DARREN O’DEA has had the considerable privilege of playing in front of one of the most passionate fanbases on the planet at a genuine footballing giant in Glasgow Celtic.
The Hoops support have claimed numerous accolades over the years, with their staggering travelling contingent of 80,000 fans who flocked to Seville for the 2003 Uefa Cup final against Porto then ranking as the largest away following in history.
A prestigious Fair Play Award famously followed, with FIFA president Sepp Blatter going onto herald Celts fans as “the greatest in the world” when presenting them with the blue-riband honour at Celtic Park.
While it’s undeniable that Celtic’s support is the stuff of legend, O’Dea, who switched from Parkhead to Elland Road on a season-long loan deal late last week, saw something pretty remarkable in itself from the 3,097 travelling Leeds United fans at St Mary’s on Saturday evening.
Most of whom made around an epic 470-mile round-trip from West Yorkshire to the south coast for a far from ideal kick-off time for scant reward and were justifyably entitled to feel short-changed.
It was something O’Dea certainly wouldn’t have experienced north of the border and it’s a fair bet that if Celtic would have been on the wrong end of such a pitiful defeat as Leeds suffered in the dismal 3-1 loss at Southampton that the bouquets thrown in players’ direction would have been made of barbed wire.
United’s away following would have been well within their rights to pan the players for such a limp performance at Saints, with their decision to applaud them at the end more than they arguably deserved.
It all made a big impression on debutant O’Dea, who hasn’t exactly downsized in moving from Celtic to another heavyweight in United with the pressure for success intense at both.
The 24-year-old said: “Without bigging up the fans too much, I’ve not seen what I saw on Saturday before. We were 3-0 down and expecting to get booed off, but it was fantastic they stayed and clapped.
“But they deserve a lot more after travelling down for five hours and seeing that. Everyone knows we need to do better and we certainly will.
“It was mentioned in the dressing room that it wasn’t good enough (for the fans). Predominantly, we need to do it for ourselves and the coaching staff, but it was disappointing to see such support and let them down.
“No-one would be happy with the performance or result and we need to move on now. We’re lucky it was the first game of the season and not a difficult game towards the end. There’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves and we need to pick ourselves up and get on with it.”
It was the proverbial baptism of fire at St Mary’s for O’Dea, pressed into service at left-back, with the defender the first to admit centre-back is his most natural and favoured position.
All the more taxing when your pre-season has been far from ideal, with O’Dea used sparingly in the build-up to the big kick-off at Celtic, where he is down the pecking order.
After familiarising himself briefly on the training pitch with his new United colleagues on Friday, the Dubliner switches focus to international business with the Republic of Ireland, who host Croatia in a friendly at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow night, with O’Dea unavailable for United’s televised Carling Cup derby with Bradford City this evening.
While it means he will be unlikely to train at Thorp Arch until Friday ahead of the home opener with Middlesbrough, he is at least grateful for small mercies in getting in a much-needed full 90 minutes against Saints, hopefully with some further game time in midweek to come.
Capped nine times by the Republic, O’Dea said: “I’ve not had a great pre-season as regards playing football, but I felt strong enough (at Southampton) and will certainly get fitter as the games come up.
“I’m predominantly a centre-half, so moving to left-back was a different type of running, but I’ll feel stronger for the game.
“I’ll never have any qualms about playing at left-back and I’m delighted to be here and playing. Saturday was disappointing. We simply weren’t good enough and I think all the lads know that and we need to put it right on Tuesday. It’s a massive game made even bigger now, coming off the back of Saturday.
“As team, we weren’t good enough defensively – not just the defenders, but the midfielders and the forwards. We didn’t defend right and we got punished.
“We started not too badly and Jonny (Howson) had a good chance and if that had gone in, you never know...then we conceded a poor goal and it just rolled on from there. Nothing about our game was really up to scratch and it’s something the lads all know. There’s plenty to work on.”
Despite being the subject of rival Championship interest, O’Dea didn’t have to be asked twice when United threw their hat into the ring for his services.
And while he may have escaped the goldfish bowl of Old Firm rivalry in moving south, he insists the pressures he will encounter at Elland Road will be pretty familiar.
O’Dea, whose most famous Hoops moment came when he scored in the Scottish League Cup Final victory over Rangers at Hampden Park in March 2009 – heading the opening goal 90 seconds into extra-time in the 2-0 success – added: “The move was talked about for a while and eventually came down to a season-long loan. I kind of knew about it for a bit, but it actually happened quite quickly in the end.
“There were other interest in this division and stuff abroad as well, but I preferred to come to Leeds. I’ve played in this division before and it’s a fantastic league to improve (your game) and that’s what I want to do here.
“I’ve been at Ipswich and Reading before and the league is completely different to Scotland. The reason for that is the pressures of playing for Celtic – fans demand you win every week and play great football. But in saying that, it’s the exact same demand here.”