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joys in green From Lagos to Baku via Nemo – Chiedozie Ogbene is ready for next step of his journey with Ireland

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Republic of Ireland's Chiedozie Ogbene. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Republic of Ireland's Chiedozie Ogbene. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Republic of Ireland's Chiedozie Ogbene. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Chiedozie Ogbene flashes a grin at a question which an earlier answer had invited. The first African-born player to represent Ireland at senior level had explained how his father Emmanuel had two choices when he decided to take his family out of Nigeria in 2005.

Job opportunities were available in Cork and Florida. The Leeside twang in Ogbene’s accent would tell strangers what route they chose. It’s natural to ask the 24-year-old if he ever wondered about the sun-kissed life ‘Option B’ would have provided.

“When you get older and you go through winter days and you’re thinking: ‘Dad, what made you come here?’” laughs the Rotherham winger.

“He knew the Irish people that he had worked with, and he really enjoyed it, so he chose to be here. It’s obviously a country that gives foreigners a lot of opportunities. I guess it was the best decision that he made for his family and I’m reaping the rewards.”

A memorable June night in Budapest confirmed for Ogbene that there would be no regrets about declaring for the country he now calls home.

It went beyond the symbolism of his debut, something he spoke eloquently about in the aftermath, but it was also an evening when the Irish team opted to take the knee in the face of the boos from the locals.

“Maybe that’s why my family chose to come here,” says Ogbene, with a reference to the solidarity he felt in the dressing-room and the support he received from the wider fanbase.

“Séamus Coleman, as 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 backgrounds to speak out, so he made it easier for us by him speaking out.

“That’s what we have here, that’s the culture we have, the togetherness in this nation, and why I’m so proud to be here.”

In Cork circles, Ogbene was quickly adopted as one of their own. It went beyond his association with Cork City, for they were vying for his affections with Nemo Rangers and the lure of Gaelic games. He won a Cork U-21 title with Nemo and shone for his school, Coláiste Chríost Rí, with observers feeling the resident of the Grange area had serious inter-county potential.

“I had to make a big sacrifice at 17 to sacrifice GAA,” he says, bringing up the subject himself.

“I remember I had an U-19 match on the same day as the county (U-21) final, and we had to play UCD away, and I had to make a decision.

“Obviously, I’m quite an emotional person and it was a very difficult decision to ring the GAA federation and Nemo and that I wanted to follow football. It wasn’t an easy decision being that young and it was a great decision as I still have the support of Nemo Rangers and all the GAA crowd, so it was a risk worth taking.

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“It was a big risk, a big step in my career and I had a lot of heated moments where people thought I wasn’t going to make it. For people to see me now, I’m inspiring other kids and I take pride and joy in that.”

Kenny has admired him for a long time. As a teenager, Ogbene was sprung from the bench for Cork in the 2016 FAI Cup final against Kenny’s Dundalk.

Yet, he then decided to join Limerick for guaranteed first-team football and his performances there earned a move to Brentford.

His English experience has almost mirrored his LOI journey as Ogbene opted to take a step back from Brentford to secure game-time at Rotherham; after overcoming injuries, he’s beginning to come into his own.

With Kenny speaking about how the squad lacks players with Ogbene’s attributes, it’s safe to assume he will figure in this double-header.

The manager bemoaned his absence from the September window, offering the view that Ogbene looked like League One’s best player in the opening weeks of the campaign before an ill-timed hamstring setback. His speed on the counter would have helped against Portugal in particular.

“God has blessed me with some pace,” continued Ogbene. “And with pace and power, it does put trouble on the defensive side.

“I try to create problems high up the pitch and hopefully get a goal for myself or set up a goal. I feel if we can raise our intensity, we will cause a lot of trouble.”

Ogbene’s Budapest cameo led to an emotional aftermath.

“After I made my debut, the first person I rang was my mum (Christina); my mum rings me every game I play. The first thing she says is: ‘How are you feeling? I hope you are healthy.’ And that’s what she worries about,” he grins.

“So my mum rang me and then I have two brothers and two sisters – so we all did a Zoom call, or a Facebook call – and obviously I rang my dad last because he’s obviously the father figure, he’s always happy to be last.

“I have great support from my family and I love my friends from Cork. My phone was just going off.

“My mum was very teary. I could tell by the emotion in her voice. Where we come from in Cork, a lot of people notice her and they ask about her, so she feels famous! I can see how happy it makes her and she answers questions – so she feels very important and she always dreamed of me helping her and being recognised and I hope I’m doing my best.”

The journey continues.

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