GAA and a move to Cork gave Chiedozie Ogbene the platform to flourish

‘I had a lot of heated moments where people thought I wasn’t going to make it’

Chiedozie Ogbene in action for Nemo Rangers against Mallow’s Matty Taylor during a Cork under-21 club game at Mourneabbey in 2014. Photograph: Eddie O’Hare/Irish Examiner

Chiedozie Ogbene in action for Nemo Rangers against Mallow’s Matty Taylor during a Cork under-21 club game at Mourneabbey in 2014. Photograph: Eddie O’Hare/Irish Examiner

 

‘Nemo’s Chiedozie Ogbene made all the difference with a smashing goal as he finished Conor Gould’s through ball.’

– The Irish Examiner report on the 2015 Cork under-21 county football final

Chiedozie Ogbene was asked if there was a moment, perhaps deep into a December night slogging away for Nemo Rangers, that the boy from Lagos wished Emmanuel Ogbene had taken that job in Florida, or at least checked the climate, before migrating to Cork.

“I guess it was the best decision that he made for his family and I’m reaping the rewards for being here. Ever since I’ve been in Ireland, I’ve really enjoyed it and you can probably hear my Cork accent coming and going.

“The people around me and the people I grew up with are very supportive and my school [Bunscoil Chríost Rí] keeps in contact with me and [says] how proud I make them.

“I love the kids and how I inspire them to follow their dream because obviously where I come from, I played GAA for Nemo growing up and a lot of GAA players stick with GAA because they don’t think football could be the way forward and I had to make a big sacrifice at 17 to sacrifice GAA, which was a big step in my career and I had a lot of heated moments where people thought I wasn’t going to make it. For people to see me now I’m inspiring other kids and I take pride and joy in that.”

The 24 year-old’s considered response reveals a rare character. Ogbene embraces his Corkness, his Nigerian roots and being Irish, all at the same time.

“He still comes back to Nemo to use our hurling wall,” Robbie O’Dwyer told The Irish Times earlier this year. “He was always found there, working on his football skills.”

O’Dwyer, a Nemo mentor for decades, speaks in reverential tones about Ogbene’s work ethic.

“If he stuck to the GAA he would have played for Cork. He had everything – pace, skill, fielding ability. He could even run and read the play.”

Such gushing praise is hard to believe but it comes from a man who grew tall in the shadow of his father, Mick O’Dwyer, and all those magnificent Kerry footballers.

“If only you saw Chiedozie,” O’Dwyer gently chided.

Chiedozie Ogbene runs at the Hungary defence during the international friendly at the Szusza Ferenc Stadion in Budapest back in June. Photograph: Attila Trenka/Inpho
Chiedozie Ogbene runs at the Hungary defence during the international friendly at the Szusza Ferenc Stadion in Budapest back in June. Photograph: Attila Trenka/Inpho

Everyone saw his electric debut in Budapest this summer. Stephen Kenny does not hand out cheap praise but regular jaunts into the League One weeds has him lapping up Ogbene’s torture of full backs with speed that mirrors sprinter brother Koadchima.

“God has blessed me with some pace,” said Ogbene on Tuesday. “And with pace and power it does put trouble on the defensive side and if I can take pressure off my team-mates, attack is the best form of defence.

“That’s what I try to do, I try to create problems high up the pitch and hopefully get a goal for myself or set up a goal.”

Nemo still miss him.

“He was tied to Cork City and we had asked for him to be released for the final,” remembered O’Dwyer of that last appearance when he struck 1-2, “but we couldn’t have him for the replay, which was a huge loss to us at the time.”

It was a decision – amateur or professional – that the teenager did not take lightly.

“Yeah, it was a big risk. I remember I had a match on the same day as the county final and we had to play UCD away and I had to make a decision. The manager said to me: ‘I know both teams want you but you need to make a decision. You’re 18 you can’t keep this up’.

“Obviously I’m quite an emotional person and it was a very difficult decision to ring the GAA federation and Nemo and say that I wanted to follow football. It wasn’t an easy decision being that young and it was a great decision as I still have the support of Nemo Rangers and all the GAA crowd so it was a risk worth taking.”

Nemo lost and within a year he was at Limerick and another year away to Aston Villa. Life in England led him to Brentford and a loan stint at Exeter City before Rotherham United saw what Kenny sees. Paul Warne, his club manager, described him as “unplayable” when the body is tuned.

“I never had the idea of quitting. I know it’s extremely difficult. I was in this position before when I was at Cork City and I didn’t get much game time so I obviously had to sacrifice and leave my hometown to go to Limerick and travel up on the bus to play for Limerick.

Chiedozie Ogbene: “I love the kids and how I inspire them to follow their dream.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Chiedozie Ogbene: “I love the kids and how I inspire them to follow their dream.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

“When I was at Brentford I had two years left on my contract – I just had a gut feeling, I just want to play football, I want to learn the game, I don’t want to waste years sitting on the bench and not getting the experience. So I made the decision to go to Rotherham and obviously it paid off and that’s why I’m here playing with the national team and talking to you.”

Ogbene’s pace could literally save the jobs of 20 staff working under Kenny’s admittedly inexperienced direction these past 13 months. His debut against Hungary will be remembered for the chants that Viktor Orban, the country’s far-right leader refuses to condemn. Those same racists went after black English players last month.

Ogbene faced the abuse and played his heart out in an injury-time cameo, smashing his one chance into the side netting. But, in a true act of bravery, he embraces the importance of being the first Nigerian-born Irish international. He knows there are thousands of young boys and girls, with parents who were forced to leave their own land, empowered by his appearance in a green shirt.

“I want to create a pathway for them to show that if you live [in Ireland] you get these great opportunities.”

Most professional athletes baulk at the idea of being a role model in word and deed.

“To carry that burden of being the first African-born player is very special and I can see how proud it has made my family and you see the people of Cork and those I work with, it’s priceless.

“I really enjoy the Irish culture and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why my father chose Ireland over Florida which was the other option that he had.

“He knew the Irish people that he had worked with and he really enjoyed it and he chose to be here. I don’t know exactly why he would be but it’s obviously a country that gives foreigners a lot of opportunities.

“Obviously I am one of them so that is what I would think is maybe the reason.”

Composure in front of goal is a trait Kenny’s Ireland desperately craves. The entire project is now dependent on it. Wigan’s Will Keane was recruited to bring the best from younger strikers Adam Idah, Troy Parrott and Aaron Connolly – the talented trio Kenny bizarrely tossed into the Azerbaijan fire last month. That failed selection forced Shane Duffy into the usual heroics to secure an embarrassing draw.

A hamstrung Ogbene missed all the drama. Maybe he’ll create some in Baku.

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