After the Republic of Ireland’s friendly international with Wales, The Emerald Exiles caught up Metalurh Donetsk defender Darren O’Dea to discuss the physical and mental pressures of a cross-continental transfer and his shock departure from Toronto FC.
From Glasgow to Donetsk, via Toronto, Darren O’Dea’s footballing footprint has trod a path not well worn. If his move last year to Major League Soccer, Toronto FC to be precise, came as a surprise to many, the latest leg of his journey is a thoroughly unusual one.
Relatively speaking, when you consider his age (he was 25 when he left Britain for Canada), the move across the Atlantic seemed at odds with the trend of more experienced players trying their luck in a country with an emerging football scene. But with Robbie Keane, Andy O’Brien and other recent Premier League stars now plying their trade in America, the move failed to raise quite as many eyebrows as perhaps his latest transfer.
As will undoubtedly be the case for many Irish supporters, Metalurh Donetsk will not have been a club that have pierced the consciousness of the general football public in western Europe. For O’Dea, there is a similar sense of the unknown regarding his move to Ukraine, but it’s one he relishes.
“If something had of asked me about Metalurh Donetsk a year or six months ago, I wouldn’t have known anything about them. It’s really opened my eyes,” O’Dea tells me his month long spell in what is his new home. The four weeks since joining Metalurh have been a bit of a whirlwind he concedes, leaving his life in Toronto behind at the drop of a hat to open the next chapter of in what is quickly becoming a nomadic career.
Catching up with O’Dea in Glasgow, a few days after he played 35 minutes in the Republic of Ireland’s scoreless draw with Wales in Cardiff, the Dubliner has been given some time off by his new club in order to move his family across to Donetsk. For the past four weeks, O’Dea has been living in a hotel and for the most part, with just himself for company.
“They gave me the week off to tie things up in Glasgow and Toronto and the whole family are coming over with me now. The last four weeks in a new country, has been tough. With my family over now it will make things a lot easier to adapt.”
Amidst a whirlwind cross-continental move, O’Dea’s start to life on the field has been stop-start. Or should that be start-stop? A 45 minute debut appearance against Karparty Lviv, was followed by a full 90 minutes in a victory over Vorskla, O’Dea the fortuitous scorer of what turned out to be the winning goal.
Just over half an hour into Metalurh’s first ever European tie, a Europa League qualifier against Albanian side Kukesi five days later, O’Dea’s body broke down.
“The first game I played in, two days after arriving in Ukraine, was a mistake on everyone’s part. I had travelled for 20 hours and I had been doing medicals for two days. I did fine in the game but my body was cramping up by half time.”
“I don’t know whether it was through travelling but after two weeks of being there, everything caught up with me. I wasn’t necessarily sick, but I was unwell and very low on energy. My body just collapsed.”
There is an interesting factor that the former Glasgow Celtic man says contributed to that collapse, one that provides a genuine insight into these continent to continent transfers. Aware that his time at Toronto was coming to an end, his last three weeks there was spent feverishly working to try and secure a new club.
“Due to the time difference between Toronto and Ukraine, and the few clubs I was speaking to , I was up at 3am every morning speaking on the phone until 9am, on and off to my agent and clubs,” he reflects. “I was still working hard and giving my all for Toronto at the time. I hadn’t slept properly for over a month, six weeks probably,” he says of his last weeks at Toronto and his first adapt to a very different culture in Eastern Europe.
The move to Donetsk, or another outpost in Ukraine, could have come about earlier, had O’Dea opted to take up one of several offers from there, among many from other European countries including Russia, last year. Instead, choosing MLS franchise Toronto allowed the player to get a formative taste of a different culture.
Despite growing up in big cities like Dublin and Glasgow, Toronto is an altogether different experience and one without the uncertainty of a new language and unfamiliar culture.
“You hear a lot of people moving to Australia and America because they want to experience things but I would have been the last person wanting to move out of Britain. I’m the biggest home bird you’ll ever meet. I hate leaving home. The thought of being away I would have hated, certainly as a youngster,” confirming that while nervous upon upping sticks initially, the travelling bug might have caught up with him.
“I was very apprehensive about going to Toronto, but the minute I did I knew it was the right move. I can’t speak highly enough of the place. Similarly, you’re nervous when you come to a country like the Ukraine but the month I’ve been here, it’s reassured me that I’ve made the right move.”
“The moves have brought out another side of me. I love to be home. When I finish my career, I won’t be one of those people who stay in the country I played in. I’ll be on the first flight home. But, when I look back on my career, I want to be proud of it and I want variety.”
“I’ve experienced different things in life, rather than just playing the same fixture list every year.”
The constant moving around though and the apparent drifting nature of his career to date, stems from the player’s desire to make more of his time than the mediocrity accepted by many.
“Football is a short career in a lifetime and I want to play in different teams and leagues and obviously, be the best player I can be. When I finish, I want stories to tell and to be proud of my career.
“I didn’t want to go through the motions. When I started my career at Celtic, I was lucky enough to be in a team where I was winning leagues and cups but when I went to the Championship, as much as it’s a fantastic league and I played for some great teams that I was very proud to play for, I wasn’t winning anything, “he explains of his method. “I’ve experienced different things in life, rather than just playing the same fixture list every year.”
For not the most intrepid of travellers, O’Dea appears to take his uprooting in his stride. That is not to say, he wouldn’t like to settle somewhere. That somewhere appeared to be Toronto, his departure from there an amicable but sorrowful goodbye.
O’Dea was one of the biggest earners at Toronto, but with the defender not classified as one of the club’s designated players, his wage took up a sizeable chunk of their MLS salary cap. Ryan Nelsen, formerly of Blackburn Rovers and Tottenham Hotspur, was appointed the manager back in January and when in the summer he described O’Dea’s wage as “ridiculous”, it was clear he was seeking to free up funds in Toronto’s cap by allowing the defender to leave.
“The salary cap is alien to people in Europe. It was certainly alien to me, but not anymore. It is the be and end all. You only have a limited amount of money to spend on players.”
“I got offered a longer term deal to stay in Toronto and when I say a longer deal, it would have made me one of, if not the, highest paid defender in the league. They were very serious. It wasn’t an off the cuff, token gesture contract. They obviously wanted me to stay at the club but they knew, in reality, in terms of the league the contract was very good but in terms of my career and where I could go, it wasn’t very good,” concedes O’Dea.
“I did everything I could to accommodate it and basically take a wage cut to stay for longer because I love the place and everything about the club. I had a huge affiliation with the fans and the players, everyone around the club I had strong feeling for, the city too.
“I had to go. It was best for me, for them, just for everyone really. It didn’t maybe help the team in the short term but maybe it will in the long term. It will free up cap space. It’s a complex thing, the salary cap.
“I left on very good terms. I kind of left it with an open door. I don’t know, you can’t predict anything in football but I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up back there one day. It was left open and I have all the time in the world for Ryan Nelsen and Kevin Payne, the president.”
The defender signed off with a fine goal (above) in Toronto’s big derby game against Montreal Impact, in a 3-3 draw. At that point, only his family, Nelsen and Payne were aware a move was on the horizon. His teammates celebrated with their captain, under the assumption he would be around to lead them for some time to come.
“As captain, I spoke to all of the players before I left. I said, “The only thing I’ll be disappointed with was when you get into the playoffs, I won’t be there to share it with you.” What I went to achieve there, will happen. I believe that.”
With O’Dea officially available, interest flooded in from Europe once again, with Metalurh’s interest the strongest, prompting O’Dea to visit their training facility. Within 24 hours of touching down in Donetsk, he signed a three year deal. “The training facilities they have are phenomenal. I have never seen anything like that before,” quite the compliment to the fledging club, considering O’Dea has lay his hat at Celtic and Leeds United to date, as well as Toronto. “It is on another planet.”
Speaking to him for the best part of an hour, among his commitment to the national side and his determination to carve out the best possible career for himself – regardless of destination – it is his affiliation with Toronto that resonates greatest.
“It’s fantastic. My family and I are so attached to the city, and we will be going back to visit, at least. We have so many friends there and the club, my relationship with the club was brilliant.” Such is his connection with the MLS side, there is little doubting his conviction in wanting to return there to play before his playing days conclude.
In the immediate future, getting to grips with Russian fills his days, in between training and matchdays for Metalurh. “When I went over, I had a perception in my head that I’d be the odd one out, not being able to speak the language but about half the team can’t speak it. We have a translator with us 24/7, considering there are five Brazilians, a Serb, a Dutchman and a Cypriot.”
“I’m part of a pool, and there’s plenty in the same boat, which helps,” he tells me, mixing his metaphors slightly but his point is clear.
And internationally, with crucial World Cup qualifiers to come, O’Dea remains as committed to the cause, and his manager, as ever. A fixture in his squads since the Italian’s arrival in 2008, O’Dea only last week won his 20th cap. You’ll hear no complaints from the defender, who enjoys a close relationship with the venerable boss.
“When I moved to Toronto and Metalurh, the first person I text was the boss, Trapattoni. His approval is of the utmost importance to me. When I went to the MLS, he had no problem with it. Probably, the fact that Robbie was there helped but he was happier when he heard I was coming back to a European team.
“You talk about well-travelled men, he is the epitome of that, having success in many countries. He’s happy that I’m there and that’s very important to me. Once he’s happy I can keep improving as a player and an international player.
“He is very much in my thoughts when I jump into these decisions,” he says of the due diligence that goes with such moves. It’s old hat for O’Dea at this stage.