THROUGH the window of his room at Metalurh Donetsk’s training complex, Darren O’Dea watched night fall. Boredom had kicked in. He had been here five weeks, had trained hard, tried to learn the language, tried to make friends.
Yet he was alone. His family had not followed him out to the Ukraine, whereas before, when he moved to Toronto, they’d not just travelled with him but loved every minute of the ride.
But this wasn’t Toronto. This was an industrial town where hardly anyone spoke English and where a night out was practically sinned against. Still, after five weeks, O’Dea was fed up feeling like a prisoner. The club had just issued him with a new car and he was mad for road.
Four hours later, he’d spent enough time on the Donetsk roads to pray he could return to camp. Lost and unable to work the sat nav, he considered spending the night by the side of the highway getting whatever sleep he could.
There and then, he knew he’d made the wrong choice. Tempted by the high wages of Ukrainian football, and demotivated by the idea of returning to England’s lower leagues, a sense of adventure brought him east. But he was lost there, emotionally and now physically.
“Why Ukraine? I asked myself that a few times,” says O’Dea. “Certainly the night I was driving around lost, I was wondering what I was doing. You talk about the Government not doing things in Ireland or England, but at least they have the odd streetlight. I’d gone out for the night planning to get something to eat.
“But I couldn’t figure my way around the place. The alphabet is different over there so the road signs made no sense to me. Eventually, I got myself back on the right track but it took forever.”
As a metaphor to sum up the Irishman’s career, that night was perfect. He’s 27 now, rich in the pocket and also in terms of experience. Capped 20 times by Ireland, he rode shotgun with Richard Dunne on the night Ireland captured a valuable point in Moscow, somehow resisting the Russian siege on their goal.
Unused in the Euros, he played in the 6-1 capitulation at home to Germany before drifting away. The MLS called and he went.
“I am very open-minded when it comes to football,” says O’Dea. “I’ve seen a lot of players, and I am not slagging these guys off, but a lot of them just go through the motions.
“My upbringing was Celtic. There was always pressure and scrutiny there and that got under your skin. The Championship wasn’t like that for me. I was at big clubs, Ipswich and Leeds, but I probably got bored with the league. People talk about how they would give their right arm to do the job I do, but three years ago, I wasn’t feeling excited about the Championship.
“It’s a crazy league. Teams like Wolves and Bolton can come down from the Premier League and struggle. Other teams, who people mightn’t rate, can get on a roll. And I just wasn’t that enthused about staying there. Toronto offered a new way of life and moving there was a great thing. But leaving was a chore.”
Options opened up. Two of them were in England but another, the most lucrative one, was in Donetsk.
“Financially it was tempting, there was no getting away from that. But there were other factors too. They’d finished in the top six for a number of years. There was the chance to play in the Europa League.
“I knew the top five or six teams in the Ukraine could wipe the floor with any Championship side, the likes of Shakhtar, Dynamo Kiev. So I knew if I moved to Ukraine that I’d play in the best standard of league I’d get to.”
So he went. And then a war broke out.
“Even before the war, it was a tough place for me to live in. For any foreign person, you need a thick layer of skin if you hope to settle there. The language barrier was the least of my worries.
“The unspoken words were the harder things for me to understand. Like, when you go into any new job, you need to look for a friendly face. But I didn’t see too many smiles. So in the way Irish or English people would gently mock Americans and Canadians for being overly-friendly, Ukraine was the complete opposite. They’re very introverted, not the sort of people who open up.
“Yet once I got to know them, I thought they were fantastic people. But you’d want someone there to look after you, not to be chucked in at the deep end, wondering, ‘right, which part of town should I live in? How do I know if it is a good or a bad area?’ When going to the shops for a pint of milk becomes a draining experience, you know you’re in trouble.”
Amid all this, his career progressed. Compared to the culture of the Championship and Scottish Premiership, the Ukrainian league has tactical diversity, helped greatly by the huge influx of Brazilians to its league and by their frequent ventures into Europe.
“Technically, it was a very good place to play. No team lumped it forward. Perhaps the sides lower down the league played a bit more physically than those at the top but no week was the same. You’d come up against a 4-4-2 shape one week, a 4-3-2-1 the next, a 4-3-3 the game after that.
“As a footballing place, it was great. Any decent player can adapt to a different way of playing. But it is the off-field stuff that you can struggle with. When I first went there, and didn’t speak a word of the language, I was lost on the pitch. But once I learned a few words, things got better.
“You’d make friends. Sometimes I was like a scared cat opening my mouth to speak to people. But you did it. I quickly copped on that the population of Ukraine was not going to adapt to me. I had to adapt to them.”
Life was a lot simpler when he just had linguistic issues to contend with. But when the Russian troops crossed the border, more worrying thoughts came to pass. He refused to bring his family out, even for short visits. Now living in a hotel, he was half-a-mile away from government buildings, the focal point for unrest.
“Each day, you’d look out the window and see which flag was flying. That way you’d find out which side had been dominant in the day’s fighting.”
Out of safety concerns, the club moved four hours out of Donetsk to a more secure area. “They said it was a holiday resort. Believe me, this was the last place you’d go on holiday. We were in the middle of nowhere. It was an absolute disaster.”
So he asked for a transfer. And as negotiations progressed, he broke his ankle. “I asked myself, ‘do I stay and get treatment here at a holiday resort with no facilities or do I just head home?’”
It was an easy choice. “Life is about being with your family. I have a three-year-old daughter and it was horrible trying to explain to her why I was leaving her for three weeks at a time. I knew I had to go.”
So he did, completing his rehab at Celtic, his former club, before signing a short-term deal at Blackpool, the bottom side in the league he had got bored playing in. The tedium is wonderful.
“You can’t have regrets in life,” he says. “I mean, I have played 80-odd games in the Championship and can’t remember one of them. But I will remember everyone I played in Ukraine.”