WHEN Chiedozie Ogbene accepted an offer to join Cork City FC back in 2015, everything changed for the teenager.
Seven years later, he is a Republic of Ireland international while playing for Rotherham United, who are currently top of League One.
Ogbene scored his third goal in six appearances and provided an assist for fellow Corkman Alan Browne in Ireland’s friendly international at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday and was named man of the match in the 2-2 draw.
In his Irish senior career to date Ogbene has played against Portugal internationals Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes, and a top-class, if under-strength, Belgium side.
Next month he is off to Wembley for the EFL Trophy final.
It’s a non-stop globetrotting life, which goes right back to the moment he joined City’s academy.
“If I never got selected by Stephen Bermingham and Declan Coleman, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” said Ogbene.
“They tracked my progress at Everton and Corinthians. Playing for Cork City’s U19s was one of the best things that could have happened to me.
“I was able to get into that kind of schedule where you are playing every week and travelling a country. You get a taste of what you could be as a professional footballer.
“We trained a lot. We were one of the best teams in the country.
“I learned how to win games. We went 40-something games unbeaten.
“You learn how to win games in different ways. It taught me as well that being a professional footballer is not easy. Even though we were winning games, not many of us got opportunities in the first team. That is how hard it was.
“Playing for Cork City’s U19s was massive for my development. The same things my coaches told me at 19 is what my coaches tell me now at 24.
“Football is football, and they knew what they were talking about. They helped and guided me to become better.
“When I look back now, the chance that I got at that age, if I didn’t get that chance, I don’t know where I’d be today.”
Ogbene’s development coincided with a run of form for City’s U19s which saw them win a clean sweep of domestic honours and qualify for the UEFA Youth League. His performances were noted by senior manager John Caulfield, who later called him up to the squad for a number of big games.
The winger left as a champion, just weeks after the club won the FAI Cup, and he went to Limerick FC. After a spell on Shannonside, Ogbene travelled to England to try to make it as a professional.
He joined Brentford and played for their B team, and this was one of the most difficult periods in his career.
“I went to Brentford and I didn’t play much there,” he said.
“I found it tough to settle into English football in my first year. I was 19 or 20 when I signed for Brentford. I believed I was ready to play. When I look back on it, I wasn’t ready.
I had to work on my weaknesses. I had to bide my time. I had to listen to my coaches, that was the most important thing.”
The chance of a lifetime came in 2019 when Rotherham United came in to sign him. Ogbene went to South Yorkshire, and everything clicked.
His performances at club level earned him a call-up to the Irish senior team in 2021. Ogbene first put on the green jersey against Hungary, and by the end of the year, he had five caps and two goals to his name.
Summing everything up, he said: “This season couldn’t be going any better, to be honest.”
“We’re top of League One and we’re going to Wembley for the Papa John’s Cup final.
“So, it is in our hands. We can decide how we finish this season. If we can get this over the line we can win promotion and the league and cup. That would be a fantastic season for everybody at the club, especially the fans.
“I’m just so happy for the last 12 months. When we were in the Championship and I suffered the knee injury, it was a devasting year for myself, the people around me, and the club.
“So I made a lot of sacrifices. I spent extra time making sure I came back fit and stronger than ever.
“I’m happy that the things that are happening now didn’t happen overnight. They’ve been happening for three years when I’ve been training and not getting picked for Brentford, going to Exeter and not getting picked, and now getting this opportunity at Rotherham. I think it has all built up to this.
“Being given the Ireland call-up was a recognition of all the hard work I’ve done behind the scenes.
“I’m so happy to be living the dream because there is more to come.”
Ogbene’s rise saw him become the first African-born player to play for Ireland.
He now hopes to inspire kids who have a similar background to his.
“I hope I present myself as a role model for them,” he says. “I’ve been there as a kid when you come from Africa or you have African parents and you grow up in the Irish system.
You get bombarded with a lot of questions; who will you pick, and what decision will you make. For any kid out there, you just need to go with your gut feeling.
“First of all, you need to push yourself to get the opportunity. It doesn’t come often. International football is many kids’ dream.
“I’m happy to be the first African-born player to play for Ireland. It’s a huge honour, and it is something I will cherish.
“There are so many kids out there who find it difficult to make the decision I made, not knowing where they want to go and where will football lead them.
“I just hope I am influencing kids to push and try to live their dream as a professional footballer.”