, just to get money?’ It wasn’t. I wanted to get momentum in my career again. Toronto was the right choice.” Few others saw it that way. For non-believers of the MLS, the step away was viewed as a step down.
“When I first went over I didn’t think much of the league here, but now I do. There is no difference between the MLS and the Championship. In every side, you have four or five players who, technically, are good and the rest are made up of strong, quick, powerful athletes. You will play teams who keep the ball, other teams who are very direct. It is very similar to English, Scottish and Irish football. People said about adapting to their style of football. There was no adaptation. The one difference is that we get Champions League games here, when we go to places like El Salvador. That is new and fresh. Coming here was something I needed to get me going again. So as soon as I came over here and saw the place, I felt hungry to do well. I wanted to be here.”
Other benefits have included the touristy stuff, a day-trip to Niagara Falls, a night out with his teammates at the ball park, a plan to hit New York for the Christmas shopping. All of which is fine from a lifestyle perspective but cuts little ice with the Irish fan whose only concern is to see his team win. And with Richard Dunne out of the Germany clash, O’Dea is now the central character in the international team.
“No matter what the performance was like against Kazakhstan, the point was to go out there and win and we did that,” he says. “So I am happy with that. Every time I have played for Ireland, I have acquitted myself well. The manager has shown his loyalty to players who have done well for him. I’ve played the patient game and now I want to be involved when it really matters. There is no doubt in my head and I don’t think there is a doubt in the manager’s head either that I can do that. From a really young age, I have been involved in humungous occasions. And I’ve delivered.”
Germany, though, will be his biggest test yet.