by Chris Bailey
ALL Oxford United are thinking about is League One, claims Callum O’Dowda, but the 20-year-old starlet in effect promoted himself at Wembley last weekend after scoring the opener in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final.
There were no Wembley wobbles for O’Dowda, who has already logged more than 100 appearances after bursting onto the scene in 2013, as Barnsley suffered a fright before winning 3-2 against a team in the mix to join them in League One next season.
Eventually – perhaps even this summer – O’Dowda is likely to end up at even greater heights, with Derby seeing a £1m approach for the winger ultimately rebuffed during the January transfer window.
His star will only have risen further following his Wembley bow but the hype that comes with it is unlikely to faze the Republic of Ireland Under-21 international – admitting Oxford have given him a grounding that few his age can boast.
“It was great for me personally, having been at the club for 12 years – since I was eight years old,” he said. “For me and my family, getting the goal to open the scoring at Wembley was a huge moment. And that goes for the fans too, seeing someone do that who has come through their ranks.
“But we knew that going into the game it was a bonus, as all our focus is on promotion to League One.
“The last time Oxford were at Wembley in 2010 for the play-off final, I was sat opposite the dugout. It was totally different circumstances, as going into the game it was really tough knowing a win or a loss was the difference between being promoted from the Conference.
“So this time there were no nerves and that played a massive part, we didn’t feel as worried as we could have been.
“I’ve already appeared in 100 games and there aren’t many 20-year-olds who can say that. I’m near to 110 now which is really good, and the Ireland Under-21 coaches say they can see the experience that I have compared to the other lads as I’ve made the most appearances in the Football League.”
O’Dowda qualifies for Ireland through his late grandfather Brendan, and scored his second goal for the Under-21s against Slovenia just five days before his Wembley date.
His performances at international level earned him a nomination for Ireland’s Under-21 player of the year award – all this under the watchful gaze of the men who matter.
“I know that Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have been attending all our Under-21 games,” admitted O’Dowda. “And though I didn’t speak to them at the awards evening, I got to meet a lot of the squad. It’s nice to know they are watching and that they care about the youth coming through the system.
“I’m feeling in form at the moment. I scored two goals against Barnet then managed to get a goal for the Ireland Under-21s against Slovenia. With that I reached my personal target this season of ten – eight for Oxford, two for Ireland.”
International recognition can take a back seat for now though as, with first-place Northampton far in the distance, Oxford are involved in a five-way race for the remaining two automatic promotion spots.
Though, as O’Dowda concedes, another trip to Wembley would hardly be a disaster.
“We want to go up through automatic promotion but if we have to do it through the play-offs, coming back to Wembley should be an advantage depending on the opposition,” he said.
“If you look at our squad, we do deserve to be playing at a higher level. We have got both the players and the characters – and it shows in how we are playing.”
*This article was originally published in The FLP on 10 April 2016.