Chiedozie Ogbene: I was meant to be a doctor but that didn’t work out as planned

Key figure of Kenny’s new-look Ireland is focused on winning and making his family proud

Ireland’s Chiedozie Ogbene celebrates scoring a goal against Luxembourg with Callum Robinson in Stade de Luxembourg in a World Cup qualifying match. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Ireland’s Chiedozie Ogbene celebrates scoring a goal against Luxembourg with Callum Robinson in Stade de Luxembourg in a World Cup qualifying match. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

 

Before Rotherham United there were stints at Brentford and Exeter City. Before Limerick FC there was Nemo Rangers. Go further back and find an eight-year-old Chiedozie Ogbene leaving the Enugu state in Nigeria’s interior to catch a flight from Lagos to a place called Cork.

Nursing is the profession that allowed the Ogbenes to settle in Ireland. “Both my parents are nurses. Dad is still practising in CUH in Cork.” Elder brother Uche Ogbene recently joined the family business. “I was expected to be a doctor but that didn’t work out as planned.”

Seriously, Dr Ogbene was the original plan? “Yeah, I always wanted to follow the medical side. I went to a further educational college in Cork to study sports injuries to understand ‘why do I get injured?’ I didn’t go to university but I think we are all interested in human anatomy in the family.

“I am just grateful that my football career took off, but education is something I still look at as really important for your mental health and planning because football is going to end.”

Memories of being raised in Nigeria are hazy yet never fully fade for the first African-born Republic of Ireland international.

“I just remember running around with cousins in the street. Back then I didn’t play a lot of football, just watched my brothers play in a sandy field. I never had interest really. It was when I moved to Ireland and started playing street football with my neighbours, that’s when I took it up.”

One of those neighbours is current Shelbourne and Ireland player Saoirse Noonan. Life in the Grange suburb of Cork, from the time Ogbene arrived in 2005 until signing for Brentford in 2018, are devoid of the horrors suffered by other African families who have struggled to settle in less-welcoming communities.

“I didn’t have great English but I didn’t feel left out as a kid. When you get older, as a teenager, people bully but they don’t know you, really. I didn’t have any trouble, didn’t have too much racism. Saoirse can tell you when we used to play out in the park, we all included each other playing tag rugby or soccer.

“I had a great childhood in Cork, honestly.”

‘Dad worked really hard’

At home the Ogbenes remain as Nigerian as they are Irish in the community.

“My dad worked really hard to get us where we are,” Ogbene explained. “It wasn’t an easy route to Ireland. He had to work, study and go to different countries like Kuwait before he was accepted into Ireland. There were so many journeys he had to go through for me to have the easier route.

“But also, I am grateful for the people in Cork who helped me. They could have made my life difficult but they just saw me as their own.”

Naturally, Igbo remains the family’s first language.

“My parents always pushed me to make sure I improved my English, they always wanted to hear it, but they also want us to remember where we come from, and the culture is something we take huge pride in. I’d come home from school and would switch to Igbo. My girlfriend Sandra used to come around and she would be looking at me, ‘I hope you are not talking negative about me!’”

The Ogbenes sound like Irish immigrants in America or Britain, holding tight to their identity amid a rapidly changing, multicultural society.

“Our household is quite Nigerian dominant. That is just something in our DNA. That is something that my parents and brothers and sisters take huge pride in and hopefully we pass it on to our kids; to share the cultural differences of being Irish and Nigerian because it is important to know where you come from.”

Chiedozie Ogbene rises to the occasion against Portugal. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Chiedozie Ogbene rises to the occasion against Portugal. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ogbene’s head-spinning first year on the international scene concluded last November with the 24-year-old saluting Irish fans during a sticky affair in Luxembourg.

The 3-4-2-1 system was malfunctioning. As the attacking trio struggled for cohesion, with Ogbene’s pace drawing as many fouls as a League One promotion scrap, Adam Idah was withdrawn on 62 minutes. The arrival of Jason Knight nudged Callum Robinson further forward and suddenly the matrix clicked.

Shane Duffy’s header made it 1-0 but 20 matches into a tumultuous new era for Irish football, Stephen Kenny’s team needed more than another escapology act from the giant Derry centre half.

As Luxembourg chased an equaliser, Ireland calmly counter-attacked until Jeff Hendrick over-played a ball for Ogbene wide right. Maxime Chanot tried and failed to shake him.

“In training, we press because when you press you don’t give the opposition time to pick a pass,” said Ogbene. “So I lost the ball but – like for Rotherham – we press high and the first reaction was to get the ball back. That’s what we worked on before the game so I knew when I pressed everyone else was going to follow. It only takes one guy to kick it off.

“So I pressed. I only showed him one way because I knew he wanted to come inside. When he tried to take me on I was able to nick it. Jeff was in the right position. Knighty went into the box and I could have stood there and got my breather but all the games I have been playing have me well conditioned, so I kept going. Happy I ran into the box, instead of being lazy. Just gambled and Knighty cut it back for me.”

“Magnificent goal by any standard,” went Ronnie Whelan on commentary as Ogbene scooped Knight’s back heel into the net. “This is the stuff we are talking about. That is evolving.”

The evolution has temporarily stalled as Ogbene, Knight and Hendrick disappeared into the labyrinth of English club football. Hendrick, despite some commanding nights for Ireland, has only played 13 minutes of Newcastle United’s winter slide towards the Championship. Drop down two divisions and Ogbene is flying.

Professional football career

His pursuit of a professional football career was high risk, even foolhardy, after rejecting the elite sporting route laid before him by the GAA in Cork. In 2015, he pulled out of Nemo’s under-21 county football final replay to play for Cork City against UCD in a regular season under-19 match.

“Yeah, it was a big risk but I felt in my gut that I had to take it. If I stayed with Nemo Rangers and played Gaelic football it would have been easier to make it because obviously it is only played in Ireland and I was quite good at the sport. A lot of people knew I could go to the next level and they were giving me the pathway.

“But I wanted to be a footballer. I was just 17 when I made the decision. It was a difficult time for me because I looked at the people at Nemo Rangers as family.”

And you had kicked 1-2 in the drawn final?

“Yeah, it was a big shout to let that go but I am glad I did.”

For a time he effectively became his own agent – Glenn Corcoran handles negotiations now – approaching Limerick FC manager Martin Russell and later Rotherham boss Paul Warne to avoid even a hint of misinterpretation.

“I was just not stopping. At the time at Cork City I was not offered the right contract and having made a lot of sacrifices, like not going to college, and Cork City were very good at that time so I didn’t see myself playing games, nor did I hear the right words from the manager that I would get the opportunity.

“So I trusted my gut. It was nerve-racking making these calls at age 18 or 19, but honestly if I had go back I’d do it again.”

That might wash in the League of Ireland, but switching from Brentford to Rotherham in 2019 was supposed to be handled by the middle men.

“I have a close friend who suggested I go to a Rotherham game. And when I was there I just decided to introduce myself to the manager. Contract talks at Brentford were kind of at a halt so I just wanted to make it clear that I was serious about the move.

“The manager mentioned to me that he didn’t sign me because he wanted me, he signed me because he knew what type of person I was, having shown up to that game. He knew he was signing a good human being. He always reminds me of that.”

Rotherham United’s Chiedozie Ogbene celebrates at the full-time whistle. Photograph: by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Rotherham United’s Chiedozie Ogbene celebrates at the full-time whistle. Photograph: by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Speaking of good human beings, when did Kenny come into your life?

“I think he tried to sign me for Dundalk but going to Brentford was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. Last year, during my knee injury, he rang and said he would like to bring me on board to the national team. I was quite shocked. My agent [Corcoran] played a big part in speaking with Stephen, making sure he knew I was interested in declaring for Ireland.”

Despite FIFA erecting some highly questionable barriers for an Irish citizen born in Nigeria, Ogbene came off the bench in Budapest last June. Five caps later, he has three wins, two draws and two important goals from Ireland’s 10-nil aggregate return.

“I feel like nothing has come easy for me. I have always had to work hard. At youth level in Cork I was never the best player, I never played for the ‘emerging talent’ team or the Cork schoolboys. I always wanted to get to the level so I trained harder than everyone else.

“I would never let anyone get above me. The most talented players are treated differently, and I would have been on the receiving end when I wasn’t being treated nicely and I would always smile, I would always be happy. That comes from my mum.”

Seven-year anniversary

South Yorkshire was frozen over last week, so Ogbene could celebrate a milestone with his partner Sandra as Rotherham United’s rock-hard pitch mercifully interrupted League One’s two-match-a-week grind.

“Secretly I hoped the game against Lincoln would be called off as the right wing back role is taxing on the body,” said Ogbene, in mock conspiratorial tones over Zoom. “A lot of mileage up and down so when you play Saturday-Tuesday you feel the fatigue. You are not as explosive as you want to be.

“Also, it is our seven-year anniversary.”

Doing anything nice? “We have to! She was going to be watching a football match. . .”

Ideally Rotherham are promoted in May as League One champions and avoid a play-off slog. This would ensure his hamstrings make the Nations League in June, where four matches in 10 gruelling days include separate trips to Armenia and Ukraine (presuming a Russian invasion can be averted).

The outbreak of a third World War hindering the flow of Irish-Africans like Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele, Idah and Ogbene into the Ireland team would fit neatly into the madness of the Kenny era.

“We all have one agenda – to win for the nation,” said Ogbene of this new look Ireland side. “And, at the same time, you are doing your family proud. We came to Ireland, to a different culture, different surroundings, and the way I have been accepted really did bring tears to my mother’s eyes. You see how people treat her in Cork. She feels famous. It is really nice for her to feel included in the society.”

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