Chiedozie Ogbene has not just adapted to the pace of the Premier League – he is setting it.
The Luton winger is the fastest player in the top flight this season, having studied Usain Bolt to perfect his style. He clocked 36.93kph – 23mph – against Fulham in September and sits ahead of Wolves’ Pedro Neto and Liverpool’s Dominik Szoboszlai in the speed stakes.
On Sunday he faces last season’s top speedster Kyle Walker, who hit 37.31kmph, as Luton host Manchester City. However, Ogbene’s rise has not always been rapid.
“I kid you not, when I was younger I wouldn’t win all the races, there were kids a lot faster than me,” the Republic of Ireland international says. “Maybe I was the fastest in the school but I wasn’t the fastest in County Cork. Not being the fastest led me to think, why? What are the fastest doing?
“I used running to work on technique when I went back to Gaelic football or soccer but as I got older I developed a more powerful hunger for running. I’d go to training to learn the mechanics but [athletics] competition wasn’t something for me, unlike my brothers. I don’t actually know what my official 100 metre time was.
“I was more light on my feet because I weighed less and was naturally skinny. It’s when I got older, when I moved to Brentford, I started putting more muscle on and became quicker, more powerful.
“I really like track and field and every now and then I like to put on the old Olympics, the 4x100m relays. I can’t count how many times I’ve watched the London 2012 relay final.
“Bolt is obviously someone I loved, the way he runs, his mechanics, but obviously I’m not 6ft5in so I don’t try to hyperextend the way he can. I just love the way he is. He’s like a piston.
“Sprinters advise to run at 90 to 95 per cent, they don’t try to run at 100 per cent. If you get to 100 per cent you stress yourself. The 90 per cent rule it’s called. At 90 per cent you’re telling your brain, ‘I’m relaxed, I’m only looking for 90’ and you end up running quicker because your brain is not chasing a goal.”
Pace runs in the family as brother Kaodi, a pharmaceutical engineer, has a 100m personal best of 10.8 seconds while other brother Uche, a nurse, is also a sprinter.
The boys and sisters Nneoma and Chibuzo grew up in Cork after dad Emmanuel chose Ireland over Florida, when he and his wife, Christina, took the family over when Ogbene was eight in 2005, for a job as a nurse.
His parents had been working in Kuwait but Ogbene was soon playing Gaelic football for Nemo Rangers, before playing for Cork City and Limerick in the League of Ireland and eventually moving to Brentford in 2018.
“Dad liked it in Ireland. It was a peaceful country,” he adds. “He wanted a good education system for us, which Ireland was very good for, and he liked his job in Ireland. America would have been a big journey.”
It means the 26-year-old is the first Nigerian-born player to feature for Ireland; he made his debut against Hungary in 2021.
“Nigeria was ifs, buts and maybes. It was difficult because my parents are proud Nigerians and I wanted to make them proud but they are as proud of me playing for Ireland,” says Ogbene, now with four goals in 19 games.
“I went through the system in Ireland, it is my adopted home, and the opportunity was massive. If you want me, I want to be with you. If you give me an opportunity I will never say no. I was also given the opportunity to come to the Premier League and I didn’t want to turn it down.”
Ogbene had options in the summer with most of the Championship chasing his signature but opted to sign for the Hatters after four years with Rotherham.
He has featured in every Premier League game for Rob Edwards this term, scoring in the 2-2 draw at Nottingham Forest, and after just 15 top flight appearances has rivals running scared.
“International football has helped me massively because [without it] it would have been a such a big jump [to the Premier League],” he said, with Luton two points above the drop zone after Tuesday’s heartbreaking late 4-3 defeat to current league leaders Arsenal.
“When I came to the Premier League, I told myself: ‘I’ve competed well against some of the top full backs in international football, I have to be confident’.
“Being quick is a good trait to have because defenders tend to respect you a bit more, they’re scared you’re going to go in behind.
“Can I go faster? I hope I will.”