Having signed on loan from Chelsea at the start of the week, Kenneth Omeruo is set to make his Middlesbrough debut in today's Championship game at Blackpool. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson met the 20-year-old Nigerian and discovered he is no stranger to dramatic beginnings
You can claim some pretty impressive prizes for winning what is effectively a glorified talent show these days.
Triumph in X-Factor, and you're pretty much guaranteed to be Christmas Number One. Wow the judges on Britain's Got Talent, and you get to perform in front of the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance. But a place at a World Cup finals? Surely no one's going to be able to win that?
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Kenneth Omeruo did. Aged 16, and having never previously played for the academy of a professional club, Middlesbrough's latest signing saw an advert for an open trial ahead of the Under-17s World Cup in his native Nigeria.
Along with hundreds of other hopefuls, he turned up with his boots expecting to make it through a couple of rounds at best. Two days later, and he was the only man standing.
Within a couple of months he was helping Nigeria beat Argentina and Spain en route to the World Cup final, and within a couple of years he was joining Chelsea, from where he made a loan move to Middlesbrough this week. It has been a remarkable rise from a truly remarkable beginning.
“The way it works in Nigeria is that for something like the Under-17s World Cup, there are open trials where absolutely anyone can come,” said Omeruo, who was born and raised in the rural Abia State of Nigeria's unstable Delta region. “That is what I did.
“I turned up with hundreds of other people for the trials, and every time they got rid of some people and shrunk the group down, I was always one of the ones asked to come back for more.
“There’s a lot of pressure on those trials. Each day, hundreds and hundreds of people would turn up, and the trainers would have to make their decisions quite quickly. If you didn’t impress straight away, your chance was gone. I played in lots of matches, often against the new players who had just walked in, and I must have done well because the trainers wanted to stick with me.”
Promoted to the national Under-17 side, Omeruo made his first competitive appearance in Nigeria's opening World Cup group game. Given that it was against a Germany side containing future Bayern Munich midfielder Mario Gotze, it wasn't exactly an easy beginning. And to make matters worse, Nigeria found themselves 3-0 down at half-time.
“It was some way to start,” laughed Omeruo, a tall, rangy defender who is equally comfortable at right-back or centre-half. “We had never played together as a team before, and at half-time, it looked like we were going to be embarrassed.
“When we came out for the second half, the stadium was almost empty, but we got ourselves back into the game and it eventually finished 3-3. That gave us confidence, and when we came out of the group we played Argentina in the quarter-finals and won.
“We played Spain in the semis and the trainer (Aitor Karanka) was there in charge of Spain. I have already reminded him about the result!”
Omeruo had arrived, and after an initial spell at Anderlecht failed to work out, he eventually returned to Belgium to sign youth terms with Standard Liege.
His international career continued, with an appearance against Portugal bringing him to the attention of the then Chelsea boss, Andre Villas-Boas. A month or so later, and he would receive a phone call that would transform his life again.
“I grew up watching the likes of (Didier) Drogba and (Michael) Essien, so when I heard about Chelsea's interest in me, it was like a dream,” he said. “We went to the (Under-20s) World Cup in Colombia and that was when things really started to happen. I was finishing my pre-contract with Standard Liege, and the chance to join Chelsea was incredible. It was like all my dreams had come true.”
Chelsea immediately loaned Omeruo to ADO Den Haag, with the 20-year-old making 36 senior appearances for the Dutch side last season, a record that helped earn a promotion to the full Nigerian national team.
Offers from right across Europe, including one from newly-promoted Premier League side Hull City, began to pour in, but just as Omeruo's career appeared to be heading into the stratosphere, injury struck. A string of impressive performances at the Confederations Cup might have enhanced the youngster's already burgeoning reputation, but they came at a cost as he sustained a shoulder injury that required surgery and ruled him out of the first half of the current campaign.
“I had Premier League offers, but because of the injury, I couldn’t do anything,” said Omeruo. “Once I had got back fit, I wanted to go to somewhere where I could be playing. People in Nigeria are always telling me, ‘We are not seeing you any more’. That has to change.”
Hence this week's move to Middlesbrough. Den Haag wanted to take Omeruo back to Holland, but Jose Mourinho was adamant he wanted one of his club's brightest prospects to experience football in England, and the Chelsea boss' close personal relationship with Karanka meant Teesside was always going to be a logical place to turn.
“The manager (Karanka) was a big factor in me coming to Middlesbrough,” said Omeruo. “I know he is a good friend of Jose Mourinho, and I talked to Jose a lot.
“After I first came to see him and the facilities here at Middlesbrough, I went back to Chelsea and Jose said, ‘What are you doing here? You are supposed to be at Middlesbrough’. I said, ‘Yes, I know – and I am going straight back’.”
Omeruo joins a side whose season could still head in either direction. Nine points clear of the relegation zone, and six points adrift of the play-offs, anything is possible in the next four months.
Today's trip to Blackpool should help indicate whether December's rally was merely a brief improvement or the start of a more sustained recovery, with Omeruo's presence in the back four hopefully helping to provide the kind of defensive resilience that has not always been apparent on the Teessiders' travels this season.
“I want to help Middlesbrough achieve their ambitions while I am here,” said Omeruo. “I know the club were fighting against relegation not so long ago, but now we are only six points off the play-offs. That is my first aim, and that is what I am looking forward to. I will try to do what I can to achieve it.”