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'We play more football, the ball is on the ground... So I do enjoy it over here more than back home'

James Akintunde on adapting to life at Derry City.

Derry City's James Akintunde.
Derry City's James Akintunde.
Image: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

IT’S FAIR TO say the start of the season has not panned out as James Akintunde and Derry City would have hoped.

After 10 games, the Candystripes have picked up just nine points and they sit third from bottom.

Their bad start, coupled with a poor season last year when they finished seventh — just a point above the relegation play-off spot — recently cost manager Declan Devine his job.

There have been signs of life, however, since Ruaidhri Higgins, a former Derry player, left his role as chief Ireland scout to take the reins at the struggling club.

In the games since Higgins’ appointment was confirmed, they have won two and drawn one, with a 2-1 loss to Finn Harps the main setback so far.

Last Friday almost saw them taste defeat for a second time, only for a last-gasp Akintunde goal — the striker’s second of the season — getting them out of jail against Longford, who had beaten them 2-0 in the opening game of the season.

“We just kept on fighting,” the 25-year-old forward tells The42. “Obviously, during the game, we had a few chances. We probably had the better chances. But for the team as a whole, we showed good spirit to come back into the game and we managed to get a late one. It was a good feeling, but at the same time, I thought we should have won.”

While as their latest performance indicated, there is still much room for improvement, Akintunde believes the team are going in the right direction and he is confident that, come the end of the season, they will not be battling relegation.

“I back the staff and players, we’ve got really good players. We’re gradually finding our feet and hopefully, we build on the recent results we’ve had and go on a little run.”

Getting a win or even a point on Saturday away to reigning champions Shamrock Rovers, who are currently in the midst of a record-breaking 32-game unbeaten run, would go some way towards convincing anyone who doubts whether the Candystripes can avoid a scrap for survival.

“We know that Shamrock Rovers are a good team and they haven’t lost a game for a while now,” Akintunde says. “At the same time, I feel like we’ve got enough in this team to go out there and get something. If we do get something, that would be really good for the team morale.” 

The English striker admits his own performances have not always been as accomplished as he would have hoped.

He initially joined the club on a short-term deal last summer, with four goals in the truncated campaign enough to extend his stint for another season.

“It’s not the start I wanted personally,” he says. “I think the most recent game I found my feet, but I have a lot more to give.

“Pre-season, I felt like I was fit. Then I had a few injuries, so I wasn’t as sharp as I could be. Now that I’m getting a run of games, I feel sharper and I can give that bit more.

“When I first signed, I wasn’t fully fit. Last year was more about trying to get fit — I had a few niggles here and there, and it’s been the same this year, so it’s been a bit frustrating.

“But I do love the club — the fans and everyone have been great. I feel like I’m slowly getting to adapt now.”

Prior to the move last year, playing in the lower leagues of English football was all Akintunde knew. He has found the change of scenery somewhat refreshing. 

“I feel like over here, we play more football, the ball is on the ground more, which is something that I prefer. So I do enjoy it over here a bit more than back home.”

At underage level, Akintunde played for both Southend and Cambridge, ultimately graduating to the latter’s senior team.

He made one League Two appearance for the U’s, but spent the majority of his time at senior level in those early days out on loan, featuring for non-league clubs AFC Sudbury, Histon, Brackley Town and Needham Market, before being released at the end of the 2015-16 season.

“I made my debut at Cambridge when I was 18. But once again, it was a place where I had quite a few injuries.

“The manager that gave me my debut got sacked. Things obviously went left. I enjoyed it there, but football is about keeping your head and moving on when things don’t go well.

“Once the new manager came in, I didn’t really get a sniff. But it’s all part and parcel of the game. It’s all about judgement, so if you have a manager that has faith in you, you’re more likely to play to the best of your ability, because you’re more likely to have that faith in yourself when you go on the pitch.

“I’ve known a lot of footballers I’ve looked up to growing up and I thought they’d make it to the big stage, but somewhere down the line, they drop down the levels, when I feel they should be playing higher. That’s where you’ve got to be strong mentally. Every time you fall back, you’ve got to make sure you’re prepared to come back.”

The setbacks were not easy to overcome though, and Akintunde admits there have been occasions where he considered his future in the game.

“When I was younger, there was a time when I had a few injuries and I thought about: ‘What can I do next?’ Luckily, I’ve always had good people around me, whether it’s the team or family.

“I love the game as well, so to think about quitting football would pain me a lot. But as long as I can physically and mentally [cope], I’ll just keep playing until I can’t anymore.”

Having witnessed first-hand the precariousness of life as a footballer, Akintunde has a backup plan if required. He is currently undertaking an online degree in healthcare and he spends most of his time away from the game focusing on his studies.

“Everyone wants to be a footballer, but you never know what can happen with injuries, so you need to be prepared just in case [it ends]. Football is not for a lifetime, it’s probably one of the shortest careers that you can have. So you’ve always got to make sure you’ve got some sort of backup.”

After leaving Cambridge, Akintunde joined National League outfit Chester in 2016, spending two seasons there and enjoying his first sustained run of regular senior football.

His first year was blighted by injury and during his second season, although he finished as the club’s top scorer with eight goals from 40 appearances, they were relegated, and he ended up joining National League rivals Maidenhead United.

The goals then started to dry up — he managed a disappointing two in two seasons — and Akintunde suddenly found himself surplus to requirements.

“I couldn’t find my feet there, which sometimes just happens,” he says. “I went into every game giving 100%, but I just couldn’t gel with the team.”

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junior-ogedi-uzokwe Fellow Londoner Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe recommended Akintunde to Derry. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

It was one of Derry’s most successful imports of recent seasons who paved the way for Akintunde’s move to the League of Ireland.

Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe, now at Dundalk, joined the Candystripes on loan in 2019 and ended up as the Premier Division’s top scorer that year.

The pair lived in the same area growing up in London, and Ogedi-Uzokwe recommended his friend to the club’s technical director Paddy McCourt. Akintunde then impressed on trial and the rest is history.

“I had to make sure I played to the best of my ability and hopefully get a few goals before the end of the season so that I could get the chance of coming back.

“I just jumped at the chance. I didn’t really know much about the league. But I just needed something different, a new environment. 

“I came over and obviously, the standard was really good. I haven’t experienced it with the fans yet. But I’ve been told by Junior and the boys that when the fans are allowed in, the ground is absolutely shaking and they’re great fans to have behind you.

“It’s definitely something different to back home, but it is something that I’m enjoying at the moment.” 

Premier Division fixtures:

Friday

Finn Harps v Dundalk (5.45pm) 
Drogheda v St Patrick’s Athletic (7.45pm)

Saturday

Shamrock Rovers v Derry (6pm) 
Longford v Bohemians (6pm )

First Division fixtures

Friday

Bray v Cabinteely (7.30pm)
UCD v Cork (7.45pm)
Treaty United v Athlone (7.45pm)
Galway v Wexford (7.45pm)

Saturday

Cobh Ramblers v Shelbourne (7pm)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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