The typical Irish footballer is usually reluctant to travel too far.
That’s why there’s been no Irish-born player in the Bundesliga for 35 years, none in Serie A since 2000, while Irishmen have been absent from La Liga for 13 years.
This summer sees a change as two Ireland underage internationals, both of African heritage but fully committed to the Irish set-up, pack their bags and head for Italy, with contracts with Udinese already in the bag for James Abankwah and Festy Ebosele.
Wexford lad Ebosele (19) moves from his English base after a four-year spell with Derby County and Abankwah (18) is already used to travelling – born in Waterford, he lived, for spells, in Dublin, Donegal, and Longford, more a result of his father’s work than a desire for the family from Ghana to have their own Discover Ireland tour.
“My Dad is a Reverend Minister in the Church of Pentecost – he’s been in it his whole life. Wherever he gets transferred to, he has to move,” says James – the middle of five Abankwah children but the first to be born in Ireland.
“As a kid, we’d make friends and then leave them behind. It was quite tough and affected me a small bit but I got used to it.”
At one stage, his father was in Barcelona preaching, for four years while the family stayed in Ireland, so his mum, Comfort, had to mind four kids.
“It was very tough for her. Me and my brother Isaac, she’d bring us to training and leave the younger two at home, with babysitters. It was all hectic but it paid off. I give a lot of credit to her. Without her, and my Dad, as well, God knows where I’d be,” he says.
Right now, the St Patrick’s Athletic player knows where he is, working hard to prep for next month’s Leaving Cert and then a July departure to Udine.
“I know it’s going to be a challenge, going into a different culture, language and playing style. Going into a first-team environment won’t be easy. I’m expecting to do well and try to win some silverware,” says Abankwah.
“For me to be a footballer that’s all I wanted to do, to step out of my comfort zone and see what this test will be like. Hopefully, it all goes well.”
The path was not an easy one – Abankwah recalls having to travel alone, by bus, from Longford to Dublin to train with Cherry Orchard, before the move to St Pat’s which, in turn, led to that call from Udinese.
“I remember when sometimes my Mam wouldn’t be able to drop me to training I’d have to get the bus up myself at about 12 or 13 and they would pick me up at the bus stop, bring me to training, drop me back at the bus stop and get the bus back. It’s been a tough journey for me but I’d like to thank everyone involved,” he says.
Coping with lonely bus journeys was one test, dealing with a racist incident, in a game when he was only 10, was harder. Playing for Longford side Melview, a racial slur was heard, not from an opposing player but, depressingly, a parent.
“It was pretty stupid back then but I have gotten over it. I was thrown by it, I didn’t think football could be like that. My Dad was at the game, he went over to have a word with him,” Abankwah says.
“It is tough, I have gone down to enjoy football, play with my mates, and to hear that on the sideline is not great at all.”
That was his sole taste of racism in his sport but the teenager is keen to speak on the issue, which is why he was fronting up to promote SARI’s Football For Unity festival next month.
Former Ireland manager Brian Kerr and ex-Dublin star Michael Darragh Macauley are also involved in a tournament that promotes integration.
Abankwah sees positives on that front all around, from underage team-mates like Bosun Lawal to senior stars such as Gavin Bazunu, Adam Idah and Chiedozie Ogbene.
“Black or white, we still bleed the same. I don’t see why there should be a need to throw those racist slurs about,” he says.
Football For Unity 2022 festival, hosted by Sport Against Racism Ireland and the Dublin North East Inner City initiative, takes place from June 6 to July 15. For more details, or to register a team, log on to www.footballforunity.ie