Stephen O’Donnell braced for cap battle with on-fire Forrest

Stephen O'Donnell during training ahead of Scotland's Nations League clash against Israel.
Stephen O'Donnell during training ahead of Scotland's Nations League clash against Israel.
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Given his much-lauded contribution to Scotland’s 2-0 win over Albania last time out, Stephen O’Donnell will be entitled to feel hard done by if he doesn’t keep his place in Alex McLeish’s starting line-up against Israel tomorrow night.

But by the same token, the Kilmarnock player accepts it would be difficult for him to protest too loudly if he has to make way for the inclusion of James Forrest.

Just 24 hours after producing what he considered a substandard display for his club in their 2-1 win at Dundee on Saturday, O’Donnell settled down in his living room to watch his old Celtic youth team-mate Forrest run riot with four goals in the Scottish champions’ 6-0 win at St Johnstone.

It is now McLeish’s call on whether he tweaks his system to accommodate Forrest in Haifa tomorrow, having decided last month that O’Donnell was much better suited to the right wing-back role in his recently favoured set-up.

“We don’t know the team yet but there’s not much competition, is there?” smiled O’Donnell. “James only scored the four at the weekend and I had a poor game at Dundee.

“I watched the Celtic game on TV and James was brilliant. We all have strengths and weaknesses. I’m not going to kid myself on that I’m better going forward than James. I’m a bit more defensive, I provide a bit more height. People can look into it any way they like.

“All I know myself is that if I play, I’ll give 110 percent and James likewise. If it comes to a choice between us, I know I’d be delighted for James if he was playing.”

O’Donnell, who has rebuilt his career impressively since being released by Celtic back in 2011, still has fond memories of his time in the youth ranks with Forrest.

“He’s a great guy and someone I’ve huge amounts of respect for,” added the 26-year-old. “I played with him for Celtic under-19s.

“He probably won’t remember it, because he’s gone on to achieve so much with Celtic, but a great memory for me was when Celtic played in a youth tournament in Villarreal. I was right-back and James was right midfield.

“We played Real Madrid and AC Milan, reached the final where we lost to Liverpool. It was my first season in the same squad as James and when I got to play with him I just thought ‘He’s different gravy. If he doesn’t do well in football there’s something far wrong.’ I was just giving him the ball and looking good playing a five-yard pass. I was the water-carrier. I just gave him the ball and he did the rest.

“You sometimes get a bit of jealousy towards players when they do well and you obviously don’t do so well. But James was outstanding from a young age and I’m just delighted to see him still doing well every week.”

O’Donnell took full advantage of the unexpected opportunity which came his way in the summer when, with a raft of higher-profile players unavailable, he was called up to the Scotland squad for the friendlies in Peru and Mexico.

He built upon the solid start he made in those fixtures by retaining his place last month and earning ‘man-of-the-match’ plaudits from many observers as the Scots opened their Uefa Nations League campaign with that home win over Albania.

“If I’m playing on Thursday, I would happily play anywhere,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be in a position, nor should any player be, to tell the manager what he should be doing. I’m just delighted to be here.

“If I get any minutes in these next two games against Israel and Portugal, I’ll be delighted. I’ve managed to get four caps now which was beyond my wildest dreams five months ago. If I play or don’t play this week, I’m just delighted to be here working hard with the team and doing my bit if called upon.”

If O’Donnell does feature against Israel and then again in Sunday’s friendly against Portugal, he would draw level with his club manager Steve Clarke’s tally of six caps for Scotland.

“At the time when he played, I’m sure there was a whole flurry of top quality players available for Scotland,” said O’Donnell.

“At the time, when it was Division One in England, it wouldn’t have been where it is now in regards to the game. But he certainly was a top quality right back. He’s a top quality manager and I spoke to him after the Peru and Mexico games in the summer.

“I was asking him what he felt – was it realistic for me to think I could get in the next squad? He was honest with me in saying he wasn’t in as many as he would have liked, it’s an honour to go away, but he told me I don’t need to get hung up about it.

“If you do well for Kilmarnock, you should be knocking on the door. It doesn’t matter what club you are at, if you’re playing well you’ll have a chance. Thankfully that managed to happen, I got in the last squad and now this one.

“I’m just cherishing every minute of being away, and hopefully I’m in it for the next 10 years. But you can’t get too carried away. For this squad it’s crucial we get a good couple of results.

“Albeit Portugal is another friendly, but it would be nice, at home, to get a bit of momentum. After Albania, a draw against Portugal, or even a win, would be great to hopefully bring back more fans.

“The ones that were there for the Albania game were brilliant. It would be nice if we could hopefully put a couple of wins together, we would hopefully see more bums on seats at Hampden in the future.”