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Family, Tragedy, And Jay-Jay Okocha - Joshua Kayode's Story Is Only Beginning

Family, Tragedy, And Jay-Jay Okocha - Joshua Kayode's Story Is Only Beginning
By Gary Connaughton Updated
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Making your U21 international debut can be a daunting prospect for any young footballer. Most of them have worked their whole lives to reach that point, putting in a huge amount time and dedication to mould their craft.

That brings with it a certain pressure, something that can only be amplified when the game is a hugely important one.

However, Joshua Kayode didn't feel that pressure. He made his Ireland U21 debut in last month's game against Iceland, a fixture Ireland had to win to have a chance of going to the Euros. Coming on with the team 1-0 down in the final 20 minutes, you could understand if the 20-year old had a few nerves.

Instead, he would force the equaliser via an own goal only a few minutes later and put in an excellent overall performance, despite the match ultimately ending in defeat. He would go on to start and score in Luxembourg a few days later.

Speaking to Balls, Kayode said he didn't feel any sort of nerves as he stood on the sideline waiting to come on. However, knowing 24 hours in advance that he would start in Luxembourg was a slightly different story.

I wasn’t nervous, I was more excited. We had been working on stuff all week and it had been drilled into our heads, so I knew exactly what I was going on to do.

I knew if I do the basics right everything else would just fall into place. I just tried to put myself about and cause havoc in the lat 15 minutes.

Unfortunately we didn’t go through, but on a personal note it was probably one of the biggest achievements in my life so far...

Jim [Crawford] told me the day before that I would be starting when we did shape and that was when I was actually nervous. I’m like, ‘right, I’m actually going to start a game here for my country’...

I was so focused for the day of the game, that’s all I was thinking about. Just before we went out to warm-up Jim said ‘don’t overcomplicate it, just play the way you play’. I did that and was happy to get the goal. Hopefully there’s many more U21 appearances to come.

While it may not have felt like it at the time, this was the culmination of an amazing journey for Kayode.  He moved to Dublin from Nigeria with his family as one-year old, eventually attending primary school in Huntstown.

His love for football was crafted from an early age, thanks in no small part to his father. In fact, it was his Dad's love for the game that would see young Joshua bestowed with the nickname 'JJ', after the Nigerian superstar Jay-Jay Okocha.

It was with Huntstown that Kayode would play his first organised football, with a friend inviting him along despite the fact that he was a year younger than everybody else on that team. The trend of playing with older kids would continue after a move to St. Mochta's, and eventually Mountview.

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It was at the latter of those clubs that he got a first taste of high quality football, but their only year in the Dublin District Schoolboy League was a struggle. Despite this, the then teenager knew he could compete at that level.

We got relegated but I thought I could hold my own.

The U16 season I went for trials at St Kevin’s, Belvedere, and St Francis. It was St Francis that I enjoyed because the manager at the time, Mark Connolly, was a really good guy.

I grew up knowing just get the ball, run towards the goal and try to score. I didn’t have a tactical or technical side to me...

The first couple of sessions I hated it because I just couldn’t keep up with the lads because they were all technically sound. My Dad told me ‘it was your decision to come here so you’ve got to stick with it’.

That perseverance would quickly pay off, with Kayode drawing interest from a number of English clubs during that season after displaying some rapid progression.

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It was Rotherham United that appealed most to him, spending a week on trial training with their U18 side. He would immediately be offered a contract.

However, nothing was decided at that stage. While the player was desperate to move to England as a 16-year old, his father took some convincing. Despite this, there is little doubt that his father has been a driving force in his career.

My Dad didn’t want me to move. My Mum didn’t have a clue, she was just happy because I was happy. She was like ‘if you want to go, you can go’. In the end I did manage to persuade my Dad to let me move over.

It was tough. The first couple of months I wanted to go back home. I’m in digs for the first time and don’t really know anyone, don’t know the area properly. I just wanted to be at home.

I was speaking to my Dad and he told me that I just needed to put my head down and work because it was where I wanted to go...

He’s proper strict, he’s been like that since I was young. It’s good to have him there to give me advice. When I’m doubting myself he just tells me straight that there’s nothing to worry about, that I’ve got to keep going.

He played a big part in me keeping my head screwed on when I first moved over, not wanting to slack off and go back home.

It was also his father who prepared him for potential discrimination during his childhood. While he said he lucky to largely avoid such incident growing up, the advice from his parents to never 'stoop down' to the level of any such 'uneducated' people has always stuck with him.

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Even accounting for his struggles in those early days, Kayode was impressing at Rotherham. He would be given some first team opportunities, which he took with both hands.

It was clear that he was ready for first team football, but he would have to leave the club to get it. A move to non-league side Gateshead at the start of last season was seen as the best solution.

While playing at a lower level may not be seen as the most glamorous, the forward believes it was the making of him. Despite coming up against defenders that 'just want to kick you about' every weekend, he thrived on the goalscoring front.

Image credit: Rotherham United official website

It was clear the youngster had quickly outgrown non-league level, prompting a recall to his parent club. After signing a new contract, he would once again go out on loan, this time to League Two side Carlisle United.

While an injury would originally rule him out for a few weeks, he then caught fire. Kayode scored three goals in five games and was looking forward to pushing on for the remainder of the season.

Then coronavirus hit.

Football was left in limbo for a number of months, with League Two ultimately opting to cancel the remainder of the season. It was no doubt a blow for a player who was just hitting his stride in senior football for the first time in his career.

He said he used the lockdown to ensure that he returned to football in a better physical condition than ever before. When he came back for pre-season, his coaches at Rotherham were massively impressed. When a return to Carlisle was on the table, he didn't hesitate.

Now in December, he has made 14 appearances in League Two, earning rave reviews in the process. Add this to his U21 international debut and it has certainly been quite the few months for a player who is now drawing plenty of attention from Irish football fans. As ever, his father is ensuring that his son is keeping his feet firmly on the ground.

My Dad tells me not to focus on it. He always says not to believe the hype, because you can be at the very top one day and the next day everyone will be like ‘he was rubbish today’.

I don’t pay attention to all that, I just keep playing my football and be the best that I can possibly be.

When speaking to him, it's clear that he possesses a laser focus in achieving his goals in the game. Much of that is driven by an incident from his childhood.

It happened on a normal day at Waterville Park in West Dublin in 2013, when 13-year-old Ricky Osagie would tragically lose his life after attempting to save two girls from drowning in a lake. While they would emerge unharmed, Ricky would later pass away at Temple Street Children's Hospital.

Kayode was there that day, having known Ricky through mutual friends. It was an incident that would change his outlook on life and drive him to become the person that he is today.

Seeing that, it just made me think you never know when your time is going to be. We went there that day thinking we’re going to have some fun at the lake and go home. We didn’t know someone was going to pass away.

At that moment I thought ‘it’s either I keep messing about like I’m doing, or I focus on something and try to make the best of it’. As soon as that I happened I thought I had to keep working hard at football.

I wasn’t bad in school, I was middling. It’s not that I didn’t like school, but I was a troublemaker. I knew I wanted to play football and after that I thought ‘I’ve got to make it at whatever level’.

It's becoming increasingly clear that he is on course to meet those goals. Continuing his progression with Carlisle United over the remainder of the season is what is in his immediate focus, with the club currently in fourth place in League Two.

After that, a first team breakthrough at Rotherham is surely next on the horizon. As a player, he never looks too far ahead. However, pulling on the green jersey at senior level is the ultimate prize. For someone who came to this country as a baby with his family to build a new life, it would be quite the story.

That’s every boy’s dream, to play for their country at senior level. I’m still progressing and I’m still learning.

If the time comes, it comes, but I’m just going to keep working hard and hopefully one day I do get to play for the senior team.

SEE ALSO: Dessie Hutchinson's Love For Hurling Burned Bright In England

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