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'I think a lot of footballers are afraid to come out of their comfort zone'

Nigerian-Italian striker Marco Tagbajumi has played in several leagues around the world, but now he’s hoping to make his mark at Dundalk.

Updated Apr 26th 2018, 9:35 PM

DUNDALK’S RECENT RECRUIT Marco Tagbajumi describes himself as a “jetsetter” on his Instagram profile, and the striker has certainly clocked up some air miles.

Prior to touching down in the Wee County two months ago, the Nigerian-Italian forward had lined out for clubs in Norway, England, Portugal, Cyprus and Thailand.

He is using his footballing talents to see the world and discover new cultures, ways of life and styles of play. At 29, Tagbajumi was presented with the chance to experience Ireland by signing for Stephen Kenny’s Lilywhites, and there was something about the offer that appealed to him.

“I think a lot of footballers are afraid to come out of their comfort zone, but the way I see it is that I don’t want to look back and think ‘Do you know what, I should have just went and seen what it was to play there’,” Marco explains to The42, when asked if he would recommend his less-travelled career path to other players.

“It’s one of those things that is essential. If you have the opportunity, you should definitely do it. I know it can be so easy to lose motivation and be put off by maybe hearing about the standard of various leagues, but just go and see what it’s like for yourself.

“Sometimes the opportunity will come only once so you need to take it and have a new experience.”

Marco Tagbajumi Tagbajumi wearing the Lilywhites' colours. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Tagbajumi had to get used to moving around a lot early on in life. Born in the West African city of Port Harcourt to an Italian father and a Nigerian mother, he was just three when they left for Europe.

However, while living in Modena, a split between his parents saw Marco and his mum relocate to Norway. That’s where he first discovered football — joining the academy of Oslo-based club Skeid as a six-year-old.

“When you’re young, I don’t think you really realise what’s going on because you spend more time with your mum at that age than with friends,” he says of the regular uprooting. “It’s when you get older that you become more aware of things like that.

“As soon as I started going to school and moving up through the football ranks, it began to feel like a home and Norway will always be a place I can relate to.”

He took to the sport easily, but despite standing 6′ 1” these days, height was an issue growing up.

“I started playing football at the age of six. I was pretty talented as a kid, I could run faster than the others and I was more technically blessed at that age.

“My problem back then was that I was a really late bloomer in terms of height. At 15 or 16, I wasn’t as big as the other children. But I began to stretch when I was around 17.”

While still in his teens, the Tagbajumis upped sticks once again. The destination this time was London. Marco admits finding it tough initially, but he began to settle after joining Hendon FC and signing up to study sports science.

It was difficult for the first couple of months,” he says. “You don’t know anyone, and it was harder then as a 17-year-old than it was when I was six. But I found a local team to play with and began making friends. I started college in London too and, eventually, I got to know loads of new people.

“At that age, I loved football so much that I wanted to do anything that would help my playing. Studying sports science was a way to progress my football.”

Financial difficulty at Hendon and growing pains in his knees resulted in the youngster taking a year out of football, before linking up with non-league Kingsbury London Tigers. They weren’t a professional outfit and he jokes that the players would be “paid in sandwiches” after games, but Tagbajumi used it as a stepping stone.

His break came thanks to a Portuguese coach at Kingsbury, whose uncle Jose Barros (currently Leonardo Jardim’s assistant at Monaco) had been involved at AD Camacha. A trial was arranged and the Portuguese Second Division side asked him to join.

Jose Barros Monaco assistant Jose Barros. Source: AS Monaco

And while he developed as a player during his two years on the island of Madeira — the birthplace of Cristiano Ronaldo — the adjustment wasn’t easy.

“It was difficult,” Tagbajumi explains. “I had just turned 21 and I had lived by myself at university but knew I was half an hour away from home so I could always go there. Now, I was moving to an island off Portugal on my own.

“People were friendly but I was coming to a country where most couldn’t communicate with me in English. I decided I had to learn Portuguese.

But I grew very much as a footballer over there. It was all technical in Portugal, you’re with the football all the time. You’re never running without the ball and I got to learn from some top quality players, even in the second division, so it helped me with the technical side of the game.”

In 2011, the striker returned home temporarily as his mother wasn’t well. Once ready to get back into the game, he was invited to sign for Akritas Chlorakas in the Cypriot top flight.

“We had a coach that was quite new but he was a big name in Cyprus — Marios Neophytou,” he remembers. “I’ve been really lucky to have very good coaches during my career.”

Having always been deployed as a striker, Neophytou used him out on the wings for the first time. After a decent year, Tagbajumi followed his manager to APEP, where he scored 13 goals in the second division. Ermis Aradippou then came calling and the 2013/14 season is one he looks back on fondly.

“It was a team built with a small budget but the manager got the best out of us,” he recalls.”It’s one of those things that happens very rarely, when you get 15 or 16 new players in and everybody gels. For some reason, it happened there. Our budget was probably half of what the big teams spent but we finished fourth and got to the cup final.

“It was a great achievement and I enjoyed my time there. I was playing as a winger/striker and got 21 goals — 18 in the league and three in the cup. It’s a time I am really proud of.”

Soccer - UEFA Europa League - Qualifying - Play Off - Second Leg - Tottenham Hotspur v AEL Limassol - White Hart Lane The Limassol players huddled together after losing out to Tottenham in a Europa League qualifier in 2014. Source: EMPICS Sport

Tagbajumi came up against Irish globe-trotter Cillian Sheridan during his period in Cyprus, while he also faced Tottenham twice in Europa League qualifiers after moving to AEK Limassol in 2014.

Of the Cypriot lifestyle, he says: “I really enjoyed living there. The weather is amazing, you’ve got good food and things to do. It has its negatives as well but I prefer to focus on the positives. I lived there for four years and they were great times, I don’t regret any of it.”

Limassol loaned him to Norwegian club Strømsgodset in 2015, after which he enjoyed a season in Thailand playing for Nakhon Ratchasima. However, it was cut short as King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away and the country went into mourning. There was a second stint at Strømsgodset, before he agreed to join Lillestrøm.

An agent then got in touch back in February to inform him of interest from a League of Ireland club. Tagbajumi was stumped.

He said ‘Listen, there’s a team in Ireland that wants you’,” he says. “I was like ‘What?’. The agent told me they wanted to speak so I agreed.

“I hadn’t heard of Dundalk before I came, but I found out that they had played in the Europa League group stages not too long ago and that was a great incentive to get back there. Playing in that competition would be a dream come true.”

Marco Tagbajumi warming up before the game Marco (right) warming up with team-mate Ronan Murray. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Marco made the switch to Louth with his Norwegian partner, Isabelle, at the start of the season and they’ve been getting to grips with their new surroundings since then. Admittedly short on fitness when he arrived, the big forward has been working hard to rediscover his sharpness over the past two months.

Tagbajumi has appeared in 10 of the 11 Premier Division matches so far this term, but all have been from the bench as he is down the pecking order behind Patrick Hoban and Ronan Murray as it stands. However, he now feels ready to prove his worth if given the opportunity.

“I know I can play often from the start,” he states. “The main problem I had when I came here was that I wasn’t fit and I was honest about that from the beginning. My last game was back in December and I arrived in February, so it was always going to be uphill for me at the start. The players here had a pre-season, whereas I didn’t, but now I’ve got my fitness back.

The only thing I can do is keep myself fit and sharp. I know what I can do and I think the manager knows too. I just have to wait until he’s ready to give me a proper chance. I just have to do well in training, the rest I can’t control.”

Tomorrow night pits the country’s top two clubs against each other as last year’s double winners Cork City welcome Dundalk to Turner’s Cross (7.15pm). The Premier Division rivals are level on 28 points at the top of the table, and Tagbajumi knows it would be the perfect opportunity to net his first league goal for the club.

“This is what I want,” he adds. “It would be great to go to Cork, play from the start and hopefully score a goal. But I can’t control when I’m on the pitch, so I’ll just have to wait and see.”

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Ben Blake

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