Football: Rebirth of O'Donnell

Phil Gordon talks to a player who is back to his international best
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FERGUS McCANN must get a touch wistful when he sees the name of Phil O'Donnell amid the plethora of foreign employees on the Celtic wage bill.

For the beleaguered Parkhead chairman, who has spent the last four months wrestling with the bizarre transfer of Mark Viduka not to mention previous run-ins with Pierre van Hooijdonk and Paolo di Canio, O'Donnell is a throwback to the good old days when all that was required to buy a new player was a trip down the motorway, a handshake and a cheque in pounds sterling.

No need for translators, exchange rates, or even football's governing body should things get out of hand. O'Donnell was a significant signing when he joined from Motherwell in September 1994 for pounds 1.75m, the first big acquisition after McCann saved Celtic from bankruptcy, and tonight he returns to his old club eager to prove his worth.

O'Donnell is still Motherwell's record sale, and while Celtic have made more expensive signings, he is embracing the kind of form that made him so sought-after. English Premiership clubs coveted the midfielder five years ago, but he preferred to join his boyhood idols. Two goals on his Celtic debut hinted at untold glory, but instead O'Donnell's time with the Scottish champions has been blighted by injuries until this season.

"Actually, the injury problems stopped last season," he pointed out, "but it was just that I could not get into the team because it was playing so well. I played the last 10 games before we won the title, enough to get me a medal."

O'Donnell hates dwelling on injuries. Too many accusations have been levelled at him, from "crock" to "waste of money", but his powerful runs were enough to see him earn his solitary cap for Scotland by the age of 20 and draw comparisons to Bryan Robson.

"Hindsight is a brilliant thing," he said, "and after scoring two goals on my debut, I thought 'this is the right move'. I was certain that I was going to get lots of goals and, since I had already made my international breakthrough with Motherwell, then I was likely to get even more caps with a team like Celtic. But things just didn't work out and I can't change that."

O'Donnell, though, sidesteps any hint of regret. "You cannot legislate for injuries in football. It is a contact sport. Being out did affect me a few years back, but you cannot get dragged down. You have to learn from those periods and stay positive about getting back in the side."

At Motherwell, he was the key man in a side which won the Scottish Cup in 1991 - when he was just 19 - and finished runners-up in the league to Rangers. He earned those, whereas his championship reward last season was almost basking in reflected glory.

Now he is making his presence count, rather than making up the numbers. "This is definitely the best period I have had in my five years at Parkhead," he said. "I have played in the last 20 games and scored five goals. The goals have been a real boost to my confidence. It was a big part of my game at Motherwell, but when you don't play regularly, it is tougher to judge when to make those runs into the box. You're timing is out. Thankfully, mine is now back in. I've shown people that I can do it regularly."

No one has been more impressed than Scotland's coach, Craig Brown, who is ready to recall O'Donnell to the international stage five years after he briefly stepped on it, for next month's European Championship qualifiers with Bosnia and the Czech Republic. "It has been nice having Craig Brown talk about me," O'Donnell says, "because he's the man who brought me through at under-21 level, but after what I've been through, you take nothing for granted."

Neither should Celtic. O'Donnell has turned down McCann's new contract offer, seeking parity with his foreign team-mates. West Ham are interested, but O'Donnell says: "I'd prefer to stay at Celtic but I am not slamming any doors. I have a responsibility to my family to get the right deal."