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'Anyone who would have played against him would have said, 'Oh God, where did you get him from?'

As he breaks onto the biggest stage of all, The42 profiles the rise of Adam Idah.

TERRY O’DONOVAN SAYS his eyesight isn’t the best, but he had no issue spotting Adam Idah’s coruscating talent straight away. 

luton-town-v-norwich-city-pre-season-friendly-kenilworth-road Adam Idah. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Terry co-ordinates the schools’ section of College Corinthians in Cork, the club to which Idah arrived as a six-year-old with talent and left for Norwich City a decade later with a whole lot more.  

So, when did the club realise they had something special in Idah? 

“From the first moment we met him”, Terry tells The42

“He was tall and quite gangly, but he had a couple of things that made him stand out straight away. He was exceptionally pacy, and from a very young age he was capable of playing the ball with either foot.

“By the time he was 10 or 11 he could strike a ball into the top corner from 25 yards on either foot.” 

Those traits abide: on his way to an FA Cup hat-trick for Norwich against Preston last weekend, Idah lofted a 30-yard effort into the net with his left foot.

He won’t be 19 until next month, but Idah may be involved for Norwich at Old Trafford later today and his name has already escaped from Mick McCarthy’s mouth in the context of a senior international call-up. 

Alumni of Douglas Community School who had left for college long before Idah arrived in the building have joked that it’s time to get their stories straight of how well they knew him: signs they are cleaving to the same principle that led the entire population of Limerick to claim they saw Munster beat the All Blacks in Thomond Park. 

Idah was born in Grange in Cork to an Irish mother and a Nigerian father and having spent some time in England – Southwark Carrib FC in London can lay claim to being his first club – he returned to Douglas to live with his mother Fiona and brother Brandon. 

His natural athleticism meant he excelled at a range of sports: he ran with Leevale Athletics Club, played Gaelic football, and won a county hurling title with his secondary school, but football was his main priority. 

Idah grew up as a Chelsea fan and fell on Cristiano’s side in the infernal Ronaldo/Messi debate, all the while laying waste to what was put in front of him across soccer pitches in Cork. 

He scored four goals in an U13 National Cup semi-final – qualifying for a final against Malahide at which he was first scouted by Norwich – and in 2014 went to the Komm Mitt Cup in Barcelona where he scored just the 15 goals across six games. 

“Anyone that age who would have played against him would have said, “Oh God, where did you get him from’”, says Terry O’Donovan. 

While his precocious talents cut a blazing trail through Cork, Terry admits there were some elements of his game that Idah needed to improve. 

“What he might have had a weakness was his football brain, he didn’t have a natural instinct for the game as a young fella. He had great individual talent but wasn’t great at linking the play.

“He wouldn’t always have come looking for the ball, linking the play and showing again.

“His nature was that if the ball didn’t come to him, he might not have gone looking for it. But then in the space of a couple of seconds he’d score, and you’d be wondering, ‘Adam, what were we complaining about?’” 

Those instincts were sharpened in the international set-up.

Idah caught the eye in the Kennedy Cup – at which he was again scouted by Norwich, along with Aston Villa – and made his Irish debut at U15 level in the Hibernia Cup.

He made that debut in the context of deep personal grief, playing two days after the death of his grandfather Kevin Hayes, who worked in the machine room of the Irish Examiner.  

In an interview with Cork’s Evening Echo in 2015, Idah named his late grandfather as the person he most admired, for his “amazing attitude to life.”

“His grandfather would have been a very good, steadying and sobering influence on Adam”, says Terry O’Donovan.

He would have been very concerned for Adam and very supportive, and his mother Fiona would also have been the same. They were very good for him, and because he was a very easy-going fella they would never have forced him. He had talent and if it worked out, great, but they weren’t pushy and they looked after his all-round development. I’d say Adam’s grandfather fulfilled a lot of parental functions, and was a very big influence on him.

“Himself and his mam always did what’s best for Adam. His Corinthians coaches never had any issue with ‘Oh, they aren’t giving the ball to Adam’, or anything stupid.” 

Idah scored in that Hibernia Cup game and dedicated the goal to his grandfather’s memory. 

He continued at U15 level with Colin O’Brien – whom he would again link up with at U17 level – and O’Brien recalls coaching Idah as a “privilege.” 

“He had a lot of height and strength for his age, but there were things in his game that I knew he would have to improve when he stepped up a level”, says O’Brien. 

The step-up came in Dundalk, on an Autumn afternoon against Poland. “In the first-half I remember he was up against two centre-halves who were his size and could stay with him”, remembers O’Brien.

“They could read the game and intercept, and he had a really tricky first-half. But with a couple of tweaks at half-time and a couple of challenges to him, he went out and was excellent in the second half. 

“I knew then how we had to work with Adam. He is a very coachable boy, but he needed that type of game and opponent to understand there is plenty you have to do to move on with your game.” 

It worked. O’Donovan says he noticed Idah’s all-round game improving as soon as he began playing international games, and he was promptly promoted to U16 level. 

Head coach Paul Osam put Idah on standby for a tournament in Hungary in the summer of 2016, and when Aaron Connolly injured himself taking a shot on the first day of training, Idah got the call. 

It was the perfect opportunity at an imperfect time: Idah was in Birmingham, on trial with Aston Villa. He hopped on a train to London, where he was collected by FAI talent scout Mark O’Toole and driven to the airport to catch a flight to Budapest. 

Idah sat out the first game but played in the second, during which he earned a starting place in the third game against Slovakia. 

Ireland won 2-0, although Idah fluffed his lines in front of goal. 

“I remember speaking to the staff after, saying ‘He could have had a hat-trick today’, Osam tells The42. 

“And he could have, but he was there to get the hat-trick.

“That was the big difference. He was reading the game well, he had intelligence, a good touch and was good with his back to goal. But he was a bit raw and a bit inconsistent.”

Players are given individual “improvement goals” by their national coaches, which are passed on to the players’ individual clubs.

“The biggest thing we were saying to him – and remember he was only 15 – was [the need for] consistency in his game. That comes with practice, it comes with concentration, and it comes with scoring more goals. In the Slovakia game he could have had a hat-trick. We were pointing out that it was great that he was getting into those positions, but he needed to concentrate to make good contact and score.

“With his back to goal, he was good as he was so strong, but the ball bounced off him sometimes as he was trying to turn before the ball came to him, at times.

“You can’t be too negative with a young lad like that – and I would have given him a lot of praise – but he needed that consistency in his game. Don’t accept not hitting the target. You’ll have loads of opportunities to score; be really clinical. Have that single-mindedness to score.” 

adam-idah Idah in action at the U17 European Championships in 2018. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Idah didn’t hang around at U16 level for long – O’Brien promoted him to the U17s pretty quickly – but Osam was sure of his talent at the Victory Shield, held a few months after that Slovakia game. 

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He scored twice in the opening game against Wales, and Ireland went into the final game against hosts Scotland needing only a draw to win the tournament for the first time. 

“Scotland had what they thought then was a bit of a golden generation”, recalls Osam.

There were a couple of hyped names in that Scottish side, namely Billy Gilmour – now on the fringes of Chelsea’s first team squad having played against Bohemians in a friendly last summer – and the prodigious Karamoko Dembélé, who played for Celtic’s U20 side at the age of just 13 earlier that month. 

“It was front page news – not back page news – in the Edinburgh daily”, remembers Osam, “that Scotland were in line to win the Victory Shield.

“We had a smashing team – Adam, Jason Knight, Kameron Ledwidge, Barry Coffey, Nathan Collins – we had a really good side. People didn’t realise at the time what a good team that was, and I think Scotland felt it was a formality that they would beat us.

“But we beat them 3-0, and I remember Adam’s goal, the first goal. I’d love to show people the actual finish, it was world-class from a 15-year-old. He faked a shot, then dragged the ball with the undersole of his foot to the other side to go around the ‘keeper and tapped it into an empty net.

“I pulled out what little hair I had at the time when he tried to do the dragback…but he pulled it off.

“It was a massive game. It wasn’t just a kick-around, but he made it look like he was just out there with his mates, doing what he enjoys.”

Skip to 1.13.23 of the video below to see Idah’s goal against Scotland 

Source: Scotland National Team/YouTube

Idah eschewed Villa’s interest to sign a contract with Norwich following his 16th birthday in 2017. Before he moved over, he caught Irish eyes at the U17 European Championships in which he scored Ireland’s winner against Bosnia. 

His subsequent rise through the Norwich youth ranks earned him a new contract in July of last year, along with a promotion to the first-team squad. 

The last few weeks, meanwhile, have inched him toward the biggest stage of all.

Injuries to Teemu Pukki and Josip Drmic have put him in line for a first Premier League start against Manchester United later today, a game at which he will be scouted by Irish assistant manager Terry Connor. 

“He is a quiet, shyish kind of kid”, says Osam of Idah, “but he is driven and has a great attitude. It’s no coincidence these guys are successful. He still has that shyness and innocence, and still grunts “Howaya”, when he sees me. 

“He is a smashing lad, an absolute gem.”

Norwich manager Daniel Farke has stressed patience regarding Idah, but the teenager now looks unlikely to leave Carrow Road on loan during this transfer window amid the promise of first-team opportunity. 

“The one thing I fear”, says Terry O’Donovan, “is people will go overboard because of what happened [against Preston.]

“Obviously Irish soccer is looking for a star, but he’s a very young lad and a very quiet lad, so it’s important he keeps his feet on the ground and people don’t go overboard.”

Keeping his feet on the ground shouldn’t be a problem.

During the twilight of a dwindling summer evening last year, O’Donovan found himself at Corinthians, moving goalposts for some reason or another and forced to usher away a group of kids having a kickabout on the pitch. 

It was only after he kicked them off that he realised one of those kids was Adam Idah. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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