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'Nobody was willing to take a gamble on him' - The unlikely rise of an Irish teenage star

One of the coaches who witnessed Andrew Omobamidele’s climb to the Premier League on the perseverance that eventually took the Ireland defender to the top level of the game.

Omobamidele

KENNY MOLLOY and Paul Martin were laughing to themselves as they left the Aviva Stadium the other week.

The Leixlip coach and chairperson had just watched 19-year-old Andrew Omobamidele put in a highly impressive performance as Ireland earned a creditable 1-1 draw with Serbia.

It was the youngster’s full debut, but he looked so assured and comfortable that it could just as easily have been his 50th cap.

The previous week, he found himself coming off the bench and marking Cristiano Ronaldo, as Ireland went desperately close to earning a sensational win against Portugal.

A few days after the Serbia game, Omobamidele would make his Premier League debut in Norwich’s 1-0 loss to Arsenal, playing the full 90 minutes at the Emirates Stadium.

“We were saying it’s just unbelievable, it’s the same kid,” Molloy tells The42. “Except he’s doing it at the absolute elite level and the level we always believed he could play at. But when you see it, you have to pinch yourself. As much as we all believed and used to say this fella was different class when you actually see him doing it at that level, it’s just something to behold.”

So in a way, nothing had changed, and yet everything did.

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Until this month, many fans and even some pundits would have been unaware of Omobamidele’s existence. Now, he was being talked about as representing the future of Irish football.

He had come a long way from the quiet kid Molloy had first encountered, who was “obsessed with” the idea of moving to England and becoming a star.

Born in Dublin to a Nigerian father and Cork-born mother, Omobamidele spent the early years of his life living in Lucan before the family moved to Leixlip.

Molloy first met the youngster when some school friends brought him up to training at Leixlip United.

Aged eight at the time, Omobamidele was by no means the club’s most talented player back then. In fact, he spent the first few seasons in their B team.

“He wasn’t over the moon, to be honest, playing with the B team,” remembers Molloy.

“But he was probably a little bit raw and the other boys would have had a couple of seasons between being in the academy and playing competitively.”

Even then though, Omobamidele was starting to show the pace and strength that would be key components of his game, and the more he trained, the better he became.

One of the youngster’s distinguishing features is his remarkable composure on the ball, and this quality can be partially attributed to the fact that he played as both a striker and midfielder at Leixlip, before eventually settling on centre-back.

“He just turned into one of these lads where you realised he could play literally anywhere. Even in goals, the lot. And in every position, you’d think there’s more in him. He could improve as a centre forward, a midfielder, a right-back, but he moved into the A team then, a couple of seasons later. It was a really good environment there, we had so many players pushing each other.”

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Every time Molloy moved Omobamidele up a level or presented him with a new challenge, such as when he went from nine to 11-a-side football, it didn’t seem to faze him.

“I’d be lying if I was saying he was number one in every game, he wasn’t. There were days where you were going, he looks so comfortable, you’d love to see him do more, push himself more. But it didn’t matter whether we were playing in the middle of Fairview, Belvedere, Kevin’s, Andrew was absolutely ice.

“With other teams you had big six-foot lads at the back, heading balls as far as they could kick them.

“Andrew was taking the ball down and looking to play. We absolutely always looked to develop and promote that. But with Andrew, it was just natural for him.

“Now, did I tear my hair out and did we lose games because of it at times? Yeah possibly. But there was always a bigger picture and more often than not with Andrew, it was there. We just felt we had something different and that would have been the best way of describing it.”

Yet even among his peers, Omobamidele was still not a star player.

Reflecting on Leixlip missing out on promotion to the Premier Division of the Dublin District Schoolboys’ League at U12s, Molloy considers it a blessing in disguise, believing neither Omobamidele nor the team, in general, were ready for that level.

Instead in the same year, Leixlip won the second tier, known as the Major, along with a couple of cups.

Omobamidele had been playing as a defensive midfielder but moved to centre-back once they switched to 11-a-side at U13 level.

That season, the player’s improvement became more noticeable and Molloy started to believe he had something special on his hands — a feeling backed up by a particularly impressive showing during an All-Ireland semi-final. They were beaten 1-0 by a St Joseph’s Boys team that included Mipo Odubeko, who has since gone on to play at senior level with West Ham, but Omobamidele still shone.

“Andrew was a one-man army at the back that day,” Molloy recalls. “After the game, I got asked out of the dressing room by the Man United scout, Larry Dunne, who reaffirmed everything we were thinking. He felt there was a small bit of Paul McGrath in him. He took his name, his details and asked me a bit about him. He said they’d keep an eye on him. And when you hear something like that, it’s just magic. Because then you’re going: ‘I knew there was something in the lad.’ Not that he was going to go and play at Man United, but we’re not the only ones that think this fella has a chance of playing at another level in England.

“But he wasn’t picked for DDSL teams and in the 14s, the following year, he was in a couple of sub squads, standby stuff. But he never made the Kennedy Cup team and a lot of these managers and scouts involved with the DDSL, I could see sometimes where they were thinking, as I touched on earlier, they weren’t sure how good he was. He was doing just enough in games. But he was making games look so easy in the position he was playing in and probably wasn’t excelling really. But he’d show glimpses of stuff that people would have seen the other night [at the Aviva] — taking the ball out from the back, charging through, beating players, picking out passes from 60 yards. He started to do this more and more as the U14s went on.

“But maybe these fellas didn’t feel he was at that level at that time. Obviously, at Leixlip we certainly did, but you can’t dictate stuff like that, all you can do is keep working hard.”

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At U15s level, more teams across the water began to take notice of Omobamidele, while joining a League of Ireland side was another possible avenue.

After impressing in a 3-2 loss against Leeds United at the Galway Cup, Omobamidele, along with another Leixlip player, Gabriel Adebambo (currently on the books at Stoke), earned a trial at Birmingham City.

“Andrew did very well over at Birmingham twice,” recalls Molloy. “I remember Birmingham even flew me over. I thought: ‘This is it. All that Andrew’s worked for.’

“We thought it was all done and dusted, but I got the call on the Monday to say that they just ‘decided to go with something else, another lad’. That was a big blow for Andrew. And there was plenty of adversity along the way with stories like that.

“I had to sit him down in the sitting room here and break it to him and I remember that was extremely difficult, it really was. But then the other side of it was, we knew he was close. And Andrew knew it.

“So we decided to stick with our own team. And Andrew did get a couple of trials after that — we were trying to get a couple of scouts and agents down who were involved with other clubs.

“A year before, some of them felt he wasn’t there, but when they came and watched him again at the Galway Cup, we got him over to Stoke and Rotherham. But all these passed on him.”

So does Omobamidele’s story highlight that not all young players come ready-made?

“100%. And I’m telling you now if you were to open up what you’ve just said in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of Andrew Omobamidele. Nobody was willing to take a gamble on him at 13-15. I rang them all, there wasn’t anyone we didn’t ring. And players slipping through the net is always a worry for me. I feel we can lose kids if we’re not careful. And that’s why with grassroots and academy football, we all have to learn off each other.”

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At U16s level, Omobamidele was starting to stand out even more at Leixlip and consequently, a trial at Norwich beckoned. By this stage, the player, his family and Molloy all felt emotionally drained from the numerous fruitless trips over to Britain and back.

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“He went over to Norwich on his first trial and did okay. The feedback was: ‘We’ll take another look at him.’ He went over a second time and did a little bit better. They were a bit 50:50 on him. And then by the third time, I dropped him at the airport.

“At this stage, he was after having multiple trials. It was starting to take its toll on us all really, more so his poor mother than Andrew. We were thinking: ‘Look, if it doesn’t happen, it’s probably not his time yet and maybe he could go to League of Ireland or something like that to kick on’ because we were at U16 level.

“On his third trial, they got absolutely hammered by Chelsea 6-0. He rang me up, told me the score, and I had my head in my hands.

“But he said: ‘You’re not going to believe it, they’re going to sign me.’ I’m even emotional talking about it now, it was a massive relief. His ma was crying and we were all crying on the phone with sheer joy because all the English clubs I mentioned gave him a knockback and felt he wasn’t there or at the level.

“And to be fair to Norwich, I spoke with them after Andrew had signed. They were absolutely brilliant and they hit the nail on the head with him. They said: ‘We’re not taking Andrew for where he is now, we’re thinking about where we think he could go.’ That was what we had always felt about Andrew, there was so much more in him.

“We felt by [initially] hanging on to him and playing at the highest level of DDSL, the easiest thing could have been to go: ‘You know what? You’re better off going League of Ireland 15s.’ But we knew he was close, we really did. And there were a couple of other scouts I spoke to that were saying: ‘The boy has a real chance.’”

The club also benefited more immediately from keeping hold of Omobamidele. His last game before departing across the water saw him captain the side to All-Ireland success.

Molloy adds: “To have Andrew lift that cup in his last-ever game for the club and put in arguably a man-of-the-match performance a couple of weeks before he headed off, it epitomises the guy.”

Omobamidele broke into the Norwich first team last season, less than a month after signing his first professional contract at the club, having only moved over to England in June 2018.

He is the first male Leixlip United player to have represented Ireland at senior level, following in the footsteps of female star Emma Byrne.

“Watching the game the other night and walking around the town here, everybody feels we have a part of this. ‘Proud’ doesn’t even remotely cover it. There’s a great buzz about the place. The club is bouncing at the moment. Even in the town, I’ve lived here most of my life and people are stopping you and congratulating you on what a credit he is to the town and that’s what he is.”

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Molloy remains close with Omobamidele since his move. In addition to speaking “two or three times a week on the phone,” he will sometimes visit him in England, while the defender will do likewise when he is back home.

“If I don’t get home [from work] quick enough, my dinner will be gone,” Molloy, who now balances his time between coaching Leixlip and Athlone U19s, laughs.

And Molloy maintains that Omobamidele’s humble personality has not changed much, even since he’s become a household name.

“A couple of months back, there were a few kids on the road. He went out and took a few solos. He’s really good like that with younger kids because he knows he was there himself. That’s a really good trait I feel he has. He’ll never be one of the lads that will have the sunglasses on walking by fans, ‘not today’ type of thing. He gets it and he knows he’s in an incredible position in life.”

Molloy continues: “Andrew would be quite an introvert. It’s either five or 5,000 words depending on what way you catch him.

“For example, we spoke after the Irish game against Serbia. He called in here, I happened to miss him, but he rang me then when he landed, and we must have been an hour on the phone, going through the buzz and the excitement, the whole game, saying it’s one of the best moments of his life.

“At another stage, he’d come into the house, put his feet up and barely say about three words to you.

“My other half would come in and I’d say: ‘How was Andrew?’ ‘He just sat here watching the match.’ And that’s Andrew. He’d be a quiet enough lad, football is his thing and once we’re out on the pitch and right after games, that’s where he’s at his most vocal.

“He’s quite reserved and is one of these lads who does his talking with his boots — that’s when I see him come alive.”

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Paul Fennessy

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