Fifth dimension

Foreign players are becoming common in the Conference – there’s even an ex-Barcelona man at Northwich, writes Michael Whalley

You might expect a Blue Square Premier club to be giddy with excitement after taking a former Barcelona first-teamer on trial. Yet Nigerian defender Gbenga Okunowo’s arrival at Northwich Victoria in early December created so few ripples that the club didn’t even mention it in their next programme.

It’s not as if Northwich are awash with players who have Champions League experience. But Okunowo, who is still only 29, has fallen so far since his days playing alongside Rivaldo that there have been serious doubts as to whether he can hack it any more, even in Conference football. Indeed, Vics manager Steve King suggested it was the club who were doing the player a favour.

“He’s played under some great coaches,” King said. “Unfortunately, he’s suffered a few injuries that have stopped him progressing, so we’re going to help him out.”

“A few injuries” is an understatement – the defender has hardly played for two years. His route from the Nou Camp (capacity 98,772) to the Marston’s Arena (capacity 5,098) has been littered with setbacks. Ten years ago, he was good enough to win a Spanish league title medal with Louis van Gaal’s Barça side. He played in five of their six Champions League matches in that 1998-99 season, including the 3-3 draw against ­Manchester United at the Camp Nou. In addition, he was a key member of Nigeria’s line-up at the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations and the Sydney Olympics.

However, Okunowo’s career hasn’t really recovered from a knee injury suffered in 2001. He was released by Barça the following year and has been roaming in search of a long-term home ever since.

After a loan move to Greek club Ionikos fell through, and a trial with Swedish side Hammarby failed to earn a contract, he had injury-hit spells in Romania, Albania, Ukraine and Iran. Then came Northwich. Shortly after King took charge in November, an agent friend called to ask if Okunowo could train with Vics, with a view to playing a few Conference games – subject to international clearance – and maybe securing a move to a bigger club. King said yes.

Perhaps player and club are well matched, given that Northwich’s recent history is as chaotic as Okunowo’s. King is the sixth manager in two years at a club whose ground was seized by the receivers in the autumn after winding-up proceedings began against landlord and former chairman Mike Connett’s company ­Beaconet. It was a turbulent environment for Okunowo to walk into.

That a player with his CV walked into it at all was as much down to the Blue Square Premier’s growing professionalism as it was to King’s contacts book. The division is now almost entirely full-time and its overseas contingent has nearly quadrupled in the past four years. There are 26 players born outside the British Isles on the books of Blue Square Premier clubs this season. To put that into perspective, the Premier League had only 12 when it kicked off in 1992.

On the surface, then, Okunowo is hardly a novelty. Not when Weymouth have ­centre-back Santos Gaia, who once kept Liverpool’s Fábio Aurélio out of Brazil’s under-17 side. And not when Wrexham have striker Patrick Suffo, who played for Cameroon at the 2002 World Cup. Even ­relegation-threatened Grays can call on Dutch defender Fabian Wilnis, who was playing in the ­Championship for Ipswich last season.

The role of the middle man hangs heavy over this increase in overseas talent. England has more FIFA-accredited agents than any country in the world bar Italy, and they need to earn a living somehow. As a result, more imports are coming to the Premier and Football Leagues – and in England there is more scope to drop down the divisions yet remain a full-time professional.

Wilnis is one example, but there are others, such as Crawley’s French midfielder Thomas Pinault, once of Grimsby and Colchester, and Ebbsfleet’s Trinidadian winger Ricky Shakes, who started off in Bolton’s youth set-up before spells at Swindon and Brentford, with an international cap thrown in. That trend is likely to grow thanks to freedom of movement within the European Union, especially if Premier League academy set-ups continue hoovering up and spitting out foreign talent that then decides to stay in the country.

None of those imports, though, reached the heights Okunowo did at club level. His career trajectory is so bizarre that he arguably belongs in a category of his own. One Nigerian newspaper described his move to Cheshire as “desperate”. Certainly, Okunowo has suffered enough injury problems over the past eight years to finish a career. It’s easy to wonder if his arrival at the Marston’s Arena is not so much a case of hitting the comeback trail as delaying the inevitable.

From WSC 264 February 2009