The big interview: Colchester United’s out-going captain, Magnus Okuonghae
- Credit: Archant
Magnus Okuonghae arrived at Colchester United “as a boy,” and left “as a man.” These, I hasten to add, are his words, not mine!
There was no way I would have described a 24-year-old Okuonghae, a towering 6ft 2ins centre-half, as “a boy” when he first rolled up to the Weston Homes Community Stadium during the summer of 2009.
Nigerian-born Okuonghae had made a name for himself at League Two outfit Dagenham & Redbridge, during the two previous seasons, having emerged from the non-league scene via the likes of Aldershot, St Albans City and Crawley Town.
In terms of Football League experience, he was still a novice.
But by the end of his stay with the U’s, over a long six-year association, Okuonghae had rattled up just four games short of the magic 200-mark, in terms of league appearances.
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And his 196 league games, and 215 in all competitions, would have been far more had it not been for two long-term injuries, an ankle problem in 2010-11 and then a ruptured Achilles tendon during the most recent 2014-15 campaign.
Okuonghae left the U’s on Friday, with his current contract expiring this summer. The experienced 29-year-old was always likely to be on his way – the U’s have a far tighter budget these days, in terms of players’ wages, with the emphasis instead being of nurturing the club’s own talent through its Academy.
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But he has no gripe with the club, and has nothing but gratitude, and pride, for the way those last six years have panned out.
“I was nothing more than a boy, when I first came to the club,” explained Okuonghae, following Friday’s exit.
“I had played less than 100 games, during my career, but now I’m up to over 300 games, so I’m very proud of my time at Colchester.
“It was Paul Lambert who first brought me to Colchester. It was a ‘no-brainer,’ really, because there was a chance for me to be playing at a higher level, in League One, with the club also pushing for promotion.
“Of course I never dreamt that I would stay here for the next six years. I still remember the moment that I first drove up the A12 to see the impressive new stadium, that was a great feeling.
“And course there was an unforgettable debut to follow, at Norwich City (7-1 away win on August 8, 2009). That was literally an unforgettable day!
“I still don’t know how we managed to miss out on the play-offs that season. We were going so well up to about February.
“It’s been a very emotional time for me, playing for so many years at the same club, and I am grateful to everyone for giving me this chance, especially the chairman (Robbie Cowling), who has always stood by me even during the long-term injuries.
“I was always given the best medical advice, and access to the best surgeons, and I will always be grateful for that.
“For the first three years, the club were in the top half of the division, pushing for promotion and trying to get in the play-offs, especially in that first season.
“But for the last three seasons, it’s all been about fighting for survival,” added Okuonghae.
Lambert, the man who recruited Okuonghae from the Daggers, left the U’s just 10 days after that 7-1 win at Carrow Road, since when the defensive powerhouse has played under managers Aidy Boothroyd, John Ward, Joe Dunne and, most recently, Tony Humes.
Not surprisingly, there have been many highs, as well as lows, but Okuonghae leaves the U’s still as a League One outfit, with the promise of a bright future ahead.
“It’s a shame that I am leaving on this note, in that I’ve been injured for most of the season,” continued Okuonghae, who ruptured his Achilles tendon back in November.
“But that doesn’t take away from me the great times I have had over these last six years.
“A highlight was taking over the captaincy, for the away game at Swindon (1-1 draw on September 12, 2009), when Pat Baldwin got injured (in the previous game at Southampton).
“I had only been at the club for a few weeks, so it was a great privilege to be named captain and to lead out the team, at such a young age. That was a big confidence-booster.
“The new Financial Fairplay rules meant that John (Ward) had to release a lot of players, but he still did well to keep us up there pushing.
“It’s been more of a struggle in recent seasons, but I’m proud that we have managed to stay in League One, and I genuinely believe that the club can now push on in the future.
“I think you are going to see a lot more stability now, in terms of all the younger players coming through and making their mark.
“I thought that would actually be the case during the last season, but it was not to be because of all the injuries.
“Personally, I have always cared deeply for the club, and I always will do.
“I have had to stay patient, to get over this last injury, and it’s a pity I could not get fit again before the end of the season.
“But I’m not far off now. It’s frustrating that the season has ended, without me getting the chance to play for Colchester again, and I’m not going to get any contact football for quite a while.
“But again the club have been very good to me, in terms of my rehabilitation, and I’m looking forward to new challenges ahead.
“It’s obviously sad to be leaving Colchester, but I only see it as a minor setback. It’s going to be tough, finding a new club, having not played many games last season.
“But I’ve proved throughout my career that, if I stay fit, I can usually play 40-odd games per season.”
Summing up, Okuonghae added: “I must say thanks for all the support over the years.
“Colchester will always have a big place in my heart as it has played such a big part in my life.
“I wish them every success in the future.”
Meanwhile, manager Humes paid tribute to his long-serving centre-half.
“Magnus has been an excellent servant to the club and has been club captain,” explained Humes.
“It was a difficult decision to let him go, especially with the serious injury he sustained, but with the direction in which the club are going, it was felt that it would be in both parties’ interests for Magnus to seek his football future elsewhere.
“As a player and a person, he served the club well and we wish him all the best wherever he goes next.”
Okuonghae was appointed as club skipper for the start of the most recent season, with new recruit Sean Clohessy as his vice-captain, by then-manager Dunne.
Ironically, both men have now left the club, with ex-Southend and Kilmarnock right-back Clohessy departing earlier in the month, with a year still to run on his contract.
Okuonghae’s exit, and fellow centre-half Bongani Khumalo’s departure at the end of his loan stay from Tottenham, will mean Humes probably dipping into the transfer market this summer.
Tom Eastman was ever-present last term, playing every minute of every match, and Frankie Kent is on his way back from injury, but defensive back-up will still be required.
And Okuonghae’s boots will be big ones to fill!