Toughest decision to leave GAA: Republic of Ireland ace Chiedozie Ogbene

Republic of Ireland's Chiedozie Ogbene takes a tumble during a friendly clash with Hungary during the summer. Picture by PA

EMERGING Republic of Ireland star Chiedozie Ogbene says one of his toughest decisions he’s ever had to make was giving up Gaelic football to pursue a career in full-time professional football.

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan in Baku, Rotherham United winger Obgene explained that a clash of games forced him to choose between his local GAA club Nemo Rangers and Cork City.

Ireland’s first African-born player rolled the dice and after spells with both the Leesiders and Limerick, he gained a cross-channel move to Brentford in January 2018. He would later move to Exeter City in a loan deal before joining League One club Rotherham at the beginning of last season.

“It was a big risk [choosing soccer over GAA],” said Ogbene.

“I remember I had a match on the same day as the county final and we had to play UCD away 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 and Nemo [to tell them] that I wanted to follow football. 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.”

Highly-rated in Cork GAA circles, ex-Cork footballer and his former school teacher Paul Kerrigan believed Ogbene was good enough to play for the Rebels, describing him as “a top class, intelligent player” with an athleticism that was a “class part”.

He won the prestigious Simcox Cup in 2015 with his school Coláiste Chríost Rí and U21 football championship with Nemo Rangers a year earlier.

“I had to make a big sacrifice,” Ogbene said, “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 [in football]. For people to see me now I’m inspiring other kids and I take pride and joy in that.

“It wasn’t easy being that young but it was a great decision as I still have the support of Nemo Rangers and all the GAA so it was a risk worth taking.”

There were more than a few bumps on the road for the 24-year-old wide man who couldn’t buy a game at Cork City and was forced to move to Limerick to get some games. The easy choice would have been to stay with Nemo.

“I never had the idea of quitting,” he said.

“I was in this position before when I was at Cork City and I didn’t get much game-time so I obviously had to sacrifice and leave my hometown to go to Limerick and travel up on the bus to play.

“When I was at Brentford I had two years left on my contract – I just had a gut feeling, I just wanted to play football, I wanted to learn the game, I didn’t want to waste years sitting on the bench and not getting the experience. So 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.”

When Stephen Kenny assumed the senior international reins, Ogbene let it be known that he wanted to declare for his adopted home and he won his first cap in the scoreless draw with Hungary just before Euro 2020.

His family came to Ireland in 2005. He told reporters that his father had job offers in Ireland and Florida, and chose Ireland. Asked why his family opted for Ireland over the sunny climes of Florida, Ogbene replied: “I'm guessing Ireland is a beautiful country! (laughing)

"I don't know. I'm guessing that the opportunities are here in abundance than they would be back in Nigeria. 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.

“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.

“Obviously I am one of them.”

He added: “Ever since I’ve been in Ireland I’ve really enjoyed it. The people around me and the people I grew up with are very supportive and my school keeps in contact with me and how proud I make them. I love the kids and how I inspire them and to follow their dream.

“To carry that burden of being the first African-born player [for Ireland] is very special and I can see how proud it has made my family.”

Ogbene’s international debut in Budapest in early June was marred by the home supporters booing the Irish players for ‘taking the knee’ in solidarity with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign.

Afterwards, Ogbene launched a blistering attack on the lack of tolerance among the Hungarian supporters.

“I did mention to Seamus Coleman, as the captain of the team, he was pushing for us to take the lead because I know how difficult it can be for people of different race 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 the culture we have, the togetherness in this nation and that’s why I’m so proud to be here.”

A pacy, powerful attacker, Obgene’s best hope of seeing some game-time in Baku on Saturday is from the bench. He says he wants to make Kenny’s selection as difficult as possible and hopes to get the chance to prove his worth to the manager.

“I try to create problems high up the pitch and hopefully get a goal for myself or set up a goal. I'm trying to do my best for the nation and help the team to win points and have a good camp.”

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