Stephen O’Donnell’s late blooming emergence as a Scotland international has perhaps surprised no-one more than the 26-year-old himself.
Anyone who witnessed the Kilmarnock right-back’s impressive contribution to Monday’s 2-0 Nations League win over Albania would realise that his career certainly hasn’t been held back by any lack of ability.
O’Donnell freely admits that his biggest handicap in a journey in which he was freed as a teenager by Celtic and spent time in the fourth tier of English football with Luton Town was simply a lack of self-belief.
So much so that when he signed for Partick Thistle following his rejection by Celtic in 2011, he found himself questioning the faith shown in him by the then Jags manager Jackie McNamara.
“He always told me he believed in me and that I was capable of playing for Scotland,” recalls O’Donnell. “I thought he had lost his marbles, to be honest. That was when I was 19 and just released from Celtic. No, I wasn’t too sure if I believed him. But it is something he always says to me; he thinks I am better than I have been doing.
“It was maybe something that I didn’t always believe myself but I have enjoyed the games I’ve played for Scotland recently and hopefully I will get more chances in the future.”
O’Donnell, who has flourished under Steve Clarke at club level with Kilmarnock, got his opportunity with Scotland as a late call-up to Alex McLeish’s withdrawal-ravaged squad for the summer trip to face Peru and Mexico in friendlies.
The value of those fixtures was questioned in certain quarters but O’Donnell caught the eye to such an extent he now looks set to remain a key part of McLeish’s plans in the quest to reach the Euro 2020 finals.
“If I hadn’t gone on the summer tour, there wouldn’t be a chance I would be in the Scotland squad now,” he added. “I was called up at the last minute into that one and I was over the moon with it. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip as a whole. The results were disappointing but getting the experience and the chance to train with players of that standard for myself was great. It’s been the same in the last two Scotland games against Belgium and Albania, training and playing with players who are playing at the top.
“I’ve enjoyed it and I now believe I have attributes that can be used at this level.”
After a brief substitute appearance in the 4-0 friendly defeat by Belgium, O’Donnell was still startled to be named in the starting line-up against Albania in a right wing-back role, while Celtic winger James Forrest remained on the bench.
“I was surprised, I was shocked,” said O’Donnell. “I couldn’t really believe that I was in. I thought if anything, if the manager had flattened off to a back four, I might have had half a chance of playing. But a five, I couldn’t believe it. Thankfully for myself, I was part of a winning team. I did okay, I worked hard, we got a clean sheet. I played a couple of good balls and a couple of slack ones too. So I have plenty to improve on personally.
“Right wing-back isn’t my natural position. Right of a four is where I play at club level. There are players in the Scotland squad like Callum Paterson, James Forrest and Ryan Fraser who can all operate on that right side.
“It is just maybe about getting a settled team that is the difficult thing for Scotland. You look at the left where you have Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, two outstanding young players, that is what maybe makes the right side thing difficult but whoever plays will be more than capable. If I get the nod again I will be sure to try to do my best.
“Do I feel as if I’m in the squad to stay now? I’m not sure, I don’t think so yet. I was told when I was younger that you need to get 50 games for your club before you are really a first-team footballer, so maybe if I can get to ten caps, then I definitely belong with Scotland. I just need to concentrate on Kilmarnock and hopefully get some good results with them, then we will see where that takes me for my country. Hopefully that takes care of itself.”
O’Donnell returns to domestic action for Killie against Hibs at Easter Road on Saturday and he believes some of his Scottish team-mates at the Ayrshire club could follow his lead and force their way on to the international scene.
“Steve Clarke has organised us in a way that got us moving up the table last season and it drew more attention to Kilmarnock,” he said.
“Hopefully it will be the same this season. It’s a club which has maybe been overlooked in the past but if I am doing alright for my country, there might be opportunities for others.”