5 July 2019
The 25-year-old is Chelsea’s longest-serving current player but is ready for a move. First, though, he wants to win the Africa Cup of Nations again
Shortly before playing for Nigeria in the 2014 World Cup, Kenneth Omeruo browsed a list of young players to watch at the tournament and discovered his own name, slotted in next to that of Raphaël Varane. He was 20 then; in the preceding two years he had joined Chelsea and starred in an Africa Cup of Nations success. It was some way to begin a career and at that point anybody would be forgiven for expecting the good times to keep rolling.
In a sense they have. Omeruo laughs when he is informed that, this week, he became Chelsea’s longest-serving current player. But all of that time, apart from a brief spell in 2013 when José Mourinho wanted a closer look at the centre‑back only for shoulder surgery to intervene, has been spent on loan.
It is a familiar tale but Omeruo knows enough is enough and hopes another continental title will help him find security at last. The story about Varane is volunteered in response to a quite unrelated question; he clearly feels it is time to hurry things up.
“I think now’s the time for me to leave, to find a place, to be my own man,” he says. “I’m married with a baby now, so I need stability. Chelsea have done amazingly for me, and for my family as well, but it’s the time when I need to reach my potential and get where I think I deserve to be.”
Last season Omeruo got within sight of that. He had spent three years in Turkey, enjoying temporary spells at Kasimpasa – twice – and Alanyaspor to the extent that his family are currently based in Istanbul. “It feels like home there and players don’t want to leave,” he admits. “They have a good bonus system, good restaurants, people love it.” But it is, partly for those reasons, a league where ambitions of a top-class career generally go to die; Omeruo knew it and it is why the 2018-19 campaign, spent successfully in La Liga with Leganés, was his most important so far.
“It was an amazing season and it just goes to show,” he says. “It built my confidence that I’ve got what it takes to be one of the best. The coach, Mauricio Pellegrino, was a defender and spent a lot of time working with me, correcting simple mistakes I might have made two or three years ago. He told me: ‘You have what it takes to be playing at the top, top level for the next 10 years.’ That meant a lot.”
He credits Leganés and Pellegrino, the former Southampton manager, for putting his fortunes back on fast-forward although Chelsea – in the forms of the now-famous loanee WhatsApp group and the input of their loan-player technical coach, Eddie Newton – have never been far away. If Omeruo had his time again he says he would make exactly the move he completed in 2012 when the west London club took him from Standard Liège.
In Belgium he was unhappy with the terms of his contract and felt undersupported; Chelsea’s interest was a lifeline and, even if things have not worked out, he bears no resentment about what has essentially been a seven-year holding pattern. It is just that now, at 25 and with no indication that he will be called back for pre-season even when a transfer ban will demand Frank Lampard must work creatively, he needs to cast off the yoke.
“I don’t want to be that player who, because I can earn money playing at Chelsea, just sits and waits for injuries or maybe an FA Cup game,” he says. “‘If you’re not going to use me then let me go and play.’ I’m realistic, I know Chelsea have so many amazing players, central defenders as well. It’s just the opportunity – I haven’t been given one. If I get one I’ll take it but I can’t just sit around.”
At Nigeria’s base for this summer’s Cup of Nations, the luxurious Helnan Palestine hotel complex in Alexandria, he jokes with his teammate Ola Aina that “I’ll be next, I’ll be the one”. Aina moved permanently from Chelsea to Torino in January after a successful loan.
They have both made flying starts to this tournament, Aina creating Odion Ighalo’s winner against Burundi with a jaw-dropping backheel and Omeruo scoring his first international goal in the victory over Guinea. A rotated Nigeria side then ceded top spot in Group B with a surprise defeat to Madagascar, courting fury back home and necessitating a team meeting on Monday that Omeruo says was focused on forgetting personal grievances and working together.
“We want to go back home feeling proud,” he says. “When we won it in 2013 it was amazing; everyone, women and kids, at the airport and running after the bus. I still remember that feeling and want to experience it again.
“Back then I didn’t really grasp the importance of winning the Cup of Nations. It was my first time and we did it, so I thought there were many to be won. I didn’t realise just how long the captain then, Joseph Yobo, had been trying to win it. But we didn’t qualify for the next two, and now I know what a big deal it is.”
That reverse against Madagascar has set up a last-16 meeting with Cameroon on Saturday. It is an early clash of big hitters, albeit two that have seen better days, but these are the games Omeruo could hardly have imagined playing in when, as a youngster, he and his friends would jump the fences of the stadium in Abuja to watch the national team. “In the end we are Nigeria,” he says. “We have to show class and win.”
If Omeruo shows his ability again then perhaps he will get that big move, even if it is not to Leganés, who he doubts have the money. “It’s been an amazing career for me,” he says. “I know people don’t realise it but I’m happy with what I’ve achieved so far. But I also know there is more to come.”
By Nick Ames. This piece first appeared in the UK’s Guardian.