Stephen O’Donnell is putting the ML on the map.
The Lanarkshire lad is currently living the local hero dream. Born and bred in Wishaw, O’Donnell is no stranger to high-flying domestic success or international recognition through his time at Kilmarnock, but this time it feels different.
Still living in the area, the defender is embracing life at Fir Park.
Handed a short-term deal in the summer, he has been part of a side that made it to the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League, is now prospering in the Premiership and is involved in a Scotland setup that’s just one game away from taking the nation to its first major finals since 1998.
However, the 28-year-old insists there is more to come from him.
“It’s been great being able to represent your club at international level, regardless of what club,” he said.
“But what makes this special for me is this is where I’m from. I grew up in Wishaw and it’s good to be part of that. The amount of people I know Motherwell because it’s their local team is huge, the negative of that is if we lose I’m quick to hear how bad I was…
“Just hopefully I can perform better, I think I have a lot more to offer at Motherwell. I’ve shown it in glimpses but not as consistently as I would have liked.
“I love going away with Scotland and being able to play a part. I think Declan is the same, we are in a squad that’s full of top talent and for us to play any part is fantastic.”
The form of the national side in recent months has been incredible.
Currently on an eight-game undefeated run, Steve Clarke has brought together a side that people were doubting, and turned them around to a formidable force on the cusp of something big once more.
Parallels can be drawn with what Stephen Robinson is doing with the Motherwell squad. A slow start to the season caused many outside the club to believe a top-three finish had been swapped for a relegation scrap, but that prospect is a million miles away from their current outlook.
Now with two games in hand over some, the Steelmen are well in the hunt to get into the top six.
O’Donnell acknowledges the high of last year may well have been a hindrance, not that he or any of the squad are complaining. A run in the Europa League, on the back of a prolonged summer break, “took its toll” on the sharpness of the squad in those early weeks, reckons the former Killie man.
But recent landmark results against the likes of Aberdeen, Ross County and Livingston have demonstrated to the doubters what this Motherwell team are capable of.
“The results have changed,” he said. “There were signs at the start that we were a good side but it just wasn’t falling for us. There were also key players missing which I think is why I was probably brought in.
“You can see the quality the squad has, and maybe they were victims of the success of last year.
“You were coming back from the long Covid-19 break going into a European campaign with few warm-up games, it’s Sunday-Thursday-Sunday-Thursday.
“It’s then you realise you have to take your hat off to guys like Callum McGregor who do that for six months of a season. We aren’t quite used to that.
“It was a challenge we enjoyed and maybe it took a toll on our cutting edge on the weekends that followed. Now we’ve started to get some wins on the board and climb the table, which is always nice.
“You defend from the front and their work rate against Ross County and Livi was incredible. Even going into training the intensity is huge, it gets you ready.
“We are disappointed we couldn’t play the two games that were cancelled but hopefully we’ll get them played soon or get the points, and we can make that league position look even better.”
Of course, the challenge of continuing their upward trajectory today is a formidable task.
Some scaremongers would have you believe Celtic were a side on the slide after defeats to Rangers and AC Milan, along with a draw at Pittodrie.
A credible draw in Lille and a comfortable Scottish Cup semi-final win over Aberdeen have discredited that theory, and Celtic arrive at Fir Park today still well in the hunt to nail their 10th title in a row.
Having said that, O’Donnell insists the home side are up for the challenge of giving the Scottish champions another tough day at the office when they step on to that Fir Park pitch.
“Celtic are a top side,” said the right-back. “They came under criticism recently but they have top players and a top manager. They maybe had a wee dip just there but we’ve had ours, every team has one.
“We hopefully are clear of ours now and we can go on and finish at least in the top six.
“We just need to make sure we build on them dropping points against Rangers and Aberdeen.
“It’ll be a very tough task, but we’ve had a week to prepare for it while they’ll have had another game, so we’ll be trying to capitalise on that.”
By Scott Mullen.