JOSH Kayode was only a kid. He was living in digs far from his loved ones and he just wanted to go home.
“No chance,” said his dad back in Ireland. It wasn’t what the 16-year-old wanted to hear but it was what he needed to be told.
Kayode’s father had spoken and Kayode Junior, born in Nigeria but brought up in Dublin since the age of one, was staying in Rotherham United’s academy.
“The first few months were hard,” the youngster recalls. “I didn’t really like it. At training, I’d put on a smile and was sound with everyone but I missed home quite a lot.
“I got on with everyone but I just wanted to be with my family, you know what I mean? My mum, dad, uncles, aunties, my brother.
“My dad laid into me a bit. He was like: ‘Look, this was your decision to move over and you’ve just got to put your head down and work hard.’”
The striker, like a good son, did as he was ordered. Four years on, he’s turning heads on loan at Carlisle United, has broken into the Republic of Ireland’s under-21 set-up and is seen by many as the next big thing in a Millers shirt.
Spells last term at non-league Gateshead and League Two Carlisle proved he was ready for senior football and now he’s due to spend all this season at Brunton Park before heading back down the A1 to stake his claim for a first-team place at AESSEAL New York Stadium.
Growing up in Ireland with younger brother Caleb
“Gateshead was my first proper loan,” he says. “I was playing week in, week out against, you know, grown men who just want to leave a bit on you. I adapted to it quite well and enjoyed it. That’s what I’d been sent out on loan for: to play against big men.
“I’ve done all right there and came here, to Carlisle, on loan. I was doing well then I got injured. I came back from injury and had a good run of games — I must have scored three goals in four games — and then lockdown hit. That ruined it. We had nine games left and I felt I was playing my best football.
“This season, I’m playing up top and out wide, a few different positions, but I’m adapting well and helping the team. We’re doing quite well in the league. I must be doing all right because I made four League Two Team of the Weeks in a row.
“Here, I’m not the young lad I’d be at Rotherham. I’m looked at differently because I’m playing week in, week out.”
We’re talking online, a Zoom call bridging the 155-mile gap between Rotherham and the North West. There’s a neutral background with generic prints on the wall and his home up there looks pretty modern.
Kayode — known to everyone in the Millers camp as ‘JJ’ — is a player making headlines after his recent exploits and he’s already done an interview with an Irish news outlet on the Friday afternoon that I pop up on screen.
For a 20-year-old, he’s very poised; measured in how he speaks, with his Dublin boyhood coming through in a soft but distinct Irish lilt. There’s no trace of arrogance in him, just a quiet sense of self-belief.
“I live 30 seconds from the training ground,” he says, “I walk to training. The club have got houses. There are three of us in one. It’s better than being on my own, 100 per cent.
“If I was up here on my own I would have lost my mind by now because there’s not much you can do because of the lockdown and restrictions.”
The Millers made sure they’d tied him down until 2022 before allowing him to move to Carlisle for a second time and coach Matt Hamshaw, who worked with him in the youth ranks, is a constant caller.
“I speak to Hammy all the time,” he says and his accent draws out the ‘all’ so it lasts much longer than a three-letter word normally would.
“He checks up on me regularly. It’s good to have someone from the club checking up so often. I’m quite close to Hammy because I knew him when I was a scholar.
A top Millers prospect
“One hundred per cent, this loan is about making me ready for Championship football when I go back.
“In pre-season, the gaffer (Paul Warne) told me I was doing quite well. It wasn’t a case of him wanting me to go on loan, it was more of a case of me saying I wanted to so I could play regular football.
“I think they thought I could have competed for a place this season. I felt like I needed more time, more games under my belt, more experience. That’s why I went out.”
Happily, dad Joseph and mum Omonike — usually known as Nike (pronounced Nicky) — are close to their boy again.
“I get to see my family quite a lot,” he says. “My mum and my little brother moved to Manchester in 2018 so I see them whenever I want to really.
“My dad is in Ireland but my parents are still together. He comes over every couple of weeks.”
Better than those early days when a homesick teenager wanted to end his Rotherham career almost before it had even begun.
“I lived in digs near the Stag pub at first,” he says. “Hammy would tell you, my dad is proper strict. My dad was hard but by being hard he made it easier for me. He’s kept me on the right path ever since I’ve moved over here.
“I was in four different digs. I started off at the Stag, then moved to Woodlaithes, then to Wath and to Broadlands in Bramley after that.
“Now I have my own flat in the Kimberworth area. It’s just five minutes from the stadium and Meadowhall is just two minutes down the road, so it’s bang on.
“I came over for a week’s trial with the youth team and got offered my scholarship at the end of that week. I’ve been with Rotherham ever since.
“Footballing wise, I found it hard. I didn’t hit the ground running. It took me a while to get used to the playing style and everything.
“Hammy was a really good coach for me in the youth team before he moved on to the first team. Another coach, Ciaran Toner, was a big help as well. He played a big part in my development.
“I enjoyed my two years in the youth team. We played good football and came second in the league twice.”
Carlisle is his base for now and he scored for the third time this season for the promotion-chasing Cumbrians last weekend in a 4-0 win at Stevenage, a couple of months on from making his international breakthrough with the Republic U-21s.
He was a non-playing substitute against Italy in October before a debut off the bench versus Iceland in November followed a few days later by a goal on his first start in Luxembourg.
“Thank you,” he says before giving his answer when my first question about Ireland includes some praise for him. Little things point to good manners and standards. My mind flicks back to last season when I turned up at the Millers’ Roundwood training complex to find him, unasked, carrying in bags of food for queen of the canteen Carol.
Making his mark in the Republic of Ireland under-21 ranks
“The Italy game, I rang my parents and told them I was in the provisional squad,” Kayode says. “Then Hammy sent me a message with the email of the confirmation that I’d made the final squad. I was over the moon.
“I used that week to get to terms with how the team plays — the set-pieces, what the gaffer wants from the forward players. I used it for education, for learning.
“The second call-up was a lot easier. I wasn’t as nervous. Against Iceland, I just played the way I know how to. I wasn’t nervous for that game; I just wanted to get on.
“They must have seen something in me because they started me in the next game. I was more nervous for that because I was actually starting and had more time to think about it. After I got the goal, I felt more relaxed.”
The on-screen smile is warm and wide. Earlier, he’d been laughing at my fumbled attempts to set up the Zoom connection and our half-hour together flies by.
He’s wearing typical footballer’s gear: a slim-fit black tracksuit top from Nike. I mean the giant sports company. He hasn’t borrowed it from his mum.
You sense the centre-forward’s time is coming.
“I want to become a regular in the first team at Rotherham,” he says. “That’s the ultimate goal right now. That’s where I did my two years as a scholar.
“Moving to England, Rotherham were the team I came to. They’re ‘my’ club. I want to score goals for Rotherham.
“What happens after that takes care of itself. I’m still young. Every kid wants to play in the Prem, wants to play for their country. I don’t want to think that far ahead. I just want to focus on what’s at hand at the minute.”
He could be back at Rotherham sooner than he expected, with Millers boss Warne revealing he’s considering a recall in next month’s transfer window.
“I know that if I get chucked in I will give it 100 per cent,” the player says. “I feel that, physically, I can hold my own now. I’m not that young, fragile pro anymore.
“If the gaffer decides to call me back in January or if I have to wait until next season, I’m just going to give it everything I’ve got.”
Like someone said four years ago: ‘Put your head down and work hard.’
Kayode’s dad would approve.
JJ ON WARNE
“He’s had a big influence on me. Do you know what, when I was a first-year pro I was a bit scared to speak to him or approach him. I was like: ‘He’s the gaffer and I’ve just come into the set-up.’
“As time went on and I became a second-year pro, it just got easier and I could speak to him whenever. This pre-season, I think I spoke to him more than I had in the whole two years before really.
“He just tells me things. He used to be a striker himself. He explains the runs I should be making and what I should do if my touch is off. He talks to me about finishing. He gives me great advice.
“Richie (number two Barker) does as well. Last year, I went to meet Richie in the gym at Bannatyne’s in Bramley.
“We were on the bikes and he was just giving me advice and speaking to me, telling me what I could do if I put my head down and worked hard.
“That’s a conversation I’ve taken with me. I felt that I needed that at the time. I needed one of the main coaches to sit me down and talk to me.”
JJ ON TEAMMATES
“Woody (Richard Wood) has been good with me since I turned pro. He’s always giving me advice.
“I still speak to Will Vaulks. He’s like a mentor for me. He always checks up on me and gives me a bit of stick sometimes if he thinks I’m not applying myself properly.
“The list goes on. Freddie (Ladapo) is unbelievable. I speak to him all the time and he gives me advice.
“The lads are just great in general. I speak to a couple of them now I’m away. Smudge (Michael Smith), he gives me advice.
“It’s unreal to have the forward players, the lads in your position, messaging you with advice and seeing how you’re doing. It made turning pro easier for me, the fact that there were no egos in the dressing room.
“Everyone is just unreal with the younger lads. It’s a similar dressing room at Carlisle.”