Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Inspirational George Elokobi is still going the extra mile

There are players who leave a mark at a club that goes much deeper than mere statistics could ever illustrate.

George Elokobi
George Elokobi

The players who capture the imagination and hearts of supporters. The cult heroes.

Last week brought an opportunity to catch up with somebody who became a firm favourite during six eventful years at Wolves.

Now aged 34, George Elokobi is captain of National League South side Maidstone United. He also coaches the club’s academy youngsters, passing on more than just his playing experiences.

Elokobi was only 10 years old when his father died. His mother left their home in Mamfe, Cameroon, to find work in England to support the family, leaving her son to be brought up by his grandparents. Six years later he followed in her footsteps for a new life in inner city London. Elokobi’s only football experiences up to that point involved playing barefoot on pitches that were nothing more than a rough patch of land.

There was certainly no grass to develop and refine skills on. That all changed in England.

It was whilst having a kickabout in Kennington Park, just across the road from The Oval cricket ground, that another teenager in their group spotted his potential and arranged for Elokobi to join him for some coaching at non-league Dulwich Hamlet. Just seven years later, via a spell at Colchester United, he became a Premier League player.

Elokobi’s pathway would perhaps explain why he never takes a single day for granted, leaves everything out on the pitch and has the time of day for everybody he meets.

It is nearly a decade since our paths first crossed, and I will never forget the circumstances. As a club, Wolves have always done the community and Christmas visits properly, but they were never stronger than under Mick McCarthy.

He was the manager who insisted every single player and member of coaching staff went out into the Wolverhampton area on a Christmas visit, as well as putting the hours in across the rest of the year.

On this December day in 2010, the Wolves squad split into three. Two groups went to New Cross Hospital and West Park Hospital and a third went out to Penn Hall Special School.

Soccer Saturday went along to join the group at the school for an interview with Elokobi, but that is where the problems began. Our cameraman did not turn up.

As one hour turned into two and the players completed their school visit, it was clear that the cameraman was not going to show.

At New Cross, another Sky crew was in attendance conducting a separate interview for a different programme.

On hearing this, Elokobi told me not to worry and to get into his car. We headed off to New Cross and walked through the main hospital entrance just as McCarthy and the other players were leaving.

George Elokobi

“George, what are you doing here, we’ve finished?” enquired the manager. At this point Elokobi explained our (my) predicament and set off on another round of visits in the hospital before finding a quiet corridor to complete the interview with the other cameraman.

Some footballers may have sensed a chance to make a sharp exit without having to hang around for an interview. Not Elokobi, who went out of his way to do two community visits and ensured I did not return to Sky without the interview.

On recounting the events to the production team back at Sky, our presenter Jeff Stelling quipped, “Well, if George Elokobi offers you a lift, you get in the car.”

Anybody who saw him play would know that Elokobi went the extra yard on the pitch, too. He battled back from a debilitating knee ligament injury in just his fourth game for the club in August 2008 to become a first team regular in Wolves’ first two Premier League seasons under McCarthy.

Elokobi’s goal at Molineux in a 2-1 win over Manchester United in February 2011, ending a 29-game unbeaten run for Alex Ferguson’s side, went down in folklore. So did his celebration by what remained of the corner flag once he had booted it into the Billy Wright Stand.

Two years ago, Elokobi returned to Wolverhampton for a supporters’ event at the Cleveland Arms alongside team-mates Matt Jarvis and Chris Iwelumo.

He proudly regaled the audience with the finer details of that header against United, which involved flooring his marker Nemanja Vidic to reach the ball first.

The fans loved it and Elokobi did, too. He stayed long into the night chatting to supporters, signing autographs and posing for selfies.

Last week that devotion was in evidence once more. After completing his training session with the Maidstone first team, Elokobi headed off to the car park, opened the boot of his car and pulled out a large bag of footballs, bibs and cones and began setting up the next session for the youngsters. The 3G first team pitch at the stadium makes for a different environment to the one Elokobi learnt his football in.

But it takes more than just decent facilities to create a footballer. If any of the Maidstone academy players know anything about their coach’s back story, they will appreciate that.

“Are you ready to work?” he asked. The odds might be stacked against them, but if they show just a fraction of the dedication and determination of George Elokobi then they will have given themselves half a chance.

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