Orman is making waves with fresh footballing start in the Philippines

Winger Orman Okunaiya pictured in Belfast
Winger Orman Okunaiya pictured in Belfast

Breaking a leg may have often stirred curious reactions among those without a background in theatre.

And after doing so, good fortune is seldom on any footballer’s mind, as they’re plastered and given their sporting last rites.

Their Tuesday and Thursday evenings are solemnly handed back to them, and they hobble their way through the turnstiles each Saturday afternoon, just to hear the crowd again.

They cash in an insurance policy. They begin to reminisce over old match programmes, newspaper cuttings and winner’s medals.

Ultimately, they give in to bad luck. They certainly don’t travel 7,000 miles, if successful in recovery, to risk doing it all over again.

Orman Okunaiya is not like other footballers. His unrelenting desire to find a ball at his feet again, a desire which three years ago manifested in spending hours each day in the gym concentrating on his upper body with a caged broken leg, was too strong.

The former Irish League midfielder, who badly fractured his ankle while at Ballymena United, carries an infectious positivity. After hearing how his continuing south-east Asian adventure began, nobody is ever likely to tell Okunaiya he ‘can’t’.

“2013 was a year I’ll never forget,” he says, as he smooths out the creases from his Ceres FC training top, displaying a badge which many in Northern Ireland have probably never seen before.

“I started the year not knowing which way to turn. I was applying for jobs and not getting them. I wasn’t sure which route to take and while I knew I loved coaching, and training people to help them achieve their dreams, I also knew I had dreams of my own.

“All I wanted to do was play professional football. I’ve always had a wanderlust too, and wanted to travel further, to see more of the world.

“While I was studying at Preston University a few years ago, I met a guy who acted as an agent for UK-based players to move to south-east Asia.

“He got in contact a few months ago to ask if I would consider a move to the Philippines and straightaway I said ‘yes’. He explained their league had been professional for over 20 years and was frequently recruiting players from Europe, especially Belgium.

“I remember being really interested but had to curb my enthusiasm at the start. I mean, it was just a message, sent out of the blue.

“But when an email dropped with the flight confirmation and details of who would be meeting me, I realised it was all coming true.”

Not knowing what to expect in the Philippines, Okunaiya dropped any expectations during his long-haul journey from Belfast via Dubai, approaching it with a fresh mind.

What he may not have anticipated, however, was the impressively high standard of athleticism, sports facilities and commitment shown by those determined to make football the country’s number one recreation.

“When I first got on the flight I was apprehensive because I was going to miss my friends and family,” he admits, “but the world isn’t as scary as you think.

“It’s a surreal experiencee being in that part of the world, but I met guys from Korea, Switzerland, Belgium, Ivory Coast... so many young lads trying to make a living through football. They’re very, very good technically, especially the Koreans – I’ve never seen anything like it!

“I spoke with the Korean lads and asked them how they get so technical on the ball and they said since they hosted the World Cup in 2002 they had coaches coming from all over the world and it permanently changed the mindset, meaning now football is all they do.”

Landing in the capital city, Minula, Okunaiya was greeted in style, flown to his first-class accommodation on a small island half the size of Belfast, invited to dinner and offered the chance to sleep off the jet-lag.

Anyone who knows the player will be unsurprised to hear he politely refused and reported for his first session – at 5.30am.

“The drills they wean their young players on are incredibly challenging and I definitely wanted more water breaks!,” he said.

“Everything however is geared to football – you’ll be training every day. After the morning stretch and run, there was an afternoon session on the ball and it’s as professional as it has ever been.”

Ceres FC has been bank-rolled recently by multi-millionaire Ricardo Yanson, whose family empire also owns the local transport network.

His aim is to put both the club and the small town its part of on the map, investing in stadium and facilities development and covering the team’s costs to fly to virtually every domestic game.

And the team have lately rewarded him, with a UFL Cup championship and qualifying for the international round of the Smart Cup.

As for Okunaiya, he’s not finished yet. Since returning to Belfast for Christmas with his family, he will soon be re-packing.

“I got an email shortly after I got home, to say they wanted me back for the start of the league. It runs from the end of January until May, so I am planning on flying on January 20.”

Northern Ireland international Jonny Steele, the former Ballymena United midfielder who has worked his way up the American ranks to play alongside Thierry Henry at New York Red Bulls, is a big inspiration.

Okunaiya credits him for the encouragement to seize his opportunity, and the insight into how, outside Europe, football is a fast-growing commodity.

“Jonny was trying to get a move to Thailand before he signed for NY Red Bulls and there is a lot of money there to do with TV rights.

“The players are on around $10,000 a month so for a lot of the African players who are there, it’s hugely profitable. In fact, it’s a lot more money they could ever really earn.

“South-east Asia represents a huge opportunity for guys over here, playing in the Irish League, but who can’t get full-time football in England or even Scotland. It’s also much warmer!

“But of course, it’s about wanting to keep going, to push further and further until you can’t play anymore. Pushing your ambition as far as you can.”

Okunaiya, who is grateful to be armoured with a uniquely positive outlook and an interminable drive, sometimes surprises himself with the lengths he will go to, to fulfil his ambitions.

What he does not suffer from, however, is blind courage, having taken a leap of faith by moving thousands of miles away, yet always stayed focused.

He has ridden the crest of a risk-taking wave, in the most methodical of ways.