Lengths Billy Sheehan went to for Collins Ugochukwu shows how welcoming the GAA can be
Collins Ugochukwu was so shocked when Billy Sheehan called up him up to the county panel at the start of the year that, during the famous phone-call, he almost talked the Laois manager out of it.
"I was like, Billy! Me? Are you sure now? You know I only started playing this year."
Sheehan persisted, telling Ugochukwu that, having watched him during the club championship, he knew exactly what he was doing. Eventually, Ugochukwu came to his senses and, after seeing stars for a couple of seconds, it was only then when he was able to tell Sheehan that he'd be delighted to join the panel.
"Billy believed in me and I was like, if you believe in me, why not? I'll give it a shot."
You can understand the 25-year-old's surprise. Having moved to Newbridge when he was three, yes the Nigerian born player had played some underage football with Sarsfields and yes, he had a good first season for Courtwood in Laois. But still, this was the big time and, to all intents and purposes, it was a bolt from the blue.
"When I went into Laois first, Billy Sheehan started from scratch with me teaching me the basics, trying to get in my head back around the basics and that helped my game a lot," Ugochukwu says, at the launch of Supervalu's Community Includes Everyone campaign.
"I learned a lot under Billy. I was quite rusty and it took a while for it to come back and I'm still learning now. I'm getting there so hopefully in one more year I'll be flying it."
Ugochukwu had to leave the Laois panel after the league, due to a personal issue, but he'll never forget all Sheehan did for him. And as a father with a young family, he's hoping that he'll have a bit more time on his hands next year and he's praying that he'll be called back into the panel.
"Billy did individual training with me. I'd come along to training half and hour earlier and he'd do some basics with me. Kicking and catching, all that kind of stuff, the skills that you need to play at that level of football. We started from scratch and builded it back up."
Collins Ugochukwu could barely solo the ball when he made his @courtwoodgaa debut but now, five months on, he's a Laois senior.
"We're only a small little parish, made up of Dunnes, Tyrrells and Doyles and a few more. Now we've the Ugochukwus!"https://t.co/P1rXFn148l
— Niall Mcintyre (@NiallMcintyre) January 11, 2022
“At the moment, I had to step down for personal reasons. I still keep in contact with Billy and the management. We're still very close. Hopefully when the personal thing has been sorted out I can get back playing with Laois. There is a lot of commitment involved in county football, and I'm finding it difficult to commit to it. But we'll see how it goes this year and if they still want me next year then I'll be there for sure."
Which shows how much he enjoyed it. Ugochukwu says he's never encountered racism on a Gaelic football field and says that, in Courtwood and in Laois, the dressing rooms were extremely welcoming places. He always talks with a smile on his face and his positive demeanour would be an asset in any dressing room.
"When I first started in Courtwood they were all, it was like being with the boys back home. Just 'alright lads, what's up.' We just gelled straight away, so that was class."
Soccer was always his first love and, even though Covid put a stop to his professional dreams, he hasn't given up on that one just yet either.
"I first started off here with my local soccer team in Newbridge, Newbridge Town. From there I went to play with Bohemians for a while. Then after there I went over to Scotland and was with Hibernians there and played on loan with a couple of teams. Selkirk, who are three divisions down, and then from there went to England and played for Crawley Town.
"It was good. It was tough because I was quite young going over to Scotland playing football and I was living in digs and all that stuff. it was quite a change, obviously, not having your parents around, not having any family members around. It was just me trying to achieve my goal, really. It was quite tough at the start but the boys over there were like my second family. They made me feel at home and were great. The staff and everyone was helpful.
"I just thought I'd give it two months and hopefully things would pass and I'd be back over," he said of Covid and lock-downs.
"But then sure we were in lockdown for two years. I didn't know what was going to happen so at the time the local GAA club started training collectively and my father in law was saying to me would you like to train with us just to get your fitness up. And that was it then. I was stuck here and stuck with the club. And now I'm chatting to you guys!"
We'll hear more about him yet.