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Leaving ego at the door has aided the progress of young Irish striker JJ Kayode

The 20-year-old furthered his footballing education by getting a taste of life in the lower leagues.

IT WAS ON the streets around his family’s home in Blanchardstown where Joshua Kayode first began to display promise as a footballer.

His physical stature belied his age from early on, so he was often invited to join in with lads who were several years his senior.

Now as a professional at Championship-bound Rotherham United, Kayode’s willingness to test himself against older players continues to stand him in good stead.

PA-44596135 Rotherham United striker Joshua 'JJ' Kayode. Source: Richard Sellers/PA Archive/PA Images

Although he has yet to make a major mark on Rotherham’s first-team, 2019-20 is being rated as a season of considerable progress by the six-foot-three striker.

At the campaign’s outset, Kayode – who turned 20 in May – was offered the chance to further his footballing education with a non-league loan move.

Ego can often be an impediment when players consider options beneath the Football League, but upon assessing his own situation, Kayode felt a temporary spell with Gateshead in the Conference North couldn’t cause him any harm.

Between August and January, he scored nine goals in 27 appearances before being recalled by Rotherham, who rewarded him with a two-and-a-half-year contract extension.

Kayode’s parent club then upped the difficulty level for his next assignment by sending him to Carlisle United in League Two. Again he flourished, finding the net three times in the five games he played before Covid-19 brought the season to a premature conclusion.

“If you had told me last year that I’d end up scoring a few goals in League Two this season, I wouldn’t have thought that was likely at all,” he says.

“I really enjoyed my time at Carlisle and I can’t speak highly enough of Gateshead as well. Young players tend to think that going outside the Football League to go on loan isn’t worth it, but I can tell you now that it’s the best thing you could do early in your career.

“It gives you a great insight into what men’s football is really like. Playing for three points somewhere else is a lot better than staying where you are and continuing to play reserve games where there’s no atmosphere or buzz.

“In those games for Gateshead, I was playing in front of crowds and playing with and against guys whose livelihoods are at stake. If they don’t get the three points at the weekend, it has an effect on how they can live their lives. That makes it properly competitive.

“It was a great experience for me. I’ve played with players who have been on loan in the Conference before and I hadn’t known about it because they were almost ashamed to say that they were playing at that level. I’ve also played with guys who went there on loan and found it much tougher than they were expecting. 

image_5d6b0f0d589d5 Kayode celebrates after scoring for Gateshead. Source: Emilio Andres Leal Kirtley

“Any young player who goes there and expects it to be easy, and thinks that it won’t benefit them, will be in for a big surprise. It’s the wrong way to look at it completely.

“I think it’s a great place to develop, both physically and mentally. I wouldn’t come off a pitch without cuts and bruises on my ankles and knees from being kicked about, but it was the best experience I could have asked for.”

Kayode was signed by Rotherham at 16 after being scouted by the club while playing for St Francis. Just over a year after his arrival in England, he made his senior debut in the EFL Trophy and was handed his first professional contract.

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He was born in Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, but was only a year old when his family made Dublin their home. Owing to his father’s love of football, Joshua soon became known as JJ.

“My dad has always been a massive football fan and he says I was kicking a ball about since I started walking,” he explains. “That’s when he started calling me JJ – because of Jay Jay Okocha – so everyone else started calling me that too. People think it’s initials in my name but it’s just what my dad used to call me.

“I was really tall from a young age so I’d be playing outside with lads who were 11 and 12 when I was about seven, and they’d be telling me ‘you’re not too bad actually’. My best mate at the time asked me to come up and play with a team called Santos and I started scoring goals right away. I didn’t look back from there.”

Kayode credits his father for having a significant influence on his journey as a footballer. He introduced him to the game by commandeering the TV at home for Arsenal games, before encouraging him to take ownership of his decision when Rotherham’s offer came in 2016.

Away from football, he also taught his son – the eldest of two – how to repel racist abuse whenever it was hurled in his direction.

“From a young age my dad used to tell me to never pay attention to it. He used to tell me that people who said stuff were just jealous, and I believed that.

“If someone makes a comment about the colour of my skin, it must mean that they see me as a threat in some way. Some people take it seriously and it offends them – and I used to get offended too – but I always tried to brush it off. 

soccer-world-cup-france-98-group-d-spain-v-nigeria Legendary ex-Nigeria playmaker Jay Jay Okocha. Source: EMPICS Sport

“People deciding that they don’t like someone based on the colour of their skin is something that has never made any sense to me. We’re all the same.

“Where I grew up and went to school it’s quite multicultural, so I experienced racism every now and then, but I wouldn’t say it happened extremely regularly. When it happened it was mainly on the street, rarely on the pitch.

“The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement lately has been really good. I just hope that the people it’s trying to get the message across to start to realise that we’re in the 21st century now and things have got to change.”

As Kayode continues to forge a path in professional football, memories of a childhood friend remind him of the importance of making the most of the opportunities that come his way.

In 2014, he was among a group of teenagers playing at Waterville Park in West Dublin when 13-year-old Ricky Osagie got into difficulty while attempting to save two girls who were in danger of drowning in a lake.

Thankfully the girls survived the ordeal, but heroic Ricky – who was posthumously awarded a gold medal at the National Bravery Awards – later passed away at Temple Street Children’s Hospital.

“That incident changed the lives of all the people who were there,” Kayode says. “After the ambulance came, seeing him being brought out of the lake was a horrible moment that’s hard to explain. I don’t think it’d be possible to go through anything as traumatising as that ever again. For the next few months I wasn’t the same person.

“It still plays on my mind quite a lot. It was a horrendous thing to experience. The effect something like that has on you, it probably drives you to get your head down and make sure you do something good with your life.”

Having returned to Rotherham United this week to begin pre-season training, Kayode is keen to ensure that the 2020-21 campaign yields further progress – and not just at club level.

He has already represented Ireland at U18 level, so a call-up to a talented U21 squad is among his immediate aims. There’s also a possibility of playing in the Championship following Rotherham’s recent promotion from League One.

Large Extending his contract at Rotherham United until 2022. Source: Rotherham United Football Club

“I’ve been involved with the Ireland U18s but I wish I could have been involved more,” he says. “At the same time, the competition is really tough. Right now, I’m looking to push for the U21s. I feel like I’m beginning to make a name for myself and I’ve played first-team football, so hopefully I can get a look-in next season.

“With Rotherham, I’d obviously love to make an impression on the team and play in the Championship. All I can do is try to prove to the gaffer that I’m ready. If he thinks I’m not, that’ll be fair enough. I know he’s got me in his best interests and he knows what he’s doing.

“If that means that I go back to Carlisle – or elsewhere, because there are other clubs in League One and League Two interested in taking me on loan – that’s fine too.

“As long as I continue to become a better player, I won’t complain about where I am.” 

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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