The electronic gates open at Stoke City’s Clayton Wood training complex, just over a mile as the crow flies from their Britannia Stadium home. I park my rather embarrassing family hatchback amongst the vehicular glitterati that belong to The Potter’s first team squad.
Parked cars, then…..
Enough has been talked and written about Peter Odemwingie and that transfer deadline day/night back in 2013. Indeed, as I’m met by Colin Burgess, the extremely affable head of Media at Stoke City, and led up to his office, it’s the present and the future I want to talk to Odemwingie about, not so much the well-documented past.
And specifically I want to discuss the injury he suffered almost twelve months ago, and the lengths he went to get himself back in the famous red and white stripes.
Peter Odemwingie has had a pretty eclectic life both within and outside football. It’s obvious that he loves talking, loves football, and has a real love of life. Born in Uzbekhistan in the Soviet Union, he spent a large part of his childhood living in the USSR and Nigeria.
It soon becomes apparent that it’s hard not to enjoy yourself in Peter Odemwingie’s company. Rarely is a sentence not accompanied by a smile, a laugh, or a pun: whether he’s talking about his career, his current club, or even about making his own Adidas three-stripe kits himself as a youngster growing up in the Soviet Union. Possibly underrated as a player by some, Odemwingie has played in World Cups, The Olympics, The Champions League, The African Cup of Nations, and five different leagues: The footballing Judith Chalmers of The Six Towns. Indeed, he fulfilled one of his biggest personal dreams in the Summer of 2014 by scoring in the World Cup Finals – and it was past his good friend, and ex-Potters’ goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, too.
“I have always wanted to score a goal in the World Cup”, Odemwingie beams, “and by doing so that means I have scored in every big competition I’ve played in. I really wanted it badly. Scoring past Asmir wasn’t my target, but scoring at a World Cup was”.
Those who know Odemwingie talk about a softly-spoken, well-mannered, family man, and he admits that he even apologised to Begovic for scoring past him afterwards. Although on their return to the dressing room for pre-season last Summer, Odemwingie brought into the changing room the boots that he had scored in and asked the giant goalkeeper if they looked familiar!
Odemwingie arrived at Stoke City, his seventh club, from Cardiff City in January 2014. Whilst Mark Hughes has transformed The Potters into an attacking, attractive, top-half-of-the-table side, when Odemwingie arrived at The Britannia Stadium (in a swap deal that saw Kenwyne Jones head in the opposite direction), The Potters were facing a potential relegation battle.
Ask anyone in ST4, and they will put a lot of credit for Stoke’s eventual ninth place finish that season to the arrival and impact of one Peter Osaze Odemwingie.
It also led to an after-the-watershed terrace song sung about the Odemwingie/Jones interchange by The Potter’s faithful; a song Odemwingie admits does make him smile. As do most things, in all honesty.
“Yeah, that song”, a lean and beaming Odemwingie acknowledges, “my son loves it too, and when I was away at the World Cup we’d Skype and he would be at his happiest when I was singing it. But let me tell you two things – I mean it as no reflection on Kenwyne Jones, plus I obviously do have to change one of the words, too!”
Odemwingie laughs and sighs at the same time. In fact, he laughs a lot as we talk. He’s articulate, bright, knowledgeable on a number of issues both within and away from football, and admits to loving life at Stoke.
In fairness, after the events of 30th August 2014, rather than laughing and joking, Odemwingie would have had more than enough justification to be defensive, tired, and rather less enamoured with his footballing lot.
Whilst his Stoke team were recording a shock 1-0 win at the Etihad Stadium in a league game , Odemwingie’s season, and possibly career, looked to be in real danger of ending. After entering the pitch as a substitute, Odemwingie fell to the floor with no one around him after almost setting up a second Stoke goal. Indeed, even as he was later receiving treatment in the Etihad away dressing room he had no idea of the extent of the injury.
Odemwingie, sits a couple of yards in front of me in training top, shorts and trainers; legs crossed, clutching his injured right knee up to his chest. He has a vivid of that day. “Yeah, sometimes you hear a noise with that kind of injury, but I really didn’t know the extent of how bad the injury was at the time”.
Frank and totally honest about the injury over the course of the next half hour, Odemwingie admits that he was “in huge pain at the time” and was actually scared at the time that he had dislocated his knee due to hearing the crack of his knee bone as he fell. Taking a long swig from his bottle of water, the player talks candidly and openly about what happened next on that fateful day, plus the self-education process he went through to aid his recuperation.
“I looked down and my knee was straight, so I knew that it thankfully wasn’t dislocated. We did the Lachman Test immediately (a clinical test used to diagnose injury of the anterior cruciate ligament). It was 50/50 at that moment as to whether there was ligament damage or not”.
During an injury-ravaged season, where The Potters eventually finished an excellent 9th place once again and boasting a second consecutive record Premier League points tally for the club, Odemwingie wasn’t the only key forward at the Britannia Stadium to suffer knee ligament damage that would effectively end their season.
Bojan Krkić was in a period of devastating form for Stoke when he too went down under no challenge, this time at Spotland in the FA Cup. “Bojan was on fire, playing superbly for us, but with his injury I think they could tell straight away the extent of it, but with mine they couldn’t tell until I went in for an MRI. This confirmed it”, comments Odemwingie.
Many footballers, indeed non-footballers, would have felt sorry for themselves after such an injury. You know, lock yourself away, put your fingers in your ears, play Leonard Cohen cd’s, and generally feel sorry for yourself. Not Odemwingie.
Despite his apparently fragile, lithe frame, Odemwingie is obviously made of mentally stern stuff. He admits to being an extremely positive person – as did Mark Hughes about the player the week after the injury – and also in having an inquisitive anatomical mind, possibly due to his parents both being medical students.
The first thing Odemwingie did was to find out just how long he would be out of the game for. He soon sourced a long list of players who had suffered the same injury, and he took comfort that players did come back from it, and that the likes of Roberto Baggio did so relatively quickly. Indeed, quite matter-of-factly, Odemwingie then cites and describes in detail some of the many testimonies he found on the internet by people who had gone through this injury.
It’s pretty uplifting and very educational how Peter Odemwingie discusses this major injury. It’s an injury that, quite rightly, strikes fear into footballers. But seemingly not Peter Odemwingie. For him, knowledge was power, and central to the recovery process was a desire to find out as much information as possible about ACL injuries.
“Well, I firstly prayed that the diagnosis was wrong, but the bad news came, and so I decided to be proactive and positive and looked myself on the internet about all the relevant details of the injury: how long it would take to get back to full fitness, and what the operation involved and things like that”.
Odemwingie studiously spent hours on various websites trying and succeeding in educating himself about the injury, and the appropriate recuperation process.
The player uncrosses his legs, and leans forward pointing at his knee, hardly taking a breath as he continues, “I looked at the operation procedure on YouTube quite a few times. It was scary the first few times, but I got used to it and got it in my mind that players had come through it and come back strongly”.
Whilst acknowledging that, football-wise, he had more good years behind him than in front of him, Odemwingie was encouraged by his own research work. He also took comfort that his friend and colleague at West Brom, Zoltan Gera, had exactly the same injury in front of him in a match, and he had returned strongly and is still playing. Indeed, Gera has suffered the injury twice.
Describing himself as “naturally fit” and a “glass half full kind of person”, Peter Odemwingie’s long road back to fitness wasn’t without its problems. A second minor operation put his recovery back for a few weeks. The player leans forward and examines the knee, pointing out various incisions and lumps on and around it, making light of both the injury and how it’s left his knee looking.
When I ask if I can have a closer look at said knee, Odemwingie is obliging and moves towards my chair, lifting his knee up. “It feels stronger, but the scars are thick as they went over them twice, but they should be settling down soon.”
By this stage, the Stoke media team are all gathered with me around the Nigerian international’s right leg. Once more, Odemwingie’s perma-smile turns into a chuckle. “Folks, if you look closely at my leg it looks like a face has been drawn on it with the scars from previous injuries. See, there are two eyes, a nose and a mouth further down my leg, ha ha”.
When asked about the ‘smile’ that is on this rather unusual and macabre face – a wide scar across the inside of his right shin – Odemwngie laughs again as he recalls the day as a youngster that he ran through a glass door.
Probably the only time that Peter Odemwingie’s face turns deadly serious during our interview is when discussing his comeback appearance for Stoke, back in April. OIt’s well documented that Stoke fans took to Odemwingie from day one, and the renowned Britannia Stadium decibel level was raised a notch or two when he returned to action as a substitute (ahead of schedule) in the 1-1 draw with Sunderland on 25th April 2015.
Odemwingie’s eyes narrow as he recalls the crowd’s reaction to him warming-up down the touchline during the first half, and the ovation he received when finally entering the fray.
“I was always surprised how quickly Stoke fans took to me. I came here and fans saw I was really happy with the move. Everything about the club was right for me. The reception I had that day at comeback game was truly amazing. Ryan Shawcross has been here a number of years and even he said at training during the next week that he had not heard anything quite like it!”
The odd twinge of pain apart, Odemwingie’s speedy recovery has been rewarded by a new contract at Stoke City. He’s well-liked by players and staff at Stoke and despite being 34 has no thoughts of retirement yet. So will Odemwingie remain in sport or possibly even follow in his parent’s medical footsteps?
“I’ve not given it too much thought to be honest, and I could remain in sport. But I definitely do want to get some more education. You never know what will happen next in life….do you?”
And with one last chuckle and smile he was off for another day’s training. Another day on, quite literally, the treadmill of getting back to his fitness levels of yore. Whatever happens to Peter Odemwingie, he’s a unique player – indeed, as he says himself, there are few people about who actually have two smiling faces on them at the same time!