Any straw poll of players to emerge with the greatest credit from Scotland’s tour of the Americas would find a high ranking for Stephen O’Donnell. The Kilmarnock right-back received his first senior call-up late but went on to be one of only two performers to play every minute of the defeats by Peru and Mexico.
Now Jackie McNamara, himself a former right-back for the national side and who gave the defender his senior debut in the professional game as Partick Thistle manager seven years ago, believes the 26-year-old could have put himself firmly in the driving seat to nail down the position in Alex McLeish’s side.
McNamara sees parallels with O’Donnell’s trajectory in the game with a certain Andrew Robertson – albeit on a wholly more modest scale. Both were products of the Celtic youth academy but were then released. While Robertson has now gone on to become a Champions League finalist with Liverpool, McNamara proved to be the first key figure to recognise that the teenage O’Donnell possessed attributes that deserved developing in the game.
“You can look at O’Donnell and Robertson and admire where they have got to from where they came from, and how they responded to a really early rejection,” said the former Thistle, Dundee United and York City manager.
“When I went to Thistle in 2011, I knew we didn’t have money and would have to assemble a squad from many players who had been cut adrift from their clubs after playing for their under-20s.
“Stephen was in that bracket. After he left Celtic I saw him try out for a few clubs but these trials weren’t successful and that gave me the chance to give him an opportunity. Even back then, he was strong, athletic and had a great attitude. He is a lovely guy and was great to work with so very much in the mould of Andy Robertson, who I signed for United from Queen’s Park. Part of that too was they both had a real hunger to push on and make the best of themselves after experiencing a setback. I’m delighted that Stephen could show up well for Scotland through having that drive and determination.”
Suddenly, international prospects could have seriously opened up for O’Donnell, who was a stand-out for Kilmarnock last season, having left Thistle in 2015 for what proved a two-year stint with Luton Town. While Robertson is one of the embarrassment of riches that McLeish has on the left side of defence courtesy of Kieran Tierney and Barry Douglas, McNamara believes right-back has become “a problem position”. The fact that Celtic’s Tierney – who vies with Robertson for being Scotland’s most precious international commodity – was switched to the right of defence in the latter stages of Gordon Strachan’s tenure betrays that.
In addition, Callum Paterson appears to no longer consider himself a defender while players such as Rangers’ Ryan Jack and Derby ’s Ikechi Anya, who have been deployed in the role for Scotland across the past year, won’t necessarily feature in the position – or indeed any position – at club level next season. That could mean that while O’Donnell may have appeared a stop-gap for the end-of-season tour, his solid displays could cement his status. Indeed in McNamara’s eyes, his main rival may be a player who hasn’t even won a cap.
“I think Anthony Ralston at Celtic could emerge as a potential right-back for Scotland,” he said. “Mikael Lustig isn’t getting any younger and if he dislodges him, then it could be between Ralston and O’Donnell for right-back in the Scotland set-up. I know Ralston has been showing up well for the under-21s in Toulon so both of them have enhanced their chances at the end of this season.”
The fact O’Donnell is being talked about is evidence for McNamara that the much-maligned tour cannot be considered a worthless exercise.
“I always think you need to try players out in friendlies to see how they cope with the demands of international football,” said the 44-year-old, who earned 33 caps between 1998 and 2005 and was a member of the last Scotland squad that featured in a major finals at France 98. “The problem can sometimes be friendly games lacking an edge. What I think was good about the games in Peru and Mexico was that they in no way did because both these teams were stepping up their preparations for heading to the World Cup finals in Russia. Of course, we still have to see what Stephen can do in a fully competitive game but he has certainly made the right first impression.”