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Dublin: 10 °C Sunday 17 February, 2019

League of Ireland graduate Ogbene pursuing Premier League football and Nigeria call-up

It’s been a rapid rise for the 21-year-old winger who grew up in Cork.

THAT THE RANGE of athletes he admires varies from Jay Jay Okocha to Paul Kerrigan reveals much about how Chiedozie Ogbene is wired.

Born in Nigeria but bred in Ireland, Ogbene’s decision to focus on attempting to carve out a career in professional soccer cost Nemo Rangers — and potentially Cork — a promising Gaelic footballer.

Chiedozie Ogbene celebrates at the final whistle Chiedozie Ogbene Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Having been captivated by the thought of kicking a ball for a living since watching Liverpool win the Champions League in 2005, he didn’t encounter much of a predicament when the time came for him to choose one sport instead of the other.

Should he continue to progress as rapidly as he has done over the past five years, Ogbene is likely to be at the centre of another tug-of-war for his talents before long.

“I am shocked by how fast things have happened,” admits the perennially upbeat Brentford winger, who turned 21 earlier this month. “If you told me this time last year that I’d be playing for a club challenging for promotion to the Premier League, I think I would have just laughed at you.”

Ogbene played his schoolboy football for several clubs in Cork. He started out with Tramore Athletic, before moving on to Corinthians and then Kilreen Celtic. Even at U16 level he occasionally had to settle for being a substitute.

However, he quickly began to reveal his potential in youth football after a move to the Togher-based Everton club, where his performances grabbed the attention of Cork City.

By then he was finally making inroads on his journey towards a career in the game, but he’s keen to point out that his involvement in GAA played an important role. Prior to joining Nemo Rangers, the kingpins of Gaelic football on Leeside, Ogbene received a solid grounding in the game from Kerryman Aidan Moynihan at Coláiste Chríost Rí.

“I feel like he turned me into an athlete,” Ogbene says. “We did a lot of conditioning work and I think that pushed me on in soccer. It put me ahead of a lot of people in terms of the physicality. I’m very thankful for all the training I put into GAA because it really helped me.”

Chiedozie Ogbene celebrates scoring a goal with Sean Maguire Ogbene celebrates with Sean Maguire after scoring for Cork City against Galway United. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ogbene’s last act as a Gaelic footballer was to score a goal and two points in a man-of-the-match performance for Nemo in the drawn U21 county football final in 2015. With Nemo hampered by his absence for the replay due to a clash with an important Cork City U19 game, Valley Rovers won with a nine-point cushion.

“It was from that day on that I knew I had to decide which way I was going to go,” he explains. “I’ve wanted to be a professional soccer player since I was a young boy. I really enjoyed Gaelic football. I kind of fell in love with the game when I went down to Nemo.

“But whenever I watched soccer and saw players like Cristiano Ronaldo performing in front of huge crowds every week, trying to be like that was what I wanted more than anything.”

Two months after his star turn in the U21 championship decider with Nemo, John Caulfield handed 18-year-old Ogbene his first-team debut for Cork City in a 1-0 win over Bohemians at Dalymount Park on the final day of the 2015 Premier Division campaign.

The following season, the pacy and powerful winger made eight more league appearances and chipped in with three goals. As well as being an important member of the City U19 side who reached the second round of the Uefa Youth League before losing to AS Roma, he came off the bench at the Aviva Stadium as the Leesiders won the FAI Cup at Dundalk’s expense.

Heading into the 2017 season, Ogbene was certainly on track with his plans to catch the eye of clubs in the UK. City fans had great expectations for the young attacker, while the club also boasted an impressive track record as a platform for players to secure cross-channel transfers.

After graduating from the U19 set-up, Ogbene was offered a full-time contract by Caulfield. But while he stalled on putting pen to paper, Limerick got wind of the situation and pounced with an increased offer to entice him up the N20.

Chiedozie Ogbene celebrates with The FAI Cup Ogbene won the FAI Cup with Cork City in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ogbene insists, however, that the key factor in his decision to leave Cork was his belief that he couldn’t be guaranteed regular game-time in a team that already had players of the calibre and experience of Stephen Dooley and Karl Sheppard in his position.

“If you want to be seen, you need to be playing,” he says. “I love to see young players going to where they’re most likely going to play often. Football is a short career so you want to get the most from it as soon as you can.

“After going to Limerick for a few days, I had a strong conviction that it was the right thing to do. I basically had to make an estimate. Cork City had a really good team who had just won the FAI Cup and they went on to win the league and the cup again. I’m going to be honest: the players there were better than me.

“If I put myself in the manager’s position, of course I’m going to play those better players. There was no hatred between me and John. I just felt like I wasn’t good enough, but I didn’t want to wait for opportunities to play and improve. I needed to go and develop somewhere that I could play every week to achieve my ambitions.

“Limerick were just coming up from the First Division so the squad there wasn’t as strong as Cork City’s. Because of that, I felt that Limerick was where I could have more chances to learn my trade. The offer they made was one I felt I had to take.”

An impressive year on Shannonside, during which he scored 10 times in 37 appearances, generated the kind of attention from across the Irish Sea that he’d been hoping for. He may have missed out on being involved in a double-winning campaign in Cork, but Ogbene felt vindicated when the transfer window opened.

At the end of the 2017 League of Ireland season, there was interest from several English clubs, including a trial at Chelsea. In the end he committed to Brentford, who paid Limerick an undisclosed fee to sign him on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Oggie Source: RTÉ

Ogbene was one of nine players who swapped the League of Ireland for a British club in January. It added to a growing trend which suggests that getting a taste of competitive first-team football at home — as well as an education — before moving abroad is an increasingly popular route for Irish footballers.

“I’m much happier that I left at this age,” he admits. “I didn’t have the chance to go to England at 16, but if I had, maybe I wouldn’t have been mentally strong enough. That’s the reality of how it is.

“Maybe also I would have spent years playing academy football then and that might not be worth it when you can play first-team football in Ireland. Getting some education as well helps to prepare you mentally and you become more mature. I felt ready going over at this age.”

While he was eager to make an immediate impact, Ogbene is pragmatic enough to recognise that his substitute appearances against Nottingham Forest (10 April) and Hull City (6 May) bode well for his future. The transition from Cork to West London has also been aided by the fact that he grew up just a couple of miles down the road from Brentford’s club captain.

“John Egan has been very helpful with me. Cork lads always look out for their own,” he laughs. “I’ve settled in very well. You have to be patient because obviously I wanted to play straight away when I got there. I felt good from the season with Limerick.

“But I realised fairly quickly that technically these guys are way ahead of me. Physically, not really — they were very impressed by my pace and my strength. But it has been a step-up on the football side of things. I want to get better to catch up with the guys who are playing ahead of me. If someone is playing ahead of me, I want to know why so that I can learn exactly what I need to do to improve.

“I’ve learned more since January than I ever learned before in my career, which will hopefully stand to me next season. Making two appearances already has just given me an even greater appetite to play more.”

Medium In possession for Brentford against Hull City earlier this month. Source: Brentford FC

When it comes to resources, Brentford have been punching above their weight. This season saw them achieve a fourth consecutive top 10 finish in England’s second tier. Their average attendance (10,234) was the second-lowest in the division, although they hope to increase that figure upon moving to a new 17,250-capacity stadium which is currently under construction.

Under the ownership of Matthew Benham, a Brentford fan who made his fortune from the gambling industry, the Championship outfit have sought to use statistical data and analytics to close the gap on their bigger-spending rivals. They finished six points adrift of a play-off place this season, but the Premier League remains their desired destination.

“I think we’re the second-youngest squad in the league too so it’s a good club to develop at,” says Ogbene. “The set-up there is very good for bringing young players on. I’ve been really happy at Brentford so far. They have big ambitions for the future. A push for the Premier League is the aim.”

Speaking during a visit home to Cork following the recent conclusion of Brentford’s season, Ogbene says he’ll afford himself a week’s holiday in Spain before preparations begin for the 2018-19 campaign, in which he’s determined to make his mark for Dean Smith’s side. An international debut may be on the horizon if he manages to do so.

Ogbene, the second-youngest of five children, left Nigeria at the age of eight to move to Ireland, where his family settled in the suburb of Grange on Cork’s southside. Although he hasn’t yet been approached by either nation’s association, he’s eligible to represent two different shades of green.

He hasn’t seen Nigeria in 13 years, but Ogbene’s place of birth has retained a prominence in his life. The accent blends Leeside with Lagos, while his native attire is also a nod to the old country.

“It’s like a different world in Nigeria,” he explains. “Where we lived it wasn’t too bad, but when my dad got a job in Ireland it was a chance for us to come over here and get a better education and things like that. I’m really glad we came here. Ireland gives you opportunities that you won’t get in most countries. Irish people are really friendly and welcoming. I’m grateful for having my life here.

“I haven’t been back to Nigeria since we moved here because we were always so busy with school and stuff like that, but I’m looking forward to going when I’m ready. We still have our Nigerian culture in the family. I speak Nigerian at home. It’s where we come from and we’ll keep that going.”

By stating his intentions from the outset, Ogbene hopes that declaring his preferred allegiance will be met with understanding. With a genuine attachment to two nations, he insists it would be an honour to represent either of them. However, when he left in late 2005, Ogbene carried his dreams of playing football for Nigeria with him.

He explains: “My family comes from Nigeria, it’s in our blood and it’s where I spent the early part of my life. A lot of people tell me that I grew up in Ireland and that’s important, which it really is. I know that too and I’m not burning any bridges.

“I have to be honest too, because I may never be good enough to play with Nigeria or Ireland anyway — I still have to prove myself. We’ll see what happens if any opportunity comes, but I’m just being up front now in saying that playing for Nigeria is what I’d prefer. I love Ireland and my nationality is Irish, but playing for Nigeria is my dream.”

Following in the footsteps of Paul Kerrigan may no longer be a possibility, but bidding to emulate Jay Jay Okocha isn’t a bad alternative.

‘Sometimes you can feel sorry for yourself but there’s no point – I was the lucky one’

‘I drew crowds wherever I went. Even when we played away I put a couple of thousand on the gate’

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Paul Dollery

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