Confirmation that the world of football is definitely getting smaller came with the appearance off the bench of Prince Agyemang for Limerick against Dundalk in Oriel Park last week, watched from the dugout by his fellow countryman and the club’s other new signing, goalkeeper Ali Abass.
The two young men from Ghana are graduates of that country’s world- renowned Right To Dream Academy which was founded 15 years ago by British social entrepreneur, Tom Vernon, a former scout for Manchester United in Africa.
Working with underprivileged youngsters, the Academy’s goal, he has said, is to make “a meaningful contribution to the development of the nation’s youth through education and through Africa’s passion — football”.
A measure of the project’s success is the Academy’s estimate that 17 graduates have to date signed professional contracts for clubs in Europe — with Helsingborgs winger David Accam its first player to grace the Champions League — while five are senior internationals and still more have played for Ghana’s underage international sides.
Limerick FC were alerted to the Academy’s potential as a source of high quality players through contacts in English football, resulting in manager Stuart Taylor and officials from the club last year travelling to England to watch the Right to Dream (RTD) U19 side play friendlies against Preston’s development squad and Everton’s Premier League development side, the latter managed by Goodison legend Duncan Ferguson.
The visitors won that game 5-3 and it was on the back of that impressive performance that the acquisition by Limerick of Agyemang and Bass was set in train.
The process, according to Limerick chief executive, John O’Sullivan could not have been further removed from the horror stories which are sometimes heard about young footballers from Africa being exploited by unscrupulous agents and left high and dry in European cities.
“There was no question about that,” says O’Sullivan. “RTD of itself is a registered football club playing in Ghana so it was a club-to-club transaction to bring the boys across, rather than an agent-driven thing.
“One of the key things about RTD is that they play football every morning but education in the afternoon is a key part of life at the academy there. They also push a very strong support network for them when they move on from RTD to ensure they’re looked after in the clubs they go to. And as much as we did our homework, RTD did their homework too on Limerick FC. They take their time about who they want to have a relationship with. So it’s actually a huge testament to Limerick Football Club that such a highly ranked academy wants to work with us.”
O’Sullivan is pleased with how well the two young Ghanaians are adapting to life in a new country, although international travel is not exactly a novelty for Agyemang, who celebrated his 19th birthday on Christmas Day, and Abass, who actually turns 19 tomorrow.
“They’ve settled in very quickly, much quicker to be fair to them than we thought they would,” he says. “But then Prince and Ali have been travelling with Right to Dream since they were 15, spending time in the UK playing friendlies and doing training camps over the last two or three years.
“Still, it is a huge change to come from Ghana to Ireland, but in a way the length of the work permit process gave us time to get to know the lads and what their needs were. It wasn’t a case that we signed them on a Tuesday and they were in Ireland the next Monday. Actually, I collected them from the airport last Saturday week and one of the first questions they asked me was about the game the previous night against Bray Wanderers. And they were asking me about how our U19 team were getting on. So from their point of view, they were doing their research too.
“Football-wise, they’re of a very high standard and from a personal point of view they’re two lovely young lads too, very easy to deal with, very polite and very well mannered, and they’ve settled into the dressing room excellently.”
But helping them assimilate off the pitch has been of equal importance.
“Initially they’re with a host family while they get their bearings and they’ll move into own accommodation based on that,” O’Sullivan explains. “We’ve also worked with someone in Limerick Institute of Technology’s nutrition department just to get them used to Irish diet, shopping in Ireland and the different food types.
“Most of their first week really was about showing them around, giving them key contacts and gradually easing them into Irish life. There’s quite a diversity in the population of Limerick now, with a strong African community within the city, and the boys are starting to meet people in that environment. They both come from religious families and that part of their settling in is important to them as well.”
Speaking yesterday before training for tomorrow’s game against defending champions St Patrick’s Athletic, Prince Agyemang declared: “At the moment I’m feeling good, everything is perfect here.” Even the weather?!? “It’s not bad, not bad,” he chuckled, “it’s sometimes cold, sometimes hot, so I’m trying to adapt to it.”
Prince revealed that, growing up, his imagination was fired by seeing Ghanaian players like Michael Essien and Asamoah Gyan on the world stage, and he hopes one day to emulate those superstars.
“They really inspired me and I think being here in Limerick, my future is bright,” he said. “My long-term ambition is that I want to move forward, to progress to another stage. At the moment, I can’t make a wish in life because nobody knows about tomorrow but what I’m hoping and praying for is that one day I will play for my nation.”