Daniel Okwute has high hopes
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.”
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.”
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.”
Kingdom hoping to lay some old ghosts to rest at Páirc Uí Chaoimh
by Adam Moynihan
All-Ireland SFC Group 1
Cork v Kerry
Saturday at 3pm
Páirc Uí Chaoimh
I was one of the unlucky few to have been present at the last Cork-Kerry clash in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in November of 2020. It was a truly awful night.
The match was played behind closed doors which made for an eerie, unsettling atmosphere, and the rain came down harder than I ever remember seeing first-hand.
Unfortunately, Kerry came down hard too. Mark Keane’s last-ditch goal clinched an unexpected victory for the hosts and, just like that, Kerry’s year was over.
It always hurts when your team loses but that one completely floored us all. It was such a horrible way to lose a game and I felt so bad for the players as they trudged off the field, soaked to the bone and shaken to the core.
They got some form of payback the following year when they won by 21 in the Munster final, and again last year when they ran out 11-point winners in the semi-final. But something tells me that it would mean a lot more to return to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and do the business there.
It won’t be easy. The final scorelines in the last two games suggest that it was all one-way traffic but that simply wasn’t the case. In 2021, Cork led by 1-5 to 0-4 at the water break (remember those?) and they pushed Kerry hard 12 months ago too. There was nothing in that match right up until the 50th minute, at which point Kerry brought on David Moran and Paul Geaney and ultimately pulled away.
You can never really read too much into the McGrath Cup but Cork demolished Kerry in January. Their form since has been spotty but they did well to see off Louth last week, with the returning Brian Hurley (shoulder) kicking eight points in a two-point win. Hurley has proved to be a handful for Kerry full back Jason Foley in the past.
Significantly, John Cleary’s side are strong in a key area where Kerry struggled against Mayo: midfield. Ian Maguire and Colm O’Callaghan scored 0-2 each in Navan (and the latter scored 2-4 in that aforementioned McGrath Cup game at the start of the year).
Jack O’Connor named his team last night with Adrian Spillane replacing Tony Brosnan and Paul Murphy coming in for Dylan Casey. Spillane will add some extra brawn and energy around the middle third. Going by the last outing, Kerry need it.
It is also worth noting that David Clifford has never really shot the lights out against Cork. He has been well minded by Maurice Shanley, Seán Meehan and Kevin Flahive in the past three championship meetings, with the retreating Seán Powter also getting stuck in when needed.
Flahive suffered a cruciate injury late in last year’s game but he could potentially be in line for a comeback tomorrow; he has been added to Cork’s 26 for the first time in over 12 months.
Meehan has been ruled out with a hamstring injury so Shanley may be asked to track the Footballer of the Year this time around.
Clifford was one of the few bright sparks against Mayo and he would love to bring that form to the Páirc on Saturday. With vital points on the line, there would be no better time to lay some ghosts to rest.
From a Kerry perspective, you would hope – and perhaps expect – that Clifford and his teammates can do exactly that and get the show back on the road.
1. Shane Ryan
2. Graham O’Sullivan
3. Jason Foley
4. Tom O’Sullivan
5. Paul Murphy
6. Tadhg Morley
7. Gavin White
8. Diarmuid O’Connor
9. Jack Barry
10. Dara Moynihan
11. Seánie O’Shea
12. Adrian Spillane
13. Paudie Clifford
14. David Clifford
15. Paul Geaney
Subs: S Murphy, T Brosnan, D Casey, BD O’Sullivan, R Murphy, M Burns, M Breen, S O’Brien, D O’Sullivan, C O’Donoghue, S O’Brien.
1. Micheál Aodh Martin
2. Maurice Shanley
3. Rory Maguire
4. Kevin O’Donovan
5. Luke Fahy
6. Daniel O’Mahony
7. Matty Taylor
8. Colm O’Callaghan
9. Ian Maguire
10. Brian O’Driscoll
11. Ruairí Deane
12. Killian O’Hanlon
13. Seán Powter
14. Brian Hurley
15. Chris Óg Jones
Subs: P Doyle, C Kiely, T Clancy, K Flahive, P Walsh, E McSweeney, B Murphy, J O’Rourke , M Cronin, S Sherlock, F Herlihy.
Is Killarney green or blue? Celtic and Athletic to face off in tonight’s league final
Kerry Premier A League Final
Killarney Celtic v Killarney Athletic
Tonight at 7.45pm
Mounthawk Park, Tralee
Killarney Celtic will be gunning for their fifth league title in a row tonight (Friday) when they take on crosstown rivals Killarney Athletic in Tralee.
Celtic have been the dominant force in Kerry soccer in recent times with Athletic playing second fiddle. This will be the third Premier A final in a row to be contested by the Killarney clubs; Celtic won the 2020 decider 4-0 and last year’s final ended in a 3-0 victory for the club from Derreen. (The 2020/21 season was scrapped due to the pandemic.)
Prior to that, Celtic defeated Castleisland in 2019 and Dingle Bay Rovers in 2018, both on a scoreline of 1-0.
Celtic and Athletic also met in the 2017 final. The Blues prevailed in that particular encounter to capture their first ever Premier A title.
As for this season, Neilus Hayes’ Hoops qualified for the final by virtue of their first-place finish in the Premier A. Despite losing key players – including attackers Ryan Kelliher, Stephen McCarthy and Trpimir Vrljicak – to the Kerry FC project, the Celts won 12 of their 14 matches and ended up with an imposing goal difference of +34.
Athletic were not far behind, however; Stuart Templeman’s team only lost one league game all season en route to 35 points – one behind Celtic and 11 clear of Castleisland in third.
Interestingly, both of Celtic’s losses came at the hands of Athletic. The Woodlawn outfit impressively beat the old enemy 3-2 and 0-1 over the course of the regular season.
Goals by Roko Rujevcan, Pedja Glumcevic and a 90th-minute winner by Brendan Moloney clinched that dramatic 3-2 win in October of last year. It was a result that signalled Athletic’s intentions for the rest of the season.
Rujevcan was also on the scoresheet when Athletic snatched a rare away win at Celtic Park on April 30.
Celtic’s imposing record in finals probably makes them slight favourites and in the likes of John McDonagh, Brendan Falvey, Wayne Sparling, Kevin O’Sullivan and Witness Odirile they have a potent mix of steel and skill.
But Athletic will take heart from their recent results in this fixture and they will be hoping that two of the stars from the 2017 team – Shane Doolan and Shane Lynch – can lead the current crop of players to glory.
Meanwhile, the Division 2B final between Killarney Athletic B and Atletico Ardfert that was also due to take place tonight has been cancelled. Athletic have received a walkover.
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