Six weeks ago Kenneth Omeruo was focused on Brazil and Benzema. Today it is all about Birmingham City at the Riverside Stadium. Chief football writer Paul Fraser chatted to the young Nigerian about his World Cup appearance and his hopes for the future
HE did not mean any disrespect by it, but Kenneth Omeruo could not prevent a little chuckle and smile when he was asked if he knew who would be playing up front for Birmingham City today.
Before the final training sessions and team talks had taken place ahead of Middlesbrough’s season opener with the Blues, Omeruo had not really had the time to familiarise himself with this weekend’s opponents. He has been adjusting to life back on Teesside again, after starting a second loan, after a hectic summer.
Less than six weeks ago Omeruo was playing the last of his four matches at the World Cup in Brazil. He had been tasked with keeping France’s Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema quiet in Brasilia, just five days after facing Lionel Messi et al in Porto Alegre in the Group F date with Argentina.
So the 20-year-old, who already has 21 international caps, had every right to be forgiven for being unable to name the Birmingham strikers he could come up against at the Riverside Stadium today. Clayton Donaldson and Wes Thomas, while dangerous in their own way, do not quite have the same ring to them as a Gonzalo Higuain or an Ezequiel Lavezzi.
“Aside from the Iran game in the first match in Brazil, we were up against some of the best strikers around,” said Omeruo. “In the Bosnia game, they had (Edin) Dzeko. Argentina had Aguero, Higuain, Messi. In the game against France they had Benzema, (Olivier) Giroud ... all of these players are great strikers of the world. It was a great experience – and test - to be facing those players for my country.”
The experience of playing in Brazil will never leave Omeruo. While he would have liked something other than his own Nigeria shirt to savour from an appearance against Argentina when he was dragged away for a routine doping test, he does at least have something to savour from the last-16 tie with France.
“I’ve got Benzema’s shirt, it’s at home, and it was a real honour to be on the same pitch competing with him because I’ve always regarded him as one of the best strikers around,” said Omeruo.
For the young defender to have had the privilege of playing in every game for Nigeria at the World Cup highlights the high regard that there is for him both internationally and in England. As one of Chelsea’s rising talents, Jose Mourinho is keen to keep an eye on him and the season-long loan move to Middlesbrough merely highlights that.
At first glance the prospect of playing in the Championship after an impressive World Cup does not look particularly attractive, particularly when there were options of moving to other Premier League clubs such as Queens Park Rangers or Hull City on loan.
But there was more to this switch than simply picking the highest ranked team to play for. As a valued member of the Chelsea development squad, Mourinho wants to keep the closest of eyes on his progress. That is why Aitor Karanka, the Portuguese’s former right-hand man, has been granted the opportunity to have him for the full campaign.
“I know a lot of my friends back in Nigeria think I have not made the right decision to come back to Middlesbrough,” said Omeruo. “Last season’s loan here helped me a lot though, it gave me a lot of confidence before the World Cup. It has helped my career.
“Chelsea also made it clear to me that they think this move is what is best for me. I had offers to play in the Premier League and other places, but Chelsea felt the training sessions would help me more here because the two sides have similar ideas on the training ground and systems.
“Chelsea felt it would help me for next season. I spoke to Michael (Emenalo), the Chelsea sporting director, and he told me that Jose was happy with my performance at the World Cup and about the plans they have for me.
“It’s not that my friends didn’t want me to go to Middlesbrough, it was just that my friends enjoyed watching me play in the World Cup and they want to keep seeing me play on TV every week. In Nigeria it would be the Premier League live every week on TV, to come in to the Championship they might not see me as much. Hopefully I can help Middlesbrough get to the Premier League.”
The Premier League has always been Omeruo’s target since he started to play football as a youngster back home in Africa. Brought up in the highly-populated Abia State, he earned himself a crack at Europe after working his way on to Nigeria youth team stage when he was spotted by a number of clubs.
After short successful trials with Anderlecht and Standard Liege in Belgium, Chelsea moved in and signed him in 2012. “I think I’ve spent just three months at Chelsea since then,” said Omeruo, who has had lengthy loan spells with ADO Den Haag and Middlesbrough since to aid his development.
Such is his approach to life the likeable and down to earth young man still feels extremely fortunate to have had the breaks to get where he has got already.
He said: “When I was younger I had a nice life, I would just play with kids and help my mam in a small restaurant she runs. I was a young waiter at times! It was always fantastic for me because I came from a great family. They have always been there for me and encouraged me.
“They have always been by my side and encouraged me to keep going. My younger brother, Lucky, is in Malta now playing football too. I also have a 15-year-old who is coming through, a really good player. I hope he is better than me.
“But in Nigeria, the area where I come from, they love football. Thousands play football over there and you have to be really lucky to succeed. There are hundreds of really good footballers who have to go out and get normal jobs because they are not spotted. But they are good enough to be professional, that’s for sure. They just have to be lucky.
“It’s really hard because if you can get in to the national team, the Under-17s, then you get the world to see you. You obviously have to be talented but there are only a few sports for that. In the trials there are a lot of people pushing for it. You have to be lucky and good on the trial days to play. I was and I have kept going ever since.”
Having been here, there and everywhere in such a short space of time for club and country, Omeruo is excited about the next nine months and knowing where he will be playing. “I have done a lot of travelling around, so to come from London to Middlesbrough is not far at all,” he said.
“When I was younger I went to Anderlecht and then Standard Liege. When I was 18 I could not believe I had signed for Chelsea. I thought it was the fraudsters. In the end it happened and I was happy to be on loan because I did not have a visa to play in England. I had never been to Chelsea, people could not believe it.”
Before he heads back for Chelsea he feels indebted to Middlesbrough supporters for the way they have responded to his performances during the second half of last season. He would love nothing more than to return to Stamford Bridge knowing he had brought top-flight football back to the Riverside.
“Last season the fans gave me a lot of support,” said Omeruo. “They always wrote on my Instagram or Twitter feeds to come back. I see it as an opportunity to play regularly. It’s good to be back. I knew before the World Cup it was possible. I knew there was a big chance.
“I would like to help the team to promotion. Last season the team played really well and we were winning games. I think it’s shaping up for an even better season. I just want to play as many games as I can in the Championship and stay fit.
“The World Cup was such an amazing experience for me, but now it’s all about playing football again and improving as a player. Middlesbrough can help me do that and hopefully I can help them return to the Premier League.”