As a footballer, Callum O’Dowda seems to take all the big tests in his graceful stride – whether that be moving from League 2 Oxford United to Bristol City in the Championship, getting his first senior cap on the eve of the Euros against Belarus in Cork or, just last month, making his competitive debut for Ireland when coming off the bench in the 3-1 win in Moldova.
Well, not quite all the big tests, perhaps. Even though he is the grandson of Brendan O’Dowda, the popular Dundalk tenor synonymous with the songs of Percy French, Callum confesses he has not inherited the warbling gene: “I admit that, strongly.”
Which made his traditional initiation into the Irish squad — whereby every newcomer is obliged to sing in front of his teammates — a trial he struggled to pass.
“I did it at Fota Island and it was bad,” he says. “It was a few days before the Euros and the 23-man squad was there, so I was thinking that I might get away with not singing. I was there for two weeks and, every night, I’m thinking: ‘Am I going to do it?’
“Towards the end, when I nearly got away with it, Robbie Keane out of nowhere just put a chair up and said ‘Cal, you’re up’. I said: ‘Oh God’.”
And what did he sing?
“An Usher song. No, it wasn’t Percy French, but I went for it!”
The 21-year-old has looked much more at home on the pitch, catching Martin O’Neill’s eye to the extent that he was right on the cusp of being a late call-up for the Euros in France last summer.
“After the Belarus game, after he named the squad, he said he’d see if there was any way he could take me to France,” says O’Dowda. “Obviously I wasn’t in the 23, but if someone picked up a knock, I think I was the 24th man to get in the squad. I stayed to get an extra week’s training with the squad and make me feel part of things. I was dying to get on the plane, but at the same time you have to realise how far you’ve come.”
As it happens, he did make it to France for the finals, but only as a supporter, watching with his girlfriend Isobel in the fanzone in Paris as Ireland lost to Belgium. Now, he travels to Vienna as an increasingly integrated member of the Irish set-up.
O’Dowda feels he’s reaping the benefits of his double step-up for club and country since the summer. “International football is a bit more sharper,” he says. “The technical levels go straight up to what I’m used to. Everything is that bit quicker. Also, there is the physical side as well. I notice in the Championship there’s a difference, too. Everyone is a lot quicker, sharper, everyone a bit more intelligent.
“ I really knew I had to make the step up, because I saw the difference when I came into this set-up. You can see the real difference from the training at Oxford to coming here [with Ireland] and, while I was able to handle myself and make a positive impact, it was a good transition for me to make going to Bristol. Selection-wise it helps me being at a Championship club as well.”
He was understandably chuffed when he got called into the fray in Moldova.
“It was really good,” he smiles. “Even before the game, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be on the bench, but when it was 1-1 at half-time, and I thought, looking to the bench, this would be a good time for me. So, it was really good to come on and important we got the result, as well.
“What I am used to as well — when you are on the bench — is that if the game is tight that I may be introduced. If we are winning 3-0, there is still a chance of getting a run, but I tend to think there is more of a chance of getting on if it is not going so well for us, or if we are drawing and we need something out of the game. It is one of those games where you need to be seen. I think I did quite well.”
His goals for the rest of the season are, in part, literal.
“For club, I’d probably say get a goal, get more goals. I’ve been assisting quite a lot but not scored. We want to achieve promotion, which is a big thing for Bristol City. Even at the start of the season, the gaffer [Lee Johnson] said we could have a right go at it this year. We started well enough; we’re in the top half of the table, a few points off the play-offs.”
“I want to get a competitive start under my belt,” he says with conviction.
“If selected tomorrow I will be ready. Mentally I have been preparing myself to play.”
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