From supporting Ireland at Euro fanzones last summer to being part of the squad aiming for World Cup qualification, Callum O’Dowda has enjoyed quite a year.
This time 12 months ago, the pacey winger had left Cork having earned his first cap against Belarus and heartened by Martin O’Neill’s promise of further action after the Euros.
O’Dowda has since made himself a mainstay of the squad, earning his competitive breakthrough in Moldova last October when Ireland needed a spark to avoid an upset, and can be depended on by his manager to change a game when required.
In an era when few graduate from Ireland’s U21s to the seniors, the English-born flanker sufficiently caught the eye of O’Neill to merit a phonecall and the senior progression which ensued.
At 22, the Bristol City man is well placed to transform himself from squad player to first-team regular. He’s also level-headed enough to possess the patience required heading into Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Austria.
“I’m fairly settled into the squad at this stage but want to push on over the next 12 months by getting another few starts and into the manager’s head,” explained O’Dowda, who started last week’s defeat to Mexico.
“As the manager here doesn’t name the team till just before kick-off, I’m still in that ‘I’m going to play’ frame of mind. It puts everyone on their toes a bit, keeping everyone ready.
“Qualifying for the World Cup next year is something I’m always thinking about, as I watched a lot of them tournaments as a kid.
“Even though I wasn’t in the squad, I still went to France last summer. I watched the Belgium game in the Paris fanzone and it makes you want to be part of it.
“I had trained with the squad up to the time they left for France but envied them being part of the finals.”
Nailing down a slot in the Irish team may well be influenced by how O’Dowda fares on the club circuit, hence his move to the Championship last summer.
Switching to Bristol City from Oxford United constituted a big jump for the rookie and the fact he made more appearances from the bench (19) than in the starting line-up (15) over his maiden campaign in the league suggested he’s still learning to adapt.
“I’d rate my season just gone at a seven,” he admitted. “I wanted it to go a lot better, as I set big standards, and am confident of achieving that next season.
“Breaking into the Ireland team does rely a bit on club football because the coaches don’t get to see you much here.
“I get a few phone calls from staff here — Guppy (Steve Guppy) or the gaffer asking if I’m playing.
“Sometimes I’ll know and sometimes I don’t know and that’s the annoying thing. They’re always wanting to watch me.”
O’Neill’s decision to introduce O’Dowda at a critical time in the Moldova clash said much for the trust he places in him. That admiration became apparent once he heard the sound his the manager’s Derry accent down the phone.
“We were at the departure lounge going to Slovenia for an U21 qualifier last March the U21 manager Noel King called me. He said: ‘Call, the gaffer wants to speak to you’. It was a bit of shock to hear Martin O’Neill talk me through my game, saying how he was really happy with my performance against Italy a few days earlier.
“Little things like that are great. I spoke to him, for example, the other day and he said how, when we are back from this trip, he is going to meet up and come down to Bristol to have a cup of tea with me in my apartment.”
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