Monday 18 November 2019

Daniel McDonnell: Football must not abandon boys who the game forgets

Emeka Onwubiko (centre) hopes to secure a contract from the FIFPRO tournament
Emeka Onwubiko (centre) hopes to secure a contract from the FIFPRO tournament
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Last summer, Emeka Onwubiko walked away from football. Life on the periphery of the Shamrock Rovers 'B' team was getting him down. Emeka is a 25-year-old with an infectiously cheery disposition, but the game was no longer giving him a reason to smile.

His name might ring a bell. Ten years ago, Onwubiko was a teenager with dreams of glory, a starlet that generated extra headlines when he became the first Nigerian-born player to represent Ireland.

The only complication in his life was securing a passport to allow him represent Vincent Butler's U15 side in a competitive international and accelerate a proposed move to Manchester City.

Emeka's parents, who had moved to Ireland when he was 10, wanted their boy to finish his Leaving Cert.

And the delay in confirming his citizenship ensured that he did that as City offered his contract to another prospect. Still, he believed success lay around the corner, just like every teenager who is good enough to be courted by the big guns.

Consider his words from a 2005 interview with the Fingal Independent. "I have confidence to go to England, I'll definitely make it," he said. "Football is my dream, playing top level in a professional team. I am positive about it."


For the vast majority, a negative world awaits them.

Emeka went in search of the jackpot via an unusual route, as a run of games with Athlone Town and the help of an agent brought him to Spain and the Celta Vigo reserves.

That level was beyond him, so his next port of call was England where he knocked about in non-league with a couple of clubs while living in Essex. The stellar operations that are Solihull Moors, Canvey Island and Billericay Town were not what he had in mind when he spoke of going across the water.

So he came home, sized up the situation, gave Rovers a try and regretted it immediately. The 'B' team had a young dressing room - Emeka feels he would benefit from the guidance of experience.

He struggled to contribute to their short-lived cause, hence his decision to concentrate on his job in a gym in Bray.

"When football's not going well, you're in bad form for the whole day," he explained last week. "I needed to stop, take a break and refresh myself."

He is telling his story in an Oslo hotel lobby as a member of the Irish squad that travelled to the FIFPRO tournament in Norway, a showcase event for out-of-work footballers.

It is sometimes difficult to articulate the purpose of this exercise considering that the main hook on which it is sold - the opportunity for players to secure employment in a new market - is often secondary to the real value.

Conor Powell is the only Irish free agent to have secured a switch to Scandinavia from the initiative and he is in two minds about returning to Norway for a second year. Last week's group might produce another result as both Daryl Kavanagh and Ian Turner will be offered deals in Finland - Stephen Bradley's troops were genuinely impressive and their better performers should benefit from it. Eric Foley and Craig Walsh warrant a mention too.

Still, it's no great surprise that FIFPRO are leaning towards scrapping the competition next year and taking a new approach which would simply involve helping the respective players unions with funding out-of-season programmes for forgotten players that are on the verge of disappearing.

Critics have poked fun at the successive Oslo trips, describing them as a pointless holiday, but there is a point they are missing.

The majority of Bradley's panel did travel with offers at home. Emeka, however, was part of a small group that made the trip with no calls on hold. What this winter has succeeding in doing is restoring his desire for the sport and giving himself a chance to stay in it.

His unique background adds another layer to his tale, but the truth is that there are thousands of Emekas out there. The archives are littered with newspaper articles about up and coming teens who all utter the same optimistic quotes about the long term.

Some would adopt the straightforward view that those who aren't good enough should get over it and get on with it.

This approach doesn't sit right when players are sinking like a stone from the top to the bottom without finding their level in between. It may not even be at semi-professional level, but that doesn't mean individuals who grew up loving a game should disappear from it completely.

"You need a bit of luck for somebody to take a chance on you," grins Emeka, who has retained a boyish enthusiasm through all of his travails.

A system that provides lads in his situation with a greater number of opportunities to find that break is worth striving towards.

The Oslo show may not go on, but the rehearsals should always have a place in the calendar.

After year to forget in 2012, Stephen Kenny had one to remember in 2014 at Dundalk, guiding the Lilywhites to the League trophy. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Award must not ignore league's impressive talent on the pitch

The cult of the football manager is stronger than ever, both at home and across the water.

Stephen Kenny collected the SSE Airtricity/SWAI Personality of the Year award on Friday, an honour that has been hoovered up by league or cup winning bosses for the past decade.

On an emotional night where the great Liam Tuohy received special recognition, Kenny spoke impressively after turning up following a tough day where his father Michael passed away.

Kenny is unquestionably a deserved winner, a victor who ticks all the boxes given how Dundalk's league win was a product of his eye for a player and the moulding of a team that has restored his reputation following his unhappy experience at Shamrock Rovers. He got my vote.

Still, the fact that 11 of the last 12 winners are managers doesn't quite sit right. A look through the history of the prestigious award finds that it used to be well balanced.

The trophy was lifted in the 90s by the likes of Pat Morley, Stephen Geoghegan, Paul Osam and Peter Hanrahan - names synonymous with that period. Brian Kerr and Pat Dolan were honoured for their achievements too.

But the 2000s is weighted heavily towards the men on the sideline, despite the fact it was a window where some extremely gifted footballers showcased their skills.

Glen Crowe and Owen Heary did pick up the gong, yet Jason Byrne, Joseph Ndo and Keith Fahey are three high profile individuals who missed out despite starring in various seasons.

Big players are the difference in the race for silverware and one of the problems with building publicity around the league is the lack of profile that the star performers have compared to the personalities who pick the team.

The league has marketable talent and they should be the selling point in March.

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