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Daniel Okwute has high hopes

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Soccer star Daniel Okwute talks to Adam Moynihan about his self-confidence, signing for Stockport, and his dream of one day representing his country

Daniel Okwute is special and he knows it. By joining Stockport County the 19-year-old Killarney native has managed to do what only a handful of Kerry players have done before him: sign a professional contract with a club in England’s Football League.

When you speak to Okwute, one characteristic shines brightly like the lamp atop a lighthouse. Supreme confidence. His new manager, Dave Challinor (he of Tranmere Rovers and the long throw-in), alluded to this trait in the official club statement that heralded Okwute’s arrival.

“He’s a highly rated young player from Ireland who came in and spent a week with us. He showed some real good things and great belief in himself, despite being thrown in at the deep end with our squad,” Challinor said.

That statement was also hedged with terms like “project” and “development plan” and “future”, terminology that would seem to imply that Okwute is not necessarily expected to make an immediate impact. But chatting to the former Kerry U19 player, it quickly became obvious that he is eager to make his mark sooner rather than later.

“I want to get into the first team as soon as I can and hopefully score a few goals,” Okwute says.

“I feel as though I’ve settled in well. The training is tough. It’s a huge step up and the standards are high, but I’m enjoying it. Paddy Madden, the captain, has kind of taken me under his wing. He’s always helping me and telling me what to do in training. Working with him has been really good.

“The manager’s standards are very high but the conversations I’ve had with him have been good. He believes in me, so hopefully I can deliver for him.

“At the minute I’m just loving it here.”

Moving away to a new country and starting a new job can be a stressful process. It would be understandable if Okwute was feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment, but that’s not how he’s looking at it.

“I don’t think it’s stressful. I knew I was going to come into this world, I knew I was going to play in England. There’s no fear. There’s no pressure.”

Rumours about Okwute’s future swirled over the course of the past season, a season during which he scored 19 goals in 19 games for the Kerry U19s. He and the people around him knew it was only a matter of time.

“I knew I was going to get signed, not necessarily by Stockport but there were different clubs [who were interested]. But it did come sooner than I expected. I’m very happy. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to play professionally.”

ESTATES

Okwute’s talents were evident from an early age and he honed his skills in the leafy suburbs of the tourism capital of Ireland.

“It was really nice growing up in Killarney,” he recalls. “It’s a lovely town and everyone knows everyone. My first memories of playing football were back in the estate in Rossdara (in the Loreto area of Killarney), and later Bruach na hAbhann (Derreen). Just playing on the street with my mates. As soon as I started playing I knew I had a special talent, a talent that not a lot of other kids had.”

Readers of the Killarney Advertiser might recognise the Okwute name from a previous article we ran about racism in sport. Daniel’s older brother, Brian, was one of the subjects of that piece and he revealed shocking details about the abuse he has received both as a player with the Killarney Legion and in his day-to-day life in Kerry.

Was it also difficult for the younger Okwute, growing up as a black boy in a predominantly white community?

“It was challenging at times but I don’t like letting things like that get into my head. It was tough but it was good at the same time.”

Soccer was his focus and the next step on his journey was finding his first club.

“I actually joined [organised] football really late. I was 11 when I started with Killarney Celtic and I enjoyed it straight away. I learned a lot from all the different coaches, like Conor McCarthy and others.

“Then I got called up to Kerry when I was U16, which I was very excited about. Everyone wants to play for their county.”

Earlier in this article I referred to the small band of Kerrymen who have signed for English clubs. One of those players is Billy Dennehy, a Tralee native who joined Mick McCarthy’s Sunderland in 2005. After enjoying a successful playing career with teams like Shamrock Rovers and Cork City in the League of Ireland, Dennehy has now returned to the Kingdom to coach the Kerry U19s. His star player up until very recently? Daniel Okwute.

Okwute cites Dennehy as a highly influential figure in his nascent career.

“Billy always said to me, ‘your work-rate comes first’.  He’s a coach who always told me the truth. When I played badly, he would tell me I played badly. He’s a great guy and he knows what he’s talking about. He has been a role model for me.”

Dennehy will be a key figure if, as expected, Kerry FC enter the senior League of Ireland next year. Okwute will miss out on the opportunity to be part of the project but he says he’ll be following the team with great interest.

“I’m going to be watching their games and supporting them. I have friends there who will hopefully be playing so it will be great to see them get their chance and excel.”

TARGETS

Okwute says he is 100% focussed on making his spell at Edgeley Park as fruitful as possible but he has no qualms about revealing his long-term targets. When asked where he sees himself in five years’ time, that brilliant confidence shines through once again.

“I see myself playing in the Prem to be honest. I know it’s going to be tough but I see myself there. I hope that’s where I am. I think it’s achievable.”

As the Irish-born son of a South African mother and a Nigerian father, Okwute has options when it comes to the prospect of international football. But he says the decision – if things go well at club level and he winds up needing to make one – will be straightforward.

“I was born and bred in Ireland. Ireland is all I know. Down the line that’s one thing I really want to achieve as well, to play for my country. I can look up to guys like Chiedozie Ogbene and Michael Obafemi, black lads who maybe have similar backgrounds to me and are playing for Ireland.

“That gives me motivation and hope that I can do the same. If they can do it, I can do it too.”

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New-look Lakers ready for big tip-off

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Last year the Scotts Lakers were left to rue a slow start when they missed out on the playoffs by a single basket. With that in mind, starting off on the right foot is sure to be a priority this time around.

The Lakers get their 2022/23 National League Division 1 season up and running on Saturday, October 1 with a home game against the Limerick Sport Eagles. When they take to the court at Killarney Sports & Leisure Centre there will be a new enough look to the team.

Foreign imports Godwin Boahen and Emilian Grudov have moved on during the off-season and have been replaced by American shooter Eric Cooper Jr, Dutch ball carrier Esebio Strijdhaftig and Ukrainian big man Dmytro Berozkin.

Cooper Jr is a graduate of Pepperdine University and his eye for a basket has been evident in pre-season. His 84 three-pointers in a single season is the third best haul in Pepperdine’s history. Bosman player Strijdhaftig plays point guard and he was very adept in defence and in taking the ball to the rim at his previous club Almere (Netherlands).

Berozkin will be endeavouring to use his 6’10” frame to his advantage in both offence and defence. He has represented his native Ukraine at U16, U18 and U20 level. Now based in Killarney, he will be looking to settle quickly into the pace of the league.

Rui Saravia – the Portuguese player who signed last season – is staying put and with local lads Mark O’Shea and Paul Clarke also committed (GAA commitments in the short term allowing), the Lakers are expecting to put out a strong starting five.

Teenagers Jamie O’Sullivan and Senan O’Leary will be looking to add minutes to their court time and, the more he played, David Gleeson improved immeasurably as a force at both ends last season.

The squad will be further boosted by the presence of Irish underage international Ronan Collins, who, like Gleeson, is a Gneeveguilla native. Collins had a very impressive record in the green of Ireland and once he settles into the league he will be a real asset to the squad.

Marko Benčić, the son of former Lakers coach Vojkan, contributed hugely to the scoring effort in the latter part of last season’s league campaign. He will be looking to push on again in 2022/23.

The club will, as always, be looking to harvest the potential of their outstanding underage structure and young guns Mark Sheahan, Jack O’Sullivan and Eoin Carroll – amongst others – will be involved with the squad. Another addition to the squad is Jamie Cooke who is well known for his basketball prowess with the Kerry Stars club.

That sluggish start in 2021 was mitigated somewhat by players being unavailable and the fact that their home venue was being used as a makeshift vaccination centre (their first four home games were staged at alternative venues).

There should be no such excuses this time around and coach Jarlath Lee will be hoping for a positive opening month that includes three home games here in Killarney. The other Limerick side, the Celtics, will visit the town on October 22 and Cork outfit Fr Mathews will cross the county bounds on October 30.

The sole road trip in October is to Waterford to take on the SETU Waterford Vikings October 8. The league is a little more arduous this season in terms of travel; with away days in Donegal and Dublin, a large, functioning squad is vital.

St Paul’s have once again expressed their gratitude to the team’s main sponsor, Maurice O’Donoghue of Scotts Hotel. The O’Donoghue family’s legacy in supporting Killarney basketball goes back over 40 years.

The club is also seeking additional support via the following initiatives: Season Ticket (€100) – Admission to all nine home National League and cup games; Patron Ticket (€150) – Admission for two adults to all nine home National League and cup games; Game Sponsor (€300) – Admission for two to all nine home National League and cup games, your business name featured on the front of your sponsored game programme, and your business name attached to all advertising for the game on social media, local written media and on Radio Kerry previews and reports.

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A closer look at sport’s occupational hazards

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In Part 1 of a new series, former Kerry goalkeeper Eamonn Fitzgerald examines the complicated world of sports injuries

Injuries are an occupational hazard for players in all types of sports.

Injuries to elite sports stars hit the headlines. Of the Kerry team that won the 2022 All-Ireland, Joe O’Connor, Gavin White and Micheál Burns are out of action with long-term injuries.

Just back is Dara Moynihan, who was most unfortunate to sustain an injury during Tuesday night training before the All-Ireland final. Talk about hard luck for the Spa flyer. I am sure he would have started if he had avoided injury.

Fellow clubman Dan O’Donoghue was also unlucky. He was playing great with Kerry during the league and was shaping up so well to nail down a position at corner back. Injury denied him that privilege and up sprung Graham O’Sullivan to get the corner back position.

Injuries are also heartbreaking for the regular sportsperson at club or individual levels.

They suffer the disappointments of missing the National Indoor Championships, the All-Ireland Cross Country, the National League games in basketball, the Celtic v Athletic local derby in the cup, the county final, the O’Donoghue Cup and many more occasions. Missing out on the next race or match is a worry and if the injury is serious enough they may well lose out for the rest of the season. That is hard to take after the enforced inactivity during COVID.

PERSPECTIVE

While researching for these articles, I talked with players and athletes from a wide range of sports about sports injuries. It also proved interesting to get the perspective and perceptions of trainers, managers, selectors and others involved with the injured competitors. What I learned from these people I relayed to doctors, physios, dieticians, and other medics. In all cases, I offered them anonymity and, with that assurance, they spoke freely. That wish is guaranteed. I am indebted to them all for being so willing and helpful to engage in the process.

The athletes/players I have contacted have been very forthcoming and helpful because injuries are so much part of their lives.

“I knew straight away it was serious and wondered if this knee injury would mean that I would miss out. I was devastated,” Player A said.

The contributions from all will help me to clarify opinions of my own on sports injuries, how they are caused, prognosis, diagnosis, treatment, remediation, rehabbing, and a return to action. The big question for the competitors is ‘when’. When will I be ready to play again?

In the case of a very serious injury, the question (and the pleading) switches to ‘Will I be able to return to the sport I love?’.

The consultant/doctor/physio may well have to explain to the injured party the difference between the urgent and the important. It is urgent for the athlete to be able to play in the cup final in two weeks’ time; it is important for the medic to emphasise that risking a return to play after two weeks rehabbing in a four-week programme is too risky, when further damage will most likely be caused. In some cases the harsh reality is that the person may have to end their career, or switch to a less demanding leisure activity.

Participants suffer injuries in non-contact sports, high-contact sport and collision sports. Go to any game and in most cases some player has to be substituted because of an injury sustained and not because the player in question is playing poorly.

REFEREES

Fortunately, in modern day sport, the referees suspend play while medical attention is sought to determine the extent of the injury and whether the player is fit to continue or to be substituted. Most teams now have a person in their backroom team with some medical expertise

That can be the relatively straightforward ruling where a player has to leave the action temporarily and a blood sub is allowed. The injured player may return to the action after the medics have done running repairs.

Which are the most dangerous sports? Are males more at risk than females? What goes through the mind of a sportsperson when he/she suffers a career-threatening injury? How are their domestic and professional lives affected? Are their dangers for young players being over-taxed and pushed on too early? Are individuals and teams training demands too high at intercounty, club and individual levels?

So many questions to tease out.

At grass roots level the most common injuries are soft-tissue and muscular. Then there is the unmistakable hamstring. Injuries to ligaments and joints are common. One cannot forget breaks, of course, and lacerations.

The high profile one now is the ACL .The journey to Santry Sports Clinic, or elsewhere, will cost in the region of €5,000 and that is just for the surgery. There are other considerable costs such as travel, accommodation, physio sessions, and missing work.

In some cases, the injured party will be covered for wages, but what about the self–employed plumber?

Most sports associations at national level have player injury insurance, but that only offsets some of the expenses incurred. The remainder, which can be quite considerable, falls on the individual. Her/his club may or may not be able to lessen the load.

There is also the mental health and well-being of the injured athlete to consider in the long rehab programme before returning to action.

HOSPITAL

A high percentage of games are played at weekends and it is surprising to find that sports injuries accounted for nearly one in three visits to the A&E departments of hospitals for minor injuries like cuts, sprains, or broken bones playing sport. Add this to the usual many hours of waiting in the A&E for other ‘emergencies’.

Weekend is busiest, of course, but the x-ray departments are also very busy on Mondays.

That is just one more common scenario that beggars belief why such a busy town as Killarney does not have full x-ray and MRI scan facilities for locals, visitors, and in this case for injured competitors. For many years Councillor Michael Gleeson fought a real battle to have a one-stop facility in Killarney for many services including the facility for detecting and diagnosing sports injuries. Conversion and adaptation of St Finan’s was one proposed location.

It is not too late yet to provide that facility in Killarney for all, including the worried player who wants to know as soon as possible if the right hand is fractured. If so that has huge implications if it is close to the Leaving Cert exams or the finals at third level.

A whole new language has emerged in the weekday sports reporting and previewing of games. What exactly does ‘a clean bill of health’ mean when managers indicate that ‘everyone is available for selection’ or that ‘we have a few niggling injuries’? What exactly is a niggling injury? Are the players in question fit to play or not?

If they are not fit to start why are you holding them in reserve with every intention of springing them into action at a strategic time in the game? What does 90% ready mean and why is the player still rehabbing?

These and other terms favoured by the team managers in their guarded responses to the queries of sports reporters make it a mind game. Yes, we can read behind the lines and the jargon, but what is the reality?

I will be looking at these and other questions and responses in the coming weeks after speaking to those at the receiving end of injuries and the people who assist in clearing up the injuries so the players return to action fully recovered.

DANGEROUS

Car rallying, motorbike racing and high altitude mountaineering are very obvious dangerous sports, so there is a high level of mandatory safety precautions. But what surprised me in the team games is that basketball is always at the top or very high up in the statistics for injuries.

I put that very point to a well qualified person in the medical scene, suggesting that poor quality footwear and constant landing on a hard surface over the years must have been very hard on the ankles. The playing surfaces for the game are much improved from those in the past, but still basketball ranks high on the risk factor for injuries.

Those professionals that I spoke with agreed that these were causative factors, but pointed out the specific demands on players in basketball.

“It is a game of high forces, changes of direction, high speed and high skill factors. These are key factors in the high rate of injuries in basketball.”

Then there is the eternal question: is it dangerous and inadvisable to send a talented young player into the senior ranks too early?

It will be interesting to follow the progress of 15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri who became the youngest player in Premier League history. He came on as a sub for Arsenal as they returned to the top of the Premier League with a comfortable 3-0 win at Brentford on Sunday last. If he was here in Ireland, he would be studying for the Junior Cert, even too young to go into TY (Transition Year).

Of course, Wayne Rooney was still only 16 years old in 2002 when he scored a magnificent goal for Everton against Arsenal. He progressed to a hugely successful career with Man Utd and with England. I think he is still the highest goalscorer with Manchester United and with England. Local soccer aficionados will surely update me, if that record has been bettered. He also holds the record for the most appearances of any outfield player for the England national team.

These are elite professional players, but how about the talented 16-year-old in a small, rural club in Kerry who are caught for numbers to make up a team. For the love of the parish often rears its head and in he or she goes to make up the team. It’s the modern-day Matt the Thrasher O’Donovan leading his team to victory with the war cry ‘Up Tipperary’. Substitute Tipperary with St Pat’s/Fossa/Mastergeeha/Ballyhar Dynamos/Killarney Valley AC/Workmen’s/The Valley.

Yes, you are doing it all for the love of the parish.

EXCEPTIONS

At the other end, you have men like Dan Shanahan. He retired from club hurling just this year aged 45 after winning four Munster Championships with his beloved Waterford and three All-Stars (but no All-Ireland medal).

Closer to home are the Dooleys of Ballyduff. Father John Mike and his son Gavin played on the Ballyduff team in the 2022 Kerry Senior Hurling Championship final. They are the exceptions.

I wonder what age was Dan Kelleher when he hung up his boots and hurley. And is there any end to Jim O’Shea the Masters champion in the long jump and in the high jump in London? Modesty and humility are the qualities of this Firies native. No éirí in airde in this man, who has celebrated a very significant birthday ending in a zero. The first digit will surprise you. While other sports enthusiasts settle for spectating and watching sport on TV, Jim just continues to excel. High or long, it doesn’t matter for the greatest lepper alive, in what for him is active retirement. Keep raising the standards Jim. Is fearr léim maith ná droch–sheasamh.

That and more on injuries in future editions.

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