Fejiri Okenabirhie: The Lowdown
Rovers finally have their new number 9. It is six months to the day since John Marquis left for Portsmouth after a prolific three years in South Yorkshire, and Rovers’ difficult pursuit of a replacement for the big man has led to more debate than anything else over the course of the season so far. It is now finally time to put that debate to bed.
Yesterday afternoon the club announced the signing of Fejiri Okenabirhie from Shrewsbury on a two and a half year deal. The striker has been touted as a transfer target for the past few weeks and finally completed his move on the eve of the deadline, bring to an end an arduous and at times divisive search for the next true line leader at Doncaster Rovers.
The YouTube highlight compilations show a player with a willingness to get into the box and score, however we all know that only so much can be gleaned from these sorts of videos. That is why we have spoken to some more informed sources – Blue & Amber Fanzine editor and Salopcast host Glyn Price, and EFL expert Gabriel Sutton from The Football Lab – to get the lowdown on the new man and find out what he will bring to Darren Moore’s side.
The team has been crying out for a striker with a clinical edge in front of goal, somebody who can combine the hallmark attributes of proper centre forward play, and Okenabirhie appears to fill that need. “He is a pacey striker with a keen eye for goal which any League One team would be happy to have,” says Glyn Price, who has watched the forward develop at Shrewsbury over the past 18 months.
“Fey likes to run at people and has a knack of being in the right place at the right time,” Glyn adds. “He scores all sorts of goals due to his technical ability - free kicks and penalties, one-on-ones, headers and close range finishes. He’s not the complete player by any means, but (Rovers have) lots to work with and a player who could get better.”
Darren Moore’s possession-based tactical style has allowed Rovers to create chances at a high rate this season but the goals have not flowed as freely from the forward line as they perhaps should have. Okenabirhie’s well-rounded qualities might solve that problem and allow the side to make this regular dominance in general play count, whilst his speed should add a dimension that is all too often lacking in the team overall.
Glyn feels this is Okenabirhie’s best attribute but notes that he is still learning how best to utilise it. “Pace seems to be king in League One and Fey has the ability to leave defenders in his wake. His close control dribbling at speed was always good to watch; he just needs to get his head up at times and find the finish or the pass a bit better.”
It is easy to see from this assessment why Okenabirhie was targeted by Darren Moore to improve his striking options. Speed, strength and guile are all things that Rovers have missed since the departures of Marquis and tricky forward Mallik Wilks last summer and whilst we can’t expect the new signing to replace them both himself, his style of play should help get the best out of the promising attacking corps Moore is trying to mould.
Bread and Butter
Football writer Gabriel Sutton has also been impressed by what he’s seen of the player during his travels up and down the country covering the EFL. “I’ve been keen on Fejiri Okenabirhie for just over a year now. Watching him in Shrewsbury’s 3-2 win over Rochdale back in November 2018, one could see that he has a lot of qualities to his game,” he says of our new number nine.
“On his day, Okenabirhie has tenacity, a bit of muscle, pace between the lines, skill, ability to use both feet and the unpredictability that brings,” Gabriel adds. This well-rounded skillset marks him out amongst the division’s brightest attacking prospects, and there seems little doubt that this can translate to goals in a Rovers shirt.
“Playing in a more possession-based setup under Darren Moore, I would anticipate Okenabirhie seeing more of the ball in those pockets between defence and midfield (than he did at Shrewsbury), which will allow him to really come alive,” says Gabriel of how he sees Okenabirhie fitting in. “In November and December last season he scored seven goals in a seven-game period, which suggests he’s the type of striker who can go on a run once he gets a goal.”
That streaky quality can be frustrating in a goalscorer but can also be an asset as the team tries to build momentum in terms of performances and results to move up the league table, particularly during the crucial run-in towards the end of the season. It is also testament to the mentality of the player which bodes well for Okenabirhie to be a Marquis-type streaky forward rather than a player like Andy Williams who let this quality become a detriment.
Marginalised by Philosophy?
After that noted run of red-hot form last season, the goals dried up for Okenairhie and he found himself increasingly on the fringes of the Shrewsbury team this season despite finishing as his side’s top scorer last term and seeing a bid from Sunderland for his services rebuffed. Whilst this drop-off has given Rovers the opportunity to snap him up, what factors caused this surprising downturn in fortunes?
“Sam Ricketts!” states Glyn rather emphatically, putting the issue squarely at the feet of Shrewsbury’s manager, appointed in the midst of Okenabirhie’s purple patch just over a year ago. “This season we have seen 'Rickettsball' take full effect: a total focus on defensive shape and being hard to beat, which has stifled the strikers chances of playing regularly and getting any chances of note,” he says.
This assertion is backed up by the stats, which show that none of the team’s strikers have been able to keep a consistent run of form. Their two-goal FA Cup hero Jason Cummings is top scorer with 7, but has only started nine league games and the Shrews have drawn an alarming 12 blanks in front of goal compared to Rovers’ 8 this season. Indeed Okenabirhie is their third top scorer despite struggling for playing time, which is a good omen for Rovers.
Gabriel also feels that Okenabirhie has suffered for his manager’s conservative approach to the game. “His drop off in form coincided with the appointment of Sam Ricketts,” he says from his neutral perspective. “Watching him against Portsmouth on the opening day of this season, I could see that if the striker he is partnered with is not winning the aerial duels, then Okenabirhie can be lost in no-man’s land and maybe that has affected his motivation this season.”
Much as Rovers fans have had to be with similar matters over the years, Glyn has a rueful but pragmatic outlook on the transfer. “Most here think it will be a move we look back on with regret in years to come, but no way was he going to sign a new deal so at least we got something. It’s weird though to be letting him go to a (divisional) rival when he was our only player in years to score more than 15 goals in a season for us.”
Fejiri Okenabirhie clearly possesses qualities that Darren Moore has been after in his strikers. The issue has been a hot topic since the moment he walked through the doors in July, so the hope is that this transfer goes a long way to solving the conundrum of replacing the goals and guile of Marquis.
Whilst we shouldn’t heap too much expectation onto the shoulders of a young player still learning, the signs are there that he could be a favourite of both Moore and the fans. Okenabirhie spoke well in his first Cantley Park interview, matching Glyn’s assessment that he is “a little reserved and never the first to be out chest thumping.”
There does however appear to be a bit of the warrior mentality seen so often in Marquis with his Jekyll and Hyde on-and-off-field demeanour. By contrast to the “totally normal guy” Okenabirhie comes across as in interviews, Glyn fondly recalls that “when he scores he actually loves to ‘shithouse’ opposition fans. Look at his last goal for us from the penalty spot at Blackpool. Stood there, hand to ears goading the fans!”
Rovers will be hoping he provides plenty of these memorable moments in the red-and-white hoops, and he should be able to flourish in Darren Moore’s expansive, positive set-up. “Clearly our style of play was not suited to Fey and he fell out of favour, lost a bit of his drive and zip with some – unfairly – calling him lazy in his last few outings,” adds Glyn of Okenabirhie’s fresh prospects. “For me it is the system that has done for Fey this season and for all parties it is best he moves on.”
Gabriel concludes that Okenabirhie “has his lean patches and can sometimes look a tad raw in his finishing, but he is capable of reproducing some of the form we’ve seen from him” in the past, reflecting the consensus that he is a bit of a rough diamond with plenty of scope to produce for Rovers. As for Glyn, who has witnessed the best and worst of the player in his time at Shrewsbury, does he ultimately think this is a good signing?
“I do, and considering we were level with you just a few weeks back, think Doncaster have done well in this transfer window on and off the pitch. After we beat Liverpool at Anfield our season will be over but I have a sneaking thought that Doncaster will make the Play-Offs and do well.”
Time will tell on that one, but this signing could well be the long-awaited catalyst that Darren Moore and Rovers need to make that ambition a reality in May.