In this interview with Pulse Sports, Omeruo also speaks on his journey from Nigeria to Chelsea and his experiences in Europe.
The Super Eagles of Nigeria have evoked no admiration so far at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) after three games in the group stage. They haven’t been a joy to watch despite having a slew of exciting names on their roster.
While the Super Eagles have failed to spark at AFCON 2019, a few have managed to stand out. Number one on that list is Kenneth Omeruo who has been Super Eagles best player in Egypt and by a mile too. In Nigeria’s first two games in Egypt, Omeruo was head and shoulders above everyone, playing with confidence and prime composure in two dominant performances.
In Nigeria’s second game of the tournament, he scored Super Eagles only goal in their 1-0 win over Guinea and was named Man of the Match as he staked a claim to be a guaranteed starter for the rest of the tournament after several years on the fringes.
For years, Omeruo had to flump on the bench as he watched the ‘Oyinbo wall’ pairing of William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun become the first-choice central defence pairing for the Super Eagles. A place no one expected him to be when he first burst onto the scene with the Super Eagles.
Then 19 and already in Chelsea’s books, Omeruo was given an unexpected Super Eagles call-up by the late Stephen Keshi ahead of AFCON 2013.
“When I was invited, I actually thought I was going to fill in space and won’t make the final list,” Omeruo told Pulse Sports in an exclusive interview.
“Going to camp, I was just playing and giving everything. The few games I played, I did good, I went into the Nations Cup not knowing whether I will play at all but I started the second game. I started as a centre back so it was different from the right back I had been playing in training and the coach just put me there.”
After starting Nigeria’s first game from the bench, Omeruo, then 19 went on to play every minute of Nigeria’s victorious AFCON 2013 campaign. He was very impressive too in South Africa, playing with solidity and self-command way beyond his age.
“It felt good, it felt unbelievable, I didn’t expect anything, I didn’t expect to play. It was an opportunity I was proud to be part of,” the defender said.
After a brilliant AFCON debut with the Super Eagles, Omeruo went on to be a regular for the Keshi-led side and played key roles in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2014 FIFA World Cup campaigns.
Omeruo however started declining in the 2014-2015 season and after a drop in performance at Middlesbrough where he managed 23 league appearances, Keshi turned to Balogun and later Troost-Ekong and both went on to form the preferred central defensive partnership for the Super Eagles.
Omeruo’s club career was a mare’s nest too as he wandered around clubs in England and Turkey. He never looked settled in Turkey and lacked the consistency needed to force his way back into Nigeria’s starting XI. From a guaranteed starter who was expected to lead the Super Eagles defence for years, Omeruo settled for a place on the bench. He got his chance occasionally, but Balogun and Troost-Ekong had already struck up good chemistry and together, they were a solid pair.
“It’s painful because I want to play every game, I want to start and finish but Nigeria is a country with lots of talent,” Omeruo told Pulse Sports.
“We are only opportune to be here because even when I get back home and play with my mates on the street, I see how talented they are.
“You have to be lucky and have God on your side to be able to selected and you need favour to be able to play. At the end of the day we are playing for the country and anyone that is selected it’s fine.”
His fringe status in the national team troubled him and most times, he felt he was being underrated, so be began to take deliberate steps to win back his place. There was a marked improvement in the 2017/2018 season with Kasimpasa in the Turkish Super Lig but after three straight years in Turkey, Omeruo needed to prove himself in a better league.
It was at Leganes last season that Omeruo got in the groove, delivering strong performances for the relegation-threatened side on a weekly basis. The 25-year-old made 28 appearances including games where he dominated the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Karim Benzema and other top La Liga strikers.
“I think the main difference is the fact that Turkish league is not being shown on TV and this time I knew the Nations Cup was coming, and I knew there was a lot of competition in the national team as well,” the defender said.
“So I had to be in a league where I will be watched. A league where they won’t just say ‘you did well but it’s the Turkish Super Lig’‘.
“And that was one of the reasons I made the decision to join Leganes and I have been happy since I came in. I didn’t miss many games.”
Omeruo’s performances for Leganes last season was a message to Super Eagles boss Gernot Rohr who could not ignore the defender anymore. Perhaps, fate was also at play as Balogun made only five Premier League starts for Brighton & Hove which cast doubts over his abilities and place in the national team.
Now Rohr had to make a decision. Stick with his preferred defensive partnership and ignore Nigeria’s best defender in the last nine months or breakup the Oyinbo Wall partnership and give Omeruo a place in the starting XI. Rohr had gone with the latter and Omeruo has delivered two top performances at AFCON 2019.
“It would be nice to win it again (AFCON),” Omeruo said of his wish for the Super Eagles in Egypt.
“I can never forget the winning feeling we got in South Africa 2013, it has been the highlight of my career, I want another.”
From Sunshine to Chelsea
Omeruo started his career at Nigerian side Sunshine Stars where he made a couple of appearances for the club. It was during a game against Enyimba while he was at Sunshine that he suffered a shoulder injury that would go on to change the course of his career.
“I played a lot of games for Sunshine, the one I won’t forget its the one against Enyimba where I dislocated my shoulder,” he told Pulse Sports.
“That was bad because it really affected me in the future. I had an amazing experience playing in Sunshine, It toughened me because before playing at the U17 World Cup, I never played any league game so that was good for me.”
It was from Sunshine Stars that Omeruo moved to Standard Liege after trials with Anderlecht.
Chelsea signed him up from Liege and he was immediately shipped out on loan to ADO Den Haag in the Netherlands. Since then it’s been one loan stint after another without any opportunity to play for Chelsea. But his story at Chelsea would have been different if he didn’t suffer that shoulder injury at Sunshine Stars
“I got to England after the Nations Cup and Confederation Cup, for Chelsea I was supposed to come and resume pre season in 2013 but that injury I had against Enyuimba came back to affect me,” Omeruo said.
“Everything was set up for me. I got my work permit, I got everything ready to get back and start but then I got to England when I was sleeping at night, that shoulder kept coming out.
“It wasn’t something I could manage. So I had to do the surgery.
“While doing the surgery they had to go sign Kurt Zouma while I was recovering and I was out for four months.
“After the surgery I had to go on loan because it was the World Cup year so I had to go to Middlesbrough to be able to play a lot of games, that is how I started going out on loan.”
In an offbeat piece of information, Omeruo is currently the longest-serving player at Chelsea but after seven years on the books of the Roman Abramovich-bankrolled club, the defender is ready to move on and Spain seems to be his preferred destination.
“I’m still a chelsea player, but hopeful Leganes or another club in Spain will want me for next season,” Omeruo said.
“For me I know the situation at Chelsea. The many talents being signed by the club. We have this group chat where we see the players,” Omeruo added.
“They score week in, week out, a lot of them playing games, winning many trophies.
“For us it’s not just about playing for Chelsea. We want to go out there, make sure we play in leagues week in, week out. Because at the end of the day, if I end up staying there and stay on the bench, I might not have enough playing time.”