A YOUNG winger was hanging around a near-deserted car-park in London waiting to introduce himself to Rotherham United manager Paul Warne.
Chiedozie Ogbene was a Brentford prospect at the time but his chances there were limited and he was hoping for a fresh start with the Millers.
Rotherham were kicking off their League One campaign on August 4 2019 at AFC Wimbledon’s Kingsmeadow home in Kingston Upon Thames and the player was living in nearby Ealing.
Something inside him told him to go to the game that Saturday to impress on Warne in person just how keen he was to kick-start his career at AESSEAL New York Stadium
His journey with Rotherham, one that would lead to international recognition, was about to begin.
Ogbene is now the first Africa-born ever to play for the Republic of Ireland and still on a high after his first goal and first start for his country came within days of each other earlier this month.
“It means a lot to me,” says the 24-year-old who moved from his Nigeria homeland to Cork when he was a boy. “I always wanted to be a professional footballer and I dreamed of playing internationally.
“It was a really proud moment for my family. A lot of people have been calling my parents in Cork saying how proud they are of me.
“I can see how much it means to my mother and father to have their son talked about like this. It’s emotional for me to see the smile on their faces, the smile on my friends’ faces. It’s priceless.”
Ogbene has always trusted his instincts. He found it tough as a teenager to leave Cork City and his family and friends for more opportunities at Limerick FC but he did. Later, he found it tough to leave Brentford for the Millers but did that as well.
“I still had two years on my contract when I came to Rotherham,” he said. “It was a big risk. I wanted game-time but I could have ended up in a similar situation to what I’d been in at Brentford.
“I’ve gambled with my career really. I just go with my gut feeling. I was lonely when I was staying over in Limerick because I didn’t have any of my friends around me. It was quite traumatic for me.
“When I came to England, I used to always phone my parents and brothers and say how much I missed them.”
After only nine substitute appearances in 18 months with the Bees, the flying wide man was ready to take flight again.
The Millers had won 2-1 against Wimbledon on the opening day of a season that would end in promotion. The crowd had dispersed and most of the cars had gone when Warne found himself face to face with an unfamiliar figure.
“I was standing by the team bus waiting for Rotherham to come out and I shook Warney’s hand,” Ogbene said. “He had to keep it professional because I wasn’t a signed player and was still contracted to Brentford.
“It was something I wanted to do to show my interest. I was really keen to meet them. That was a gut feeling as well. I wanted them to know I was serious about a move and wanted to take it forward.”
Before the month was out, the deal was done, and the rest is history.
Chieo on the charge for the Millers
He was too turbo-charged, too tricky for England’s third tier as the Millers went up, knee surgery robbed him of his chance to make his true mark in the Championship and now he is in League One again and starring for club and country.
“Coming here was a big turning point in my career,” he said. “I got the opportunity to play more regularly. I obviously had God-given talents but I was quite raw. Matt Hamshaw (coach) helped me.
“My crossing is better and my decision-making is a lot better. These attributes have got me into the international squad. I owe it to the coaches. I’m still learning other parts of my game. Rotherham have given me the opportunity to showcase my ability.
“There was adversity after we’d won promotion and I got an injury. The return date was four months but it took me six. It was quite challenging for me. My girlfriend is in Ireland and I live on my own and didn’t have a shoulder to cry on.”
There are no tears now and, just over two years into his Millers move, Ogbene’s gamble has paid off.
“Go with your gut feeling,” he said. “Your gut knows more than you do. Believe in yourself. I wouldn’t have made the decisions I did without believing in myself.
“Your friends and coaches tell you the safer option is to stay where you are and see what happens. But I was just uncomfortable. I wanted to play, I wanted to learn.
“Make a decision on your own terms and even if it turns out to be wrong you can live with it. If you make a decision based on other people’s terms and it goes wrong you’ll never forgive yourself.”
After his debut off the bench in a goalless draw in a June friendly in Hungary, Ogbene exploded for the Republic with a goal as a substitute in a 3-0 World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan 12 days ago and followed that up with his first start in a 4-0 home triumph over Qatar.
Sadly, mum Christina, dad Emmanuel and none of his two brothers and two sisters were there to witness his exploits.
“Because of circumstances at work, they couldn’t change their schedules quickly enough,” he said. “Everyone is prepared now and hopefully I’ll get called up to next month’s camp and I’ll have all my people from Cork supporting me.”
The journey that started with that August 4 2019 encounter with Warne took on another significant date: Tuesday October 12 2021.
As the winger was taken off in the second half against Qatar, rousing applause grew into a 25,000-strong standing ovation as Republic fans rose to acclaim a new hero at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
“It was a really special moment,” Ogbene said. “I was quite emotional when they all stood up and clapped me off. I had goosebumps running through my body.”
Kingston Upon Thames and that nervous wait in an emptying car-park suddenly seemed a long, long time ago.
NEW GOALS WITH IRELAND
CHIEDOZIE Ogbene is setting his sights on more success with the Republic of Ireland.
The Rotherham United winger is establishing himself in his country’s international set-up and has twin goals for the future.
“We’re hoping to do well in the Nations League next year and we also want to qualify for Euro 2024,” he said. “I would like to go to a major competition.”
Ogbene, who has managed only one goal for the Millers in more than 50 appearances, showed a hitherto-unseen talent for heading when he rose to score from a corner for the Republic in a 3-0 win over Azerbaijan earlier this month.
“The gaffer here did mention it me,” he smiled. “It’s an ability I have in the locker. I don’t use it much at Rotherham. I told him if he needs me I’m available.
“I’d like more opportunity to do it. I try to make the box as much as possible. It can be quite difficult from right wing-back.
“The staff tell me, if I’m not in the box, I don’t have the opportunity to score.”
STICK FOR THE ‘SUPERSTAR’
ROTHERHAM United players are ribbing Chiedozie Ogbene after his impact on the international stage.
The winger scored his first goal and made his first start for the Republic of Ireland this month and is receiving the ‘superstar’ treatment from his teammates at the club’s Roundwood complex.
“He’s been getting a bit of stick around the training ground,” said coach Matt Hamshaw. “We all clap now whenever he walks into a room.”
Ogbene is a hugely-popular figure in the Rotherham camp and everyone is delighted to see him doing so well.
“He’s on cloud nine,” added Hamshaw. “He deserves his success. He’s a lovely lad, totally committed, and he takes on everything the coaches and other staff tell him.
“He wants to be the best he can be. When someone is like that, it’s nice to see them get rewarded with international honours.”