Isaac Olaofe interview: Studying for a degree, inspiring others and making history with Sutton

YOU often hear how footballers struggle to put down their time outside of playing and training – but that’s not a problem for Isaac Olaofe.

Olaofe is doing a Business Management degree at The Open University and as well as his online classes his studies take up 20 hours a week.

The degree was scheduled over six years – he’s in his third – but because he took two extra credits he has shaved a year off.

Despite being just 21, Olaofe says he wants to show younger generations it’s possible to have a career in football and a degree.

Olaofe – who is on a season loan at Sutton United – isn’t the only Millwall player working towards various qualifications. Matt Smith is on the Master of Business Administration course at Manchester Metropolitan University, while club skipper Alex Pearce is completing his coaching badges.

Olaofe went to Wilmington Grammar School in Dartford and says he always liked “numbers and maths”.

He was encouraged to pursue that interest alongside football by his parents and two older brothers, and then Millwall helped facilitate his studies.

Olaofe’s other interests include anime, the Japanese animated TV shows and films, and he adds that “for relaxation I’ll go to the gym, do a bit of a cool-down on the bike. When I’m back home I’ll watch something on Netflix.”

Thinking of gym and bike work as “relaxation” is indicative of Olaofe’s drive.

Asked if his course is a good way to switch off from football, he says: “It is.” But he adds: “Even though it’s quite hard because I’ll always want to have the football on in the background. Yesterday [Sunday], for example, I told myself I’d do work but there was literally football on for the whole day!

“I love football, I love watching it, so if there’s any sort of game on I’ll watch it.

“I’m studying part-time so when I get home I have time to do a bit of work.

“The module that I’m doing this year is economics. I’m just broadening my knowledge, really. There’s nothing in particular [he wants to specialise in yet] but I like numbers and I like maths.

“I was always decent in school so after I finished, through the help of Millwall and the education manager, they said, ‘you’re a clever lad, keep on top of it’.

“I also had help from my parents. It was mainly my parents and my brothers who guided me, making sure I kept topping up.

“It’s always good to see a professional footballer with a degree. Wilfred Ndidi is also studying [Business and Management at the De Montfort University] at Leicester.

“I want to show younger generations that you can be a professional footballer and you can have a degree as well.

“As long as you put your heart and mind to it and you’re always focused then anything’s possible.

“I study around 20 hours a week, that’s the guideline. I’m not saying I do that every week but I do try to top up a week as I’ve got modules and assignments to submit.”

Matt Smith, left, is currently studying for an MBA

Olaofe is balancing all of that with what has so far been a whirlwind start to the season.

He scored his first Football League goal last Saturday, the winner against a Crawley side with former Millwall club captain Tony Craig in the centre of defence.

“It was a great feeling, it’s been a long time coming,” Olaofe says. “Once I scored it was just like a relief. It was a massive win as well to get three points in a local derby.”

Four days earlier, he scored his first goal of the season as Michael Gray’s U’s stunned a strong Portsmouth side 2-0 at Fratton Park in the EFL Trophy.

The way Olaofe speaks about that evening shows a player living his boyhood dream. He agrees that it was perhaps the best experience of his career so far.

“Oh, most definitely. I remember stepping out onto the pitch and it was honestly like a carpet, it was beautiful,” he says.

“Even the stadium, I don’t know how big the screen is but it’s massive, the lights, the whole stadium, it was beautiful.

“Even though it was the EFL Trophy I feel like, as a striker, it’s always good to score goals whatever competition it’s in. It’s always a confidence-booster.

“Portsmouth are a very good team as well. It was good to be able to score against a team like Portsmouth.”

Olaofe probably would have got off the mark sooner in his debut season in the Football League but for a hip flexor injury in pre-season and then a reoccurrence of the same problem delaying his return to the side he scored 14 goals for last season.

“You know football, injuries are always unlucky and it was just unfortunate how that injury came about,” he says.

“But this is the sport I signed up for, things like this happen. It’s part of a learning curve, it’s part of a footballing journey.

“To be fair, my initial reaction after hearing the scan results, I was honestly devastated. I remember walking into my mum’s room and telling her. I was upset.

“Considering the season I had last season, I was looking forward to trying to impress [in pre-season] and see if I had the next level in my locker.

“Millwall and Sutton arranged for me to go back. I finished off my rehab at Millwall and once I was declared fit I went back to Sutton.

“Sutton remained very patient with me because it was three weeks after the transfer window had closed that I went back to them.

“It was massive thanks to the manager who has a lot of trust in me and he was willing to take that risk knowing I wasn’t fully fit to have me back on loan.

“Before the injury, for this season anyway, I was thinking about just trying to break through and gain as much experience as I could, whether that was at Millwall or a League One team or League Two team. Just trying to pick up from where I left off last season.”

Whatever happens this campaign, Olaofe is part of a Sutton side that is making history with their first season in the Football League.

“As a kid I feel like you always grow up wanting to be a part of history. Already getting that promotion into the Football League, knowing that all of us, the team, the squad, will go down in history, is quite a surreal feeling.”

Main image: Paul Loughlin 

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John Kelly