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Sports Features of Friday, 12 February 2016


VIDEO: From the Blues to South Korea, 10 years on

Derek Asamoah play videoDerek Asamoah

"Life is all about the adventure, and I've been truly blessed," says Derek Asamoah, fondly recalling the footballing odyssey he has travelled on over the past decade.

"I never doubted my ability, but to visit the places I've been to and played with some of the players I have, I never could have imagined it all those years ago."

It's 10 years since a 24-year-old Asamoah arrived unheralded at Chester City. Signed by Keith Curle during the tail end of his Blues tenure with the hope of injecting some flair into a floundering squad, few could have predicted the enduring memory that the diminutive Ghanaian would leave at the end of his loan spell from Lincoln City.

Having played for the Imps but struggled for goals – he scored twice in 43 appearances - many Blues fans would have been forgiven for thinking that he may not be the answer to their goalscoring woes and probably wasn't likely to be the talisman on which they would rely so heavily.

But Curle knew what he was getting, although he, sadly, wouldn't be the manager in the Chester dugout to witness some of his finest moments and watch the legend of 'Deadly Derek', as he was better known, unfold.

"Yeah, I remember that nickname, it was hilarious," said Asamoah, still plying his trade in the professional game, this time with Carlisle United, once again under the tutelage of Keith Curle.

"I've still got one of the t-shirts at home. It reminds me of a great time in my life and one that I still look back on and that makes me smile.

"I wasn't even supposed to be in the squad, I was left out completely and things weren't looking good for me as I wasn't getting in the team," said Asamoah, recalling the cold Tuesday night on March 29, 2006 at Boston United that would prove to be a pivotal moment in the striker's career.

"I got a call, though, saying that one of the players was injured and I was needed. Before I knew it I was on the bus and in the starting line-up. I knew I had to make the most of my chance as I hadn't been playing much, it was almost like it was fate."

Heading into the clash at York Street, Wright's Chester side were coming off the back of a 2-1 defeat at cross-border rivals Wrexham three days earlier and were without a win since the January triumph at Mansfield, in which Asamoah scored.

"I was just in the zone," said Asamoah.

"It was one of those games where things just went for me and I was getting chances. I always knew I had the talent and could score goals, I just needed the chance and to play with players who knew my game."

Asamoah bagged a hat-trick in a 3-1 success for Chester, helping them claw back some much needed points in their bid to stave off relegation. It was a performance that meant he could no longer be overlooked by Wright - he had to start the next game.

"Seeing the fans walking around with my face on their chest, it was so surreal. It was an amazing thing, though. I never expected that when I arrived on loan from Lincoln that things would pan out quite the way they did."

But Asamoah's impact wasn't instantaneous, more of a slow burner. He netted in a 2-1 win at former club Mansfield Town at the end of January 2006, Chester's first win in almost two months, but wouldn't find the target again until the end of March. Curle's departure from the Blues was sealed in mid-February following a woeful run of form, and the re-appointment of Mark Wright seemed to suggest the signs were ominous for Asamoah, or so he thought.

And start he did, a 2-1 home triumph over Cheshire neighbours Macclesfield Town. It was two goals for Asamoah this time, including a 90minute winner, an expertly curled effort from the edge of the box beyond Silkmen stopper Tommy Lee. Cue delirium.

All of a sudden Chester had that winning feeling. Next up was Oxford United, where Asamoah's solitary strike would prove the difference once more as the Blues won 1-0 to record their third win on the bounce. The fourth would soon follow.

"Scoring against Wrexham is one of the most memorable moments of my career, it was so special and I will always remember that feeling," said Asamoah, recalling his 75 minute winner in a 2-1 home win over the old foe, Wrexham, to extend the Blues' winning run and take his tally to seven goals in four games.

"I knew how important it was to the fans. They all had their t-shirts on and were chanting my name. I was absolutely loving it and just wanted to be the one to score the winning goal for them. They had been so good to me."

That winner against Wrexham would prove to be the last goal he would score in a Chester shirt.

The Blues won the next game, a 1-0 home success over Wycombe Wanderers, and drew 0-0 in the following two games. But their work was done. A dire situation that was crying out for a hero got what it needed, albeit from an unlikely source.

His exploits weren't just creating a buzz inside the city walls, he was getting plenty of attention from the other side of the globe too.

Rubbing shoulders with Essien, Muntari and Gyan

"I was called in to the office before the end of the season and they said that I'd been called up to the Ghana national side," said Asamoah.

"I thought they were winding me up and trying to have a laugh, but it was true. I couldn't believe what I was hearing."

Indeed it was true and Asamoah would soon link up with a host of famous names including Michael Essien, Asamoah Gyan and Sulley Muntari as the Black Stars continued their preparations for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, just months away. With injuries to Matthew Amoah and Isaac Boakye, Asamoah had a real shot at being named in the 23-man squad for Germany.

"I'd gone from playing in League Two in England to playing alongside players like Essien and Muntari, guys who were superstars," he said.

"I was in and around these guys, training with them, learning from them. I thought I was going to have to pinch myself to make sure it was true. You always dream of representing your country but it's hard to imagine it coming true."

He played two friendly matches prior to the competition but narrowly missed out on selection, although he did go on to feature two more times for the Black Stars and netted his only international goal in a 2-1 win over Gabon in 2011.

But with his stock now risen considerably, chances of keeping hold of the striker on a permanent basis were always going to be slim to none for Chester.

He moved to Shrewsbury Town along with fellow Blues Ben Davies and Stewart Drummond that summer and enjoyed a successful campaign, helping them qualify for the League Two play-offs.

Next stop for Asamoah was France, although his departure from the Shrews ended acrimoniously, with the Shropshire club claiming the Ghanaian went AWOL in order to secure the move across the Channel.

From France, to Bulgaria to South Korea, via Lanarkshire

"It was a move that I just couldn't turn down, it was an unreal opportunity and I had to do what was right for my career at the time," said Asamoah of his move to French Ligue 1 side OGC Nice.

"But I had a load of injuries and I wasn't able to make a mark for them. But it was awesome to be in and around a club like Nice, who were playing the likes of Marseille, Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon week in, week out. It was a crazy experience for me.

Asamoah's move to France helped him shake off his reservations about playing outside of Britain, the country he moved to as a child having been born in the Ghanaian city of Accra.

"I had the chance earlier on in my career to move to a top club in Greece who were playing Europa League football before the move to Nice, but I was just too scared to do it," he said.

"It is something that I have never regretted. I always say to players who are struggling to find a club that they should move abroad and try new experiences and see where it takes you."

Asamoah's decision to leave UK shores for continental football saw him take in spells with Bulgarian side Lokomotiv Sofia, a club where he established himself as a fans favourite between 2009 and 2010, before stops with South Korean sides Pohang Steelers and Daegu FC.

He did, though, have a short three-game spell with Scottish side Hamilton Academicals before embarking on his travels.

"South Korea was unreal," he added.

"The fans, the league, the atmosphere, it was crazy. It was an experience that I will never forget. To see so many wonderful places and play football all over the world is something that I am so grateful for."

Such a career didn't seem on the cards for the young Asamoah growing up in Accra. Born into a family with no interest in the beautiful game, Asamoah's talents with a football came as a surprise to his nearest and dearest.

"My dad has two left feet and nobody in my family is interested in football," he said.

"Ever since I can remember, though, I have had a ball at my feet, played with a smile on my face and wanted to score goals. That has never changed for me. But I never could have imagined the road I would travel on, though."

His family moved to London when he was a child and his talents were quickly spotted by scouts at the Protec Football Academy in North London. From there he would go on to youth set-ups at Hampton & Richmond Borough and Slough Town before being snapped up by Northampton Town in 2001

He made over 100 appearances for the Cobblers before linking up with Curle for the first time at Mansfield in 2004. It was from there he joined Lincoln, the club who would loan him out for his legendary 17-game spell with the Blues.

Reunion with Curle

And what of Asamoah today? Leaving South Korea behind in 2014 and wanting to head back to England to ply his trade, there was only one man he had in mind when looking for his next club.

"I've always had a great relationship with Keith Curle and I rang him as soon as I could to see if he would be able to help me out," said Asamoah.

"He was great for me at Mansfield and was the reason I signed for Chester. It didn't work out for him at Chester but that was a surprise as they were a great side at the start of that (2005/06) season. They were the team that everybody really didn't want to play.

"It was a real shame about that as he is a great manager. I had no hesitation in giving him a call."

Curle, in the hotseat at Carlisle United, answered the SOS call from Asamoah and, knowing full well his capabilities, wasted no time in bringing the Ghanaian into the fold at Brunton Park.

His time at Carlisle has, as with most of his clubs, seen him revered as somewhat of a fans favourite. His boundless energy and enthusiasm in the way he plays the game is infectious and, despite entering the twighlight of his professional career, he is still capable of making an impact.

"It was just a surreal experience, it is something that kids dream of doing but never really think that will happen," said Asamoah on his leveller in September's 1-1 Capital One Cup second round draw at Liverpool.

"When then ball flew in, it wasn't like it was a consolation, it was a big goal and the feeling was just unreal. To score at Anfield against Liverpool isn't something that happens every day."

Asamoah's exploits made national headlines, and although his side would eventually succumb to their more illustrious opponents in the end, losing a penalty shoot-out 3-2 to the Reds, it was a memorable night that almost provided one of the shocks of the season.

And Asamoah was at it again only this month, featuring for the Cumbrians against Everton in the FA Cup, impressing again despite being on the losing side.

Never a dull moment

But in a career that has continued to surprise, Asamoah says that nothing has changed for him and that he is still that fresh-faced 20-year old making his name in the game.

"There hasn't been a dull moment in my career, I think that's fair to say," he said.

"The way things have panned out have been beyond my expectations, but I always knew that I had the talent, that I would be able to make a difference and make my mark if I was given the chance.

"Looking back, I can't believe it's been 10 years since I was at Chester. It only feels like yesterday. It was one of the happiest times of my life and was a turning point for me and my career, I'll always be grateful of the time I spent there.

"For me now, I just keep going out there, keep playing with a smile on my face. I think I'll always be the kid with the ball under his arm going to go for a kickabout in the street or in the park. I just love what I do and I'm so thankful for the journey I've been on. It's not finished yet, though."