Fejiri Okenabirhie says the Non-League game provided him with the ideal platform to make his Football League return.
The talented Dagenham & Redbridge striker signed for Shrewsbury, of League One, this week after three years away from the professional game.
The 22-year-old was released by Stevenage, where he made three appearances in the third tier, following a string of loan moves in Non-League with Bedford, Farnborough, Cambridge City and Royston.
He signed for Harrow Borough in the Isthmian League towards the end of 2015 and just seven months later he was snapped up by the National League’s Dagenham.
Okenabirhie has joined former Macclesfield manager John Askey at Shrews – and it came with a little bit of help from The NLP’s National Game Awards!
“That was the first time we spoke,” said the England C player of the year. “Obviously, at the time, he wasn’t Shrewsbury manager and I had no idea he would be going there but we had a conversation and got on pretty well. I guess fate has brought us together again.
“I’m really pleased to join Shrewsbury and be back in the Football League. I’m excited to get started. I played a few games before with Stevenage but now I definitely feel I can make an impact and hopefully the club can benefit from that.”
In the summer of 2015, Okenabirhie was one of hundreds who find themselves on the footballing scrapheap after being released.
At 19 years old, his career had taken a turn for the worse. Trials at Millwall and Barnet both ended unsuccessfully and he was left to rebuild in Step 3.
“You have to have faith in your ability and I always did,” he added. “I’m pleased that it has worked out for me, I’ve worked really hard to get here.
“Non-League has given me the opportunity to play games every week and a platform to keep developing to move back up. I wouldn’t be against any young player going into Non-League and getting games and improving. I think that’s what I definitely got the most out of it, playing every week.”
Okenabirhie is a defence’s nightmare and for Dagenham last season he became one of the hottest strikers in the division as he netted 12 times.
Quick, strong and capable of scoring spectacular goals, even when he’s having a quiet game, Okenabirhie can make something happen in a flash.
He is another one to be plucked from the lower leagues by former Daggers manager John Still and move upwards, but he didn’t just catch the eye at domestic level either.
Okenabirhie was called up to the England C squad last year and has since earned five caps, netting a hat-trick to clinch a 3-2 victory over Wales C in March.
Okenabirhie will always be thankful for the chance Non-League gave him.
“He (Still) gave me the opportunity at Dagenham and I have to thank him for that. I learnt a lot from training but also improved as a person. I’m especially grateful for him for giving me the chance.
“It was great to get picked by Paul (Fairclough, England C manager) and Mick (Payne, goalkeeping coach) too, and they’ve always been really good to me every time I’ve been part of the squad.
“It was another good experience I had. The training was always really good as were the matches. I managed to score four goals too – the hat-trick ball will be a memory I always have.”
Non-League’s latest graduate is certainly one to watch.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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