STEPHEN O’Donnell’s suspicion was football had to be rigged if James Forrest didn’t make it.

These two first crossed paths at under-19 level when they were both at Celtic. They played on the same wing but the right-back felt his team-mate was on another planet.

And now there is every chance the one-time admirer O’Donnell will keep Forrest out of the Scotland team for an important qualifier.

There will understandably be a clamour for Forrest to play against Israel tomorrow night because he’s a Celtic player who scored four goals last weekend. These are solid points.

However, the Kilmarnock man, surprisingly picked by Alex McLeish for the Albania game, did well that night and has hardly put a foot wrong for his club, who sit below Celtic in the Premiership on goal-difference only, and could well just sneak ahead of his old pal.

O’Donnell didn’t make it at Celtic, a heart problem robbed him of a year, but spent enough time at the club to realise ‘Wee Jamsie’ had what it takes.

The Kilmarnock man said: “James probably won’t remember the game, because he’s had so many good ones, but we played in a tournament in Villarreal. I was right-back and he was right midfield. It was against Real Madrid, Milan, Japan and then Liverpool in the final.

“It was my first season and when I got to play with him I thought: ‘He’s different gravy. If he doesn’t do well in football there’s something far wrong.’

“I was just giving him the ball and looking good playing a five-yard pass. I was the water-carrier. I just gave him the ball and he did the rest. We got beat in the final in that tournament.

“I’m not at all jealous of James. Would you love to be playing at the highest level? Of course. Would you love to be at Real Madrid? Of course you would. It’s the biggest club in the world.

“There’s no envy of James as a person, just admiration for how well he’s done and how consistent he’s been for Celtic over the years. He kicked on again under Brendan Rodgers.”

O’Donnell has himself kicked on under Steve Clarke. He was just another face in the Premiership at the start of this year and now is a Scotland player and at 26 is enjoying a new lease of life.

His career has not always run smoothly but he’s a player alright.

This is going to be a big call for McLeish.

O’Donnell said: “We don’t know the team yet. There’s not much competition – Jamesie only scored the four goals at the weekend! And I had a poor game against Dundee.

“International football provides this kind of weird predicament; all the clubs are doing well and you come away for Scotland hoping to do well.

“But there’s 20-23 boys who are all capable of playing. Depending on the shape, formation, whether or not I play. But I’d be delighted if I did.

“I’ll hopefully be able to talk to you guys on Friday and tell you how well I did and that we won - and that it was so easy.

“I watched Celtic’s game with St Johnstone.James was brilliant. We all have strengths and weaknesses. I’m not going to kid myself on that I’m better going forward than James. I’m a bit more defensive, provide a bit more height. People can look into it.

“All I know myself is that if I play I’ll give 110 per cent. If it was a shoot-off between us – whoever he picked – I know I’d be delighted for James if he was playing. He’s a great guy and someone I’ve huge amounts of respect for.

“He was outstanding from a young age and I’m just delighted to see him doing well every week.”

O’Donnell is the kind of player you want in your squad. He is a smart lad, honest as well, and because it’s taken him a bit longer to get where he wanted to go, this is someone McLeish will know is never going to give anything other than his all.

Scotland need more than effort, of course, which is why O’Donnell knows that he has so much to prove; to his manager, team-mates and supporters.

He said: “There are pros and cons when you come away here. Maybe some people do take it for granted, I honestly don’t know.

“But coming away, from maybe not thinking I would have the opportunity, it does maybe make you cherish it and make you really value getting the experience.

“Being around some of the players, some of the stuff the boys do in training make you go ‘I’ll try that next time.’ It’s a different level.

“For me it’s more about trying to learn, enjoy it while I’ve got it, and if other boys at smaller clubs get the opportunity hopefully they take it as well. But you can only really take it game-by-game – it’s not like you get a move.

“You get a trip and hopefully you do well to do enough to get in the next one.”

This bunch seem to be a good lot. Being in and around the team hotel this week, it is obvious that a good spirit exists. There was plenty of laughing and joking between the new faces and more established names.

O’Donnell said: “I think I’m getting more used to the environment in training, not that it’s making me any better in training!

“But, I’m certainly enjoying it and getting to know the boys more. Obviously, there was a difference in the squad I went away with in the summer. But, the last game there I got to know the boys and they were all brand new with me.

“I’m thoroughly enjoying it – still proud and delighted to be here. Hopefully, another two good performances for the team would be good and especially three points on Thursday night.”

O’Donnell’s club manager, Clarke who was a right-back him, got six caps over seven years. And he played for Chelsea.

The two have spoken about Scotland, what the player can expect, what he can hope for, and the message has been to enjoy this time while it lasts.

O’Donnell said: “The manager was honest with me in saying he wasn’t in as many as he would have liked. It’s an honour to go away, but he told me I don’t need to get hung up about it.

“If you do well for Kilmarnock, you should be knocking on the door. It doesn’t matter what club you are at, if you’re playing well you’ll have a chance.

“Thankfully that managed to happen, I got in the last squad and now this one.

“I’m just cherishing every minute of being away, and hopefully I’m in it for the next 10 years.”