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'The togetherness of this nation is why I’m so proud to be here' - Ogbene aiming to inspire future generations

Irish international Chiedozie Ogbene talks about his remarkable journey, and what is still yet to come.

Chiedozie Ogbene speaks to the press.
Chiedozie Ogbene speaks to the press.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IT’S A MUGGY June night in Budapest, and Chiedozie Ogbene takes the call he takes after every game he plays. 

He’s never played a game quite like this, though: Chiedozie has just become the first African-born player to represent Ireland at senior level and so his mother is weeping great tears of joy down the phone. 

“My mum rings me after every game I play. The first thing she says is: ‘How are you feeling? I hope you are healthy.’ And that’s what she worries about.

“She was very teary. I could tell by the emotion in her voice. My parents take pride when their kids do well. Where we come from in Cork, a lot of people notice her and they ask about her, so she feels famous!

“I can see how happy it makes her and she answers questions, so she feels very important and she always dreamed of me helping her and being recognised. I hope I’m doing my best.” 

There followed a Zoom call with his two brothers and two sisters, and a phone call to his father, without whom none of this would have happened. 

Ogbene’s father Emmanuel is from Nigeria, and took a job opportunity in Ireland when Chiedozie was seven.

He might have moved to the States but ultimately picked Cork.  

“I really enjoy the 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”, says Ogbene. “He knew the Irish people that he had worked with and he really enjoyed it, and he chose to be here. It’s obviously a country that gives foreigners a lot of opportunities.”

Chiedozie availed of the chance to try Gaelic football, and in an alternate world, he would now be a mainstay of Nemo Rangers’ midfield, and likely Cork’s too. Ultimately, though, he eventually had to make his decision. 

“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 [with Cork City] 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 and 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 tell them 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.” 

The challenges didn’t end there. He struggled to break into the Cork City first-team and so moved to Limerick, commuting by bus from Cork. It was there he caught fire, and also came to the attention of Stephen Kenny, who tried to sign him for Dundalk. Instead Ogbene got his move across the water to Brentford, whom he then boldly left for Rotherham in 2019, searching for first-team football. 

He had two years left on his contract and Thomas Frank wanted to keep him, so, on another alternate timeline, Ogbene could have been part of their great Premier League adventure. 

“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”, says Ogbene. “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.”

Rotherham hasn’t always been plain sailing, either: he missed most of their recent season in the Championship with a knee injury. Some have wondered out loud whether they would have been relegated at all had Ogbene not missed six months of the season.

That was the season that ended with his Irish debut, which came after an arduous, year-long paperwork process which involved the FAI sifting through school records to prove Ogbene had spent three years here before his 10th birthday.

Thus he made history by playing the final few minutes of Ireland’s goalless friendly draw with Hungary in Budapest, albeit in an acrid atmosphere. The Irish players alone took a knee before the game and were booed by the 10,000 Hungarian fans in the stadium, with Ogbene admitting afterwards that, had he scored late on, his emotions may have gotten the better of him. He was met with hate on the terraces, but love everywhere else. 

“Maybe that’s why my family chose to come here: the support here is amazing”, he says. “Seamus Coleman, as the captain of the team, he was pushing for us to take the knee, because I know how difficult it can be for people of different races and different background to speak out. So he made it easier for us by him speaking out. I know how hard it is for those younger players, that it might affect. That’s what we have here; that’s the culture we have. The togetherness in this nation is why I’m so proud to be here.”

Ogbene is back in the Irish squad for a second time this week, having missed the triple-header in September – Portugal heartbreak and all – with a hamstring strain, tweaked on one of his searing runs in his wing-back role for Rotherham this season. 

His next ambition is his competitive debut, with the qualifier in Baku against Azerbaijan on Saturday the target. 

“I’d obviously Iike to play but I’ll try to make the gaffer’s decision as difficult as I can by training well all week.

“But if I’m not, then I will be ready and whoever starts then I’m sure that they will be determined to try to win for the nation.” 

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chiedozie-ogbene-is-substituted-on-for-jason-knight-to-make-his-international-debut Ogbene makes his debut in Hungary. Source: Attila Trenka/INPHO

And even on the darkest and wettest nights of his formative years across the damp football fields of Cork, Ogbene never once wondered what might have been if his father had picked Florida. 

“When you get older and you go through winter days you’re thinking: ‘Dad, what made you come here!?’ (Laughs).

“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 keeps in contact with me, and [say] 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.

“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.”

- Originally published at 7am

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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