New additions make Republic squad representative of a diverse Ireland

Andrew Omobamidele, Chiedozie Ogbene and Gavin Bazunu have Nigerian heritage

Andrew Omobamidele, Chiedozie Ogbene, Gavin Bazunu and Adam Idah are all members of the Irish senior squad with Nigerian heritage. Photograph: Bagu Blanco/Inpho

Andrew Omobamidele, Chiedozie Ogbene, Gavin Bazunu and Adam Idah are all members of the Irish senior squad with Nigerian heritage. Photograph: Bagu Blanco/Inpho

 

It’s a small world. Isreal Ibeanu is a soccer referee in Dublin who also trains Irish sprinters of African descent. Last weekend his Titans athletics club had Koadchima Ogbene competing in the 100 metres in Belfast.

“With literally no training he ran 11.35,” says Ibeanu, who recently spoke to BBC Newsnight about the violent deaths of his friends and former Isaka Glentoran FC teammates George Nkencho and Toyosi Shittabey.

“It was nowhere near his personal best, which is 10.80 and that’s because he isn’t getting any support to allow him to train. But it was a good day out.

“You might have heard about his little brother . . . ”

Chiedozie Ogbene just broke into the Republic of Ireland senior squad. To call him a late bloomer at 24 would be hotly contested by Mick O’Dwyer’s son.

“Ah the legend of Chiedozie,” says Robbie O’Dwyer, a long serving mentor with Nemo Rangers. “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.”

Wait now, are we talking about Ogbene or Brian Fenton?

“If only you saw him. We had an Under-21 final in 2015, we were playing Valley Rovers up in Pairc Ui Rinn. He was 18 at the time. From midfield he got 1-2 from play.

Shane Duffy and Chiedozie Ogbene during a training session in Andorra. Photograph: Bagu Blanco/Inpho
Shane Duffy and Chiedozie Ogbene during a training session in Andorra. Photograph: Bagu Blanco/Inpho

“We drew the match and for the replay people came from all over the county, as they had heard about this fella, Chi-Doz-Ee.”

The masses went home disappointed.

“He was tied to Cork City and we had asked for him to be released for the final. We couldn’t have him for the replay, which was a huge loss to us at the time.” Nemo were beaten.

Ogbene was born in Lagos but the Rotherham United right winger accentuates his Corkness as much as anyone raised in the Rebel County, although it took longer to establish this as legal fact due to Fifa’s administrative labyrinth.

History books

Gavin Bazunu is from Firhouse in Dublin, born to a Nigerian father and an Irish mother. The Manchester City goalkeeper, currently on loan to Rochdale, became Shamrock Rovers’ youngest ever player in June 2018 at 16 years and 109 days.

“There was one moment when we walked out of the ground thinking, ‘right, ok,’” remembers Shane Robinson, Rovers academy director. “It was an Under-19s shield final. Gav was only 15 and we had a couple of injuries and we threw him in.

“He is a mannerly kid but I saw him having rows with the Under-19 defenders about protecting his goal. His info was right and he wouldn’t back down.”

Bazunu’s debut for the Republic of Ireland last March, in the 1-0 loss to Luxembourg at Lansdowne Road, will forever illuminate the history books.

“When the first shot went in we were nervous for him,” says Robinson. “The academy had never had someone who played for the first team and gone on to be capped at international level. I think the commentator said it was a nice easy one but it hopped right in front of him, and he killed it.

“How he dealt with the occasion was the same as how he dealt with his debut for our Under-15s, Under-17s, Under-19s. That calming presence, no matter what team he plays with, means defenders trust him. That’s hard to teach.”

Shamrock Rovers permanent move to Tallaght in 2009 offered the club a sprawling, multi-cultural catchment area to recruit from.

“Across our 250 players there are lots of mixed race boys but they are from Tallaght, they are Irish,” Robinson insists. “We transfer players over from Corduff, which is a similar area with similar background of kids, so they can train. I know they won’t be here if we do not do that because the families do not have the means.

“That’s the other side of the story you are writing about - the game can’t be just about taking registration fees and making money,” Robinson continues. “In the last 30, 40 years that’s effectively what it was all about. Even developing a player to sell him to make a few quid or take the reg fees off a thousand kids.

“That money didn’t really get invested anywhere. It’s another article, but the funding element is something we have to look at, properly.”

Rovers paid €6,500 for Bazunu to complete his leaving certificate at Ashfield College parallel to his professional career taking flight at Man City.

Ireland goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu is a calm presence between the posts. Photograph: Bagu Blanco/Inpho
Ireland goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu is a calm presence between the posts. Photograph: Bagu Blanco/Inpho

“Gavin and others did go away but Brexit means that is not going to be happening as much. It is important we treat it serious here and give kids the best opportunity.”

Another brewing issue is the quicker physical development of players with African parents.

“We need to put our heads together because it is not going to stop,” Robinson adds. “I see the talent coming through at Under-14, Under-15 and we have to make sure that others are not lost.

“There are more Andrew’s and more Gavin’s coming through. That’s the really good side of it but we just need to stop all the shite that goes with it around the country.”

Ibeanu offers a wider perspective: “It does not feel like the community is coming together because, I feel, they feel like it is a black problem. It is not for the community to deal with as it is not affecting the white Irish population.

“It effects them when their kid comes home crying because they didn’t get to play today because the manager dropped them for a black player.

“So then the parents come in saying ‘why is my kid not playing?’ and they put pressure on the manager to play them.”

Bias

He suggests that every coach in every club undergoes mandatory training in unconscious bias.

“And the course cannot be given by a white guy, it is given by a black person.”

Andrew Omobamidele, born to a Nigerian father and Irish mother, is from Leixlip in north county Kildare. The Norwich City centre back turns 19 this month, just in time to play Premier League football next season.

“Andrew has this Rolls Royce look about him,” says Kenny Molloy, his coach at Leixlip United. “I remember playing in our first ever All Ireland semi final against the best team in the country, which was St Joseph’s Boys. We were up against it, got beaten one-nil, but we would have lost by more only Andrew was absolutely superb.

“After the game I was asked to step outside the dressing room and the Manchester United scout, Larry Dunne, who passed away recently, God rest him, pulled me over to ask about Andrew.”

It was the easiest conversation Molloy ever had. “You are biased towards your own lads but it was massive to hear Larry say, ‘there is a small bit of Paul McGrath in him’ physically, but also the way he plays.

“I see Andrew going all the way to the top and I’ve probably been afraid to say that out loud. If he gets that bit of luck. He hasn’t had a lot of it. He has sat in my sitting room hearing about other clubs not taking him to England.

“But I do think he is different to what we have had before. He’s a modern centre half who can play through the thirds. Van Dijk has made it all sexy now, hasn’t he?”

Molloy cannot deny the racism he has witnessed in the Dublin District schoolboys league.

“We were a very close team with half the lads of African descent. That became normal for us at the club. It does become a concern as they get older because they become aware of what is being said on the sideline.”

Adam Idah was born and raised in Cork to a Nigerian father and Irish mother. He played for College Corinthians until entering the Norwich City academy in 2017 at age 16.

“He started with us at under six,” remembered ‘Mr Corinthians’ Terry O’Donovan. “A tall, gangly young fella. A really nice, easy going lad, but with electric pace.

“When he filled out he became too strong for a lot of kids his age. Ball over the top, bang.

“One other great asset is that he can strike a ball with either foot. He didn’t have to learn the finer points of the game until he went up the levels and got better coaching in the Ireland under 15 and 16 squads. That brought him on an awful lot.”

Again, O’Donovan has witnessed the first generation of Irish-African children growing up on the city’s pitches.

“Over the years we would play Dublin teams in the national cup. Cherry Orchard would always come down with a big, powerful centre forward.

“The lad with West Ham now, Mipo [ODUBEKO], played in two national cup finals against us for Joeys. It was under 14s but he was built like an adult out on the left wing. They do mature a lot earlier than Irish boys. Put everyone’s attributes together and you will come up with a good team.

“They are generally great young fellas but there may be social factors that prevent all these lads from going on to play with League of Ireland clubs.”

Social factors?

“There are no career opportunities for them. There would be a drop off at 16 of lads playing but the black lads drop off in far greater numbers. That is a terrible pity.”

The Irish men of Nigerian descent in Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland squad would rise to six if Dublin born Premier League strikers Mipo Odubeko and Michael Obafemi were available.

These numbers are only going to rise.

Racism

Toyosi Shittabey was stabbed to death in 2010. George Nkencho was shot by an armed Garda outside his front door in December 2020.

BBC Newsnight also spoke to Ken McCue, the guiding hand behind Sport Against Racism Ireland (Sari), about losing two players from the same Insaka Glentoran FC underage team in such harrowing circumstances.

Describing Garda Sergeant Vincent Connolly as one of Insaka’s “three musketeers without weapons,” when Connolly was moved out of Blanchardstown station and stopped travelling to matches in uniform the relations, McCue states, between the police and “the young lads on the street” in the Dublin 15 area suffered “a huge slump.”

Racial profiling of black males is something An Garda Síochána flatly deny, but Omobamidele recently said: “You cannot hide from racial profiling because it is true and it is there in plain sight.”

Last month RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live took up the baton with an entire show dedicated to being young, black and Irish.

Republic of Ireland players Cyrus Christie, Darren Randolph and Idah contributed with Christie’s horrendous experience on social media after defeat to the Denmark in 2018, when someone created an online petition to have him lynched, still leaves a bitter taste in the 28-year old’s mouth.

“The Garda didn’t really do too much about it,” said Christie. “I think it was more to look like they were doing something rather than to make a change and help and put the situation first, even though all the evidence was in front of them.”

Claire Byrne turned to Bashir Otukoya, an assistant professor in DCU’s school of law and government, to ask if Ireland has a serious problem with racism and policing.

“It is a major issue,” Otukoya replied. “It needs to be addressed almost immediately if we are to have that security and that support.

“There is always this denial of the real pandemic in our society, that is racism, and we need to address it and we need to start from our very foundation of support in this country and that is An Garda Síochána. Because we need to have trust in them.”

Next, Assistant Garda Commissioner Paula Hilman - who spent 34 years in the PSNI - spoke about an “enhanced training package” that will be rolled out by 2022.

Emer O’Neill, the teacher and broadcaster sitting in studio, wondered aloud: “If the organisation itself is possibly racist all the training in the world will make no difference.”

Dialogue has never been so important, Otukoya informed The Irish Times.

“We have to filter what we say so that we don’t inconvenience others. In academic language this is called ‘white fragility.’ But everybody needs to get comfortable talking about race.

“The Ireland squad is representative of a diverse Ireland and it is great to see and it is great for the country but underneath this is the fact that although we are seeing a sense of belonging, we are still restricted from being ourselves.”

Professor Otukoya is aware of a “huge recruitment drive for ethnic minority people” by the guards from his role on the government’s anti-racism committee but it is his answer to a straight question about whether An Garda Síochána is institutionally racist that cannot be ignored.

“It is ok to say that the Gardaí are institutionally racist. That is what I do not understand. It is almost as if we are not allowed to say that, as if it is an offence.

“We first have to call it out so we can address the problem. I am not saying it is deliberate. I know Gardaí, I have worked with Gardaí, I am teaching Gardaí so I know they are operating under a process that they have been taught.

“That process is devoid of considerations for diversity because of the way our institutions have risen from 100 years ago, when the state was created, and before that we were under the British system, and you can still see a resemblance of that in our laws, so unless we address institutional racism, which is in most of our public institutions, if not all of them . . .

“Why are we so insistent not to say we have problems with institutional racism when countries such as the UK, the US, the Netherlands - huge countries who have dealt with immigration for years - can admit to institutional racism and are doing something about it?

“Why are we, when we are so new to diversity, saying ‘No, we can’t say that.’ It is perplexing. That is not to say we are being deliberately racist but they do not understand that what they are doing is being racist. That is the point.”

If the Christie situation reoccurred this week, have there been any changes in policing to ensure the perpetrator would be punished?

“There hasn’t been any significant change,” Otukoya concludes. “Not enough to say we are happy, that this is our home where we feel safe and protected.

“There is so much work to be done.”

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