Asian Football Interviews

Goals Galore: “Lionheart” Timothy Okereke & His Imminent Return

Timothy Okereke is a familiar name for many in the Cambodian football fraternity. The Nigerian is known for his pace, strength and natural finishing instincts – qualities that many managers desire in a forward and Timothy has proven himself across various Cambodian outfits during the Metfone C-League era. After all, he managed to slot in an impressive 41 goals in 33 appearances across two seasons for Oriol Mohedano’s Angkor Tiger.

Unfortunately, Timothy’s footballing career has been stalled by an unfortunate injury that he suffered at the beginning of 2022. Thankfully, the Lionhearted forward is ready to roar again following a successful operation and months of hard work in rehab.

I took this opportunity to find out more about Timothy’s past and his plans for the future.

A graduate of the Pepsi Football Academy (other notable graduates include former Chelsea and Nigerian international midfielder John Obi Mikel), Timothy’s talent was identified at a young age and he represented Nigeria at the U-17 international level. He subsequently played football at the university level but he knew that he was meant to be playing professional football somewhere. So, in 2014, Timothy departed the African continent and ventured into Asia to begin a new life as a professional footballer.

Goals Galore – The Cambodian Adventure Begins

Many in Cambodia are aware that Timothy made his mark in the Kingdom when he signed for former C-League team CMAC United for the 2015-16 campaign. He thrilled the masses by scoring 15 goals and registered 8 assists in 23 appearances that season. His performances clearly raised a few eyebrows and rival clubs began to take notice.

Image Credits: Angkor Tiger

One such club was Cambodian Tiger (now known as Angkor Tiger) and Timothy joined the side. However, life at Tiger was initially not a bed of roses. After a few games, the side was near the bottom of the table and the Nigerian hitman did not feature as much as he wanted to. Kenichi Yatsuhashi was the head coach at the start of the season but left mid-way, leaving a vacuum at the helm.

Oriol Mohedano then assumed the position of Head Coach of the club and made Timothy the focal point of the club’s attack.

“When I took over, we still had a few months before the transfer window,” shares Oriol. “So, I had to assess the squad and make the best of the players I had. When evaluating the team, I quickly realized the ability and potential that Timothy possessed. He was not playing a lot under the previous coach but that changed when I arrived. I planned the attack around Timothy and gave him the responsibility to lead the frontline.”

Image Credits: Reach Khemrith

The move proved to be a huge success and the forward duly repaid the faith in him and netted an impressive 18 goals in 19 games for the Siem Reap-based club.

A move to Asia Euro United soon followed and after banging in 6 goals in 6 games, it wasn’t long before clubs in the broader Southeast Asian region earmarked him as a transfer target and Timothy soon leapt into a new realm.

Lessons Learned From Malaysia

Image Credits: UiTM

In 2018, then-Malaysian Premier League (MPL) side UiTM came knocking on Timothy’s door during the mid-season window and it was simply too good an opportunity to turn down. The MPL was a great platform to springboard to the Malaysian Super League and beyond. Timothy packed his bag and headed to Shah Alam, Selangor, ever-ready to seize this golden opportunity.

However, it wasn’t the fairy tale ending that Timothy hoped for.

“We were constantly battling against relegation and there were a lot of expectations for me to deliver every game,” mentions Timothy. The pressure of it all was simply too much for me to bear and that fundamentally prevented me from expressing myself on the pitch and playing with confidence.”

In the end, Timothy concluded his campaign with 3 goals in 13 games for 2018 – an uncharacteristic statistic for a player known for piling the goals. His stint at UiTM came to an end that season and his time at the club remains a bitter experience. Nevertheless, the lessons learned in Malaysia remain invaluable to this day.

A Return To Goal-Scoring Ways & Injury Distaster

Image Credits: Angkor Tiger

Following his stint with UiTM, Timothy returned to familiar territory to reinvigorate himself. He had his best goal-scoring campaign while with Angkor Tiger and once again it was Oriol Mohedano who offered him the chance to prove himself.

“In 2019, while we were planning for the season ahead, we decided to be more ambitious,” shares the Spaniard. “One player that I wanted to return was Timothy and he was absolutely committed to the project. He brought a sense of positive energy that really boosted the team. Of course, Timothy is a very demanding person and expects a lot from his teammates but that’s because he gives his 110% all the time.”

Determined to outdo his previous record, Timothy worked even harder and clocked in 23 goals and 15 assists in 19 games. He was simply unstoppable and was a major factor in the club’s 5th-place finish in the C-League, which remains their highest ranking in the Cambodian topflight.

Image Credits: Phnom Penh Crown

After such a mouthwatering tally, Angkor Tiger had to brace themselves for bids for their goal-scoring talisman and Phnom Penh Crown soon prized him away. Despite scoring 12 goals and registering 3 assists for Crown, the multi-time league champions finished the 2020 campaign in third place and both parties parted ways.

For the next 7 months, Timothy was a free agent. He had left Cambodia to try his luck in the United States, with a potential move to Major League Soccer (MLS) in the mix. However, the global pandemic made that an impossible goal to achieve. Nevertheless, the goal machine maintained his fitness and was ready to seize the right opportunity presented to him. Then, a chance to return to the Cambodian top flight beckoned with Tiffy Army. The clinical forward signed on the dotted line and saw out the remainder of the 2021 campaign and was a real impact player for the side.

The club was interested in retaining Timothy for the inaugural Cambodian Premier League season but tragedy struck. Timothy, unfortunately, sustained an injury during the off-season while doing some personal training and any re-contract opportunity was off the table.

Image Credits: Tiffy Army

While he was ruled out for a lengthy period of time, Timothy remains positive and strong – partly because of the support he has been given by friends and family.

“There is a vibrant African community in Phnom Penh and many members of this community have given me the strength needed to undergo my rehab. A few players have also supported me emotionally and financially and I am driven to get back to my best so I can repay them the only way I know how – scoring goals and winning games.”

Pouncing On The Future Ahead

Turning only 28 years old later this month, Timothy’s best is yet to be. After months of inaction, he is eager to forge ahead and continue where he last left off. Given his previous exploits, demand for his services remains unsurprisingly high. The former Nigeria U-17 international received offers from Cambodian Premier League and Cambodia League 2 outfits earlier this year. Yet, Timothy knows that he needs to recover fully before stepping onto the pitch once again for any team.

“I’m 80% ready right now but I don’t want to rush into things. I need to be 100% ready to come back so I’m going to be patient but work hard. Thus far, all my focus has been on rehab and rehab alone. I’m confident that my return to first-team football in Cambodia is around the corner.”

While Cambodia has undoubtedly become his second home, Timothy yearns for another challenge abroad and is eyeing stints at neighbouring Southeast Asian leagues. Part of this stems from his time at UiTM. He may have failed to replicate his C-League form in Malaysia but that episode has motivated him to become even better.

Regardless of where he ends up, I do believe that it is only a matter of time before Timothy dons his football boots and ends up slotting in the goals yet again.

Featured Image Credits: Phnom Penh

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