WHEN Stephen Opoka’s playing career ended in his early twenties after a knee injury, a move into coaching was the furthest thing from his mind
Fifteen years on the ex-Colchester United youth player became West Ham Women’s WSL Academy manager, the first black coach to take on the role.
Becoming a coach was something Opoka, 34 would eventually see as his dream job years after a promising start as a Colchester United youth player
The ex-U’s youth player’s journey into football began at seven after being inspired by the Three Lions’ heroics during Euros 96.
It would later lead to Opoka, who was born in Uganda, receiving a call-up to the Ugandan senior national side at 18, ahead of an African Cup of Nations qualifier in 2008.
The former Colchester midfield, who grew up in Newham in East London said: “Watching Euro 96 was a big moment
“I started to get a football vibe from watching England get to the semi-finals and Paul Gascoigne’s famous goal against Scotland.
“These were my earliest memories and trying to replicate these moments – that’s what got me into football as a kid in a playground.
“When I was 11, I joined a grassroots side called Abbey Raiders based in Forest Gate in East London.
“I was a midfielder at the time and some of my heroes back then were players like Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane.
“I later joined Colchester as a schoolboy.”
Opoka’s appointment as the Hammers’ Women’s Academy manager last month, follows a journey that saw him undergo a knee op in a bid to continue playing.
He would later take on a variety of jobs before deciding to take the plunge to become a coach.
Opoka added: “I was at Colchester for five years from the age of 14 playing in midfield.
“When I was 19, I didn’t get offered another contract and went for trials at Stoke City and Brentford.
“I ended up injuring my knee whilst I was training by myself and damaging the cartilage and ended up needing a knee operation.
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“That was tough because at that moment I was feeling really good and ready to go for trials.
“I ended up working in retail for a few years from 19 to 21. Within that period I decided to develop new skills.
“During that time, I experienced a bit of heartbreak as my dad passed away while I was waiting to have knee surgery.
“I was waiting for an operation via the NHS and that takes some time.
“But I found out through a company my dad worked for that I was medically insured through them.
“When he passed, that’s when I had the surgery.
“After my knee operation, I was thinking I could get back into playing.
“The surgeon said I could have a professional career but advised against it because I was at risk of (me) developing arthritis
“I continued to work and also started playing football semi-professionally for a while, but I didn’t enjoy it.
“That’s when I started my head started to turn towards coaching and helping out friends who were (and some who still are) professional players.
“During the off-season, I would help them do during sessions that were specific to their playing positions when they were coming back from injuries.
“I remember working with my good mate Troy Archibald-Henville (now a youth at Tottenham).
“He was at Swindon at the time playing under Paolo Di Canio.
“I was also doing similar things during the off-season with friends playing for West Ham, Tottenham, and Everton.”
“I was 23 then but during those couple of years previous from 19 to 21, I had no thought of getting into coaching.”
It was not until Opoka was in his late twenties that he decided to he wanted to go into coaching full-time.
A decision that would see him complete a Uefa B license course and establish his own coaching company before becoming the head coach of the University of East London’s women’s football team.
Not everyone has that mindset where they can look and say I can imagine myself doing that role
Stephen Opoka – West Ham Women’s Academy Manager
He would later become assistant manager of West Ham Women’s Under-21s before taking on the role of WSL’s club’s academy chief.
Opoka, is one of a small proportion of black coaches working at the highest levels of the domestic game in England.
A new report published this month revealed just 4.4 per cent of managers in the English game are black.
Reflecting on this Opoka said: “It is important to see representation.
“Not everyone has that mindset where they can look and say I can imagine myself doing that role.
“Sometimes they need to see it and say, ‘I can see Hope Powell (Brighton), I can see Patrick Vieira in his role at Crystal Palace and I can see Paul Nevin (first team coach of West Ham’s Prem first team), so it is possible’.
“It is definitely a big thing for many people from different backgrounds coming up in coaching.
“They need to see somebody who looks like them, sounds like them, and may have gone through similar obstacles as them.
“If I saw limitations, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
In his new role is relishing the challenge of helping West Ham Women’s WSL Academy to flourish.
The team’s Under-21 side is currently seventh in the Southern Division of the WSL Academy League having won three of their first six games this term.
Opoka says Irons boss says Konchesky has been a regular presence at matches.
And the Newham-bred coach has high hopes for the academy which he describes as being in its infancy.
He added: “We’re constantly communicating with Paul.
“He has been at every home Academy game this season and I can’t praise his support highly enough.
“The biggest thing for me is making the academy a place where players know that when they come in, they’re going to get what they need, whether its psychological support, as well the tactical and technical coaching on the pitch.
“It’s having an environment that is professional and there for the girls to have a platform to give it their best shot.”