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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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Kerry will need more intensity, more physicality and more collaboration to bounce back from Dub drubbing

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by Adam Moynihan

In the 22nd minute of last Saturday night’s league match in Croke Park, Lee Gannon collected a pass on his own 65 and carried the ball unchallenged right into the heart of Kerry’s defence. Brian Fenton took over and a tackle by Diarmuid O’Connor slowed the attack.

Then Fenton looked up and saw that Niall Scully was standing at the top of the D, completely unmarked. It was a simple five-metre handpass to the centre, and Scully had all the time in the world to steady himself and shoot. His point made it Dublin 2-8 Kerry 0-5. Ten shots for Dublin. Ten scores. One-way traffic.

The Dubs deserve credit for their accuracy in front of the posts – Con O’Callaghan was particularly excellent – but the ease with which they were creating their openings was startling from a Kerry perspective. For Scully’s score, the resistance was non-existent. If the same thing happened in a training match, the manager would be well within his rights to call off the session and send everyone home.

The cameras may have been trained on Kerry’s full back line and, yes, Jason Foley and Dylan Casey were struggling against O’Callaghan and Paddy Small, but Kerry were found wanting all over the pitch. You could have sailed the Titanic down the centre of their defence and O’Callaghan exploited that space to great effect for his third goal. Foley got hoodwinked by a lovely piece of movement by the Dublin full forward, but where was the help?

Centre back Tadhg Morley was pushing up on Dublin dangerman Seán Bugler but that’s the thing with Dublin: all their forwards are dangerous in one way or another. Maybe Tadhg was following instructions but you wonder if he could have cheated off Bugler when the all-action centre forward was outside the 45.

Whether it’s Morley or someone else, that gap in front of the goal needs to be filled – especially against teams of Dublin’s calibre.

What we saw in Croke Park last Saturday was a far cry from the solid defensive structure that won Kerry an All-Ireland in 2022, that’s for sure. You can be certain that Jack O’Connor will be demanding a far more intense, more physical and more collaborative performance against Tyrone on Sunday (1.15pm).

KICKOUTS

Speaking after the Dublin game, O’Connor said that his side “malfunctioned” on the kickouts. While Dublin keeper David O’Hanlon was firing out his kicks like a machine gun, Shane Ryan was far more measured with his. Dublin’s press was brilliant in fairness to them but you’d have to question Kerry’s appetite for making honest, hard runs and receiving the ball in potentially tight areas.

Graham O’Sullivan and Brian Ó Beaglaoich (who is currently injured) are outstanding when it comes to breaking free and accepting that responsibility. You’d like to see one or two more backs getting in on the act.

As for Ryan himself, could he be a bit quicker and a bit more adventurous with his distribution? Look, if there’s nothing on, there’s nothing on, but I think at times he could back himself more resolutely. He has the range and the accuracy.

Of course, if he takes a risk and it gets intercepted he’ll be in line for even sharper criticism, so you can understand him being cautious when the kick isn’t 100% on.

Whatever the solution, on the evidence of the Dublin and Derry games, Kerry do need to try something a bit different to beat the press. Tyrone are unlikely to be as aggressive as Dublin were but when they do push up, it will be fascinating to see how Kerry deal with it.

Kerry’s midfielders also need to compete aerially against whoever they’re up against when it goes long – even if that’s Brian Fenton or Conor Glass or Brendan Rogers. It’s not easy to get the better of these guys in the air (or to break even, which would do) but that’s the level required.

Joe O’Connor showed that his ball skills have improved markedly by taking his goal and his point so cleanly, and he is doing well in general, but he and his namesake Diarmuid will have to be more impactful both from kickouts and without the ball if Kerry want to be a real force this season.

Personally, I would like to see Seán O’Brien getting some more game time. He has only played six minutes since being taken off early on his debut against Derry five weeks ago. Kerry will need back-up at midfield as the season goes on and O’Brien has a lot of potential.

FORWARDS

Up front, the main positive is that Cillian Burke continues to make his presence felt. Even when his more experienced teammates were faltering the last night, Burke stood tall and played his usual game. And he swung over a great score for good measure.

David Clifford will be disappointed that he didn’t convert one of his goal chances – the first one was definitely there for the taking – but you know that over the course of the season he’ll finish more of those than he misses. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if he comes out and strokes one in on Sunday.

It’s nice to see Tony Brosnan back on the pitch as well. He deserves some kind fortune following a tough spell with illness and injury.

Tyrone coming to Killarney gives the players the perfect opportunity to bounce back quickly and show supporters – and themselves – that the Dublin game was a glitch and nothing more. Improvements are needed all over the pitch but the sight of the Red Hand should bring focus and resolve.

A good performance, a win and two points would put a lot of minds at ease.

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Killarney girls will answer Ireland’s call

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A trio of talented young Killarney rugby players have been called up to the Ireland U18 squad for the upcoming Six Nations festival in Wales.

Ava O’Malley, Fia Whelan and Emma Dunican have all been included in Matt Gill’s panel for the tournament, which will take place between March 29 and April 6. They will link up with their new teammates for three weekend training camps at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin during the month of March.

Gill, the current Women’s Provincial Talent Coach for Leinster, will be assisted by Sana Govender, who has previously coached Munster Women’s teams.

“I’m really looking forward to continuing our Irish U18 Women’s Six Nations preparations and getting our camps underway,” the head coach said. “I’m excited to work with Sana and our management team, and to work with this incredibly talented group of players.”

O’Malley, Whelan and Dunican are products of Killarney RFC’s blossoming youth set-up and all three were on the U18.5 team that recently won the Munster League.

Including the Killarney girls, there are seven Munster-based players on the 35-woman squad with 15 hailing from Leinster, eight from Connacht and five from Ulster.

“It’s a very proud day for the girls, their families, teammates and coaches, and for Killarney RFC,” the club commented. “Best of luck, girls!”

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