Stick or twist?

It was always difficult to calibrate just how good Callum O’Dowda was. The fact he was one of our own biased any assessment of him. There were times when he lit up games, although often from the bench rather than from start to finish. He definitely scored a decent number of goals last year. But he started fractionally less than 40% of our league games, so it’s not like he’s leaving a gaping hole in the squad. He was made a full international but he didn’t go to the Euros; was that because he was genuinely deserving of his place or because the Republic were giving him a cap to bank him as being Irish just in case?

He’s young, of course, and that has to be factored in. Maybe in a couple of years all his qualities will be more immediate and all the potential will become a reality. I think only then will we really know whether this move is better for him, professionally, or us financially. With the deal including bonuses for performances and a 30% sell-on clause, it looks like others feel the same.

O’Dowda’s ambition has always been clear – you don’t get coverage in the Daily Mail about a move to Derby County without someone pulling PR strings and you don’t produce professional show reels on YouTube without wanting someone to watch it. Brand O’Dowda has been nurtured over a long period of time.

O’Dowda is professional in a way that others are not. He is insufferably polite and hardworking, both on the pitch and off the pitch. He seems to recognise that being a footballer isn’t just about what you do on the pitch. No footballer is successful by natural talent alone, hard work is key and O’Dowda undoubtedly has that at the heart of what he does. And for that reason, you suspect he’ll always have teams wanting his services, the question is, at what level?

Moving to the team that finished 18th in the Championship last season? In a few weeks’ time, although separated by a division, we may only be a handful of places below Bristol City. It seems such a moderate move for such a lot of hard work. Suddenly he’ll just be another player in a squad of players, not a homegrown talent fans are proud to call their own. This could be important; he’ll be expected to deliver at City – they need a return on their investment – whereas he’d have been allowed to grow at Oxford. And he still needs to grow. When he becomes a player at a moderate Championship club, will he ever be able to shake that label and move higher?

Maybe, maybe not. Maybe another season with us as a regular starter, developing as a player, becoming a more central figure, would have seen his stock rise higher. Appleton’s Oxford United develop players, so it’s not like he was likely to go stale. But, maybe as a player you just take the money and opportunity when it’s available, because you may not get a second chance. Maybe Bristol City is a perfect springboard to other things. Maybe this was part of the Brand O’Dowda plan, but it’s hard to imagine anyone sketching out a plan with such meticulousness which had such an underwhelming objective.

The good news is that there’s little pressure to replace O’Dowda given the embarrassment of riches we have in midfield. While it’s always sad to lose a locally developed player, from our perspective, there’s little doubt it’s better to have the money now than the player if you think that players like Liam Sercombe and John Lundstram played more games and cost nothing.

Like all homegrown players, Oxford fans will follow O’Dowda’s progress with interest, perhaps lamenting what could have been had he stayed. I hope he has made the right move and look forward to seeing him playing internationals and one day in the Premier League. But will he? I just can’t tell.

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