Striker, leader, difference-maker: How Bartholomew Ogbeche took Hyderabad FC to the next level

For much of the 2020-21 Hero Indian Super League season, Hyderabad FC were giving an extremely good account of themselves. In a competition that has twists and turns at every juncture, Hyderabad FC's reluctance to shuffle their pack and instead stick to a young Indian core was thoroughly refreshing.  

They reaped the rewards too. Footballers such as Akash Mishra, Asish Rai, Chinglensana Singh, Hitesh Sharma and Mohammad Yasir grew in stature, with a few of them being rewarded with national call-ups.

Thus, it was a tad unfortunate that they had to miss out on the top four by just a couple of points. That, though, wasn’t for a lack of effort. Manuel Marquez's men pressed and persevered till the last minute of their campaign. Yet, fell short as FC Goa pipped them to the final semi-final spot.

At the time, many wondered what could’ve been for Hyderabad FC, especially if they had someone who could capitalise on the chances they were creating and provide the cutting edge when things weren’t quite as rosy.

Aridane Santana shouldered the goalscoring burden and to an extent, excelled, bagging 10 goals in 18 appearances. Crucially for Hyderabad FC, though, he failed to find the back of the net when they required it most. Elsewhere, the dearth of goals was even more evident, with their next top scorer being Francisco Sandaza, who mustered four goals in 11 matches.

Unsurprisingly, Hyderabad FC were quick to move in the off-season and to their credit, signed arguably the ideal Hero ISL centre forward – aka Barthlomew Ogbeche. Not just because of the footballing qualities that he brings to the fore, but because he, as a leader, was perhaps just what Marquez's young brigade needed, especially after the heartbreak of 2020-21.

Nearly halfway through the 2021-22 term and it seems that Hyderabad FC aren’t regretting their decision to acquire Ogbeche. In fact, he is (arguably) one of the primary reasons why they find themselves in the top two of the Hero ISL points table and look primed to mount a more sustained title challenge.

Over the years, Ogbeche has cast himself as one of the greatest strikers to have graced the league. While the likes of Ferran Corominas and Sunil Chhetri have distinguished themselves at one club (FC Goa and Bengaluru FC, respectively), Ogbeche has played at different clubs and has optimized whatever system he has walked into.  

Last time out, the veteran was at Mumbai City FC and wasn’t always a first-choice, with Sergio Lobera often preferring Adam le Fondre. However, Ogbeche took that in his stride and scored 8 goals across the season.

More importantly, he was on hand when the Islanders were looking for a bit of divine intervention. The 2020-21 final, which ebbed and flowed from the first minute, is remembered as the game where Bipin Singh came into his own. Ogbeche’s tenaciousness, though, is what fashioned Bipin’s winner in the dying embers of the fixture.

During his stints at Kerala Blasters FC and NorthEast United FC, he was their unwavering source of goals. Both teams didn’t enjoy exceptional campaigns when Ogbeche was a part of their setup. Yet, with him around, they always knew that they could, in the blink of an eye, turn the contest in their favour.

At Hyderabad FC, however, these aspects have only been magnified. Not just because the Nizams have most other bases covered, but because their young Indian core, longed for someone of Ogbeche’s leadership quality to shepherd them.

As things stand, the striker has made the net bulge nine times in nine games and has accounted for 45% of the goals Hyderabad FC have scored. Of the 20 goals they have managed, 14 have come in three encounters (against Mumbai City FC, NorthEast United FC and Odisha FC). The forward, as expected, has scored a quintet of goals in those contests.

Last season, Hyderabad FC were, on occasions, guilty of spurning chances. In 2021-22, Ogbeche hasn’t allowed that to happen and boasts a goal conversion rate of 30% - a tally that competes with the very best the league has ever had to offer.

Apart from that, Ogbeche has been diligent in his defensive work. He has made 17 tackles and 7 interceptions. On set-pieces, he has manned the near-post zone wonderfully and has effected 11 clearances and 7 blocks.

Most tellingly, though, he has set the right sort of example. He hasn’t just contributed with his goalscoring but has also made those around him more confident in their abilities – something that can be seen by the way Hyderabad FC have approached their games lately.  

When Hyderabad FC are flexing their attacking muscles, Ogbeche has been at the forefront. Even when they haven’t been doing so, he has been brave enough to assume responsibility and bend the game to his and the his team’s liking.

In simpler words, he has done everything Manuel Marquez, or for that matter, any Hero ISL manager would’ve asked for. So much so that his goalscoring exploits, at the moment, is perhaps one of the few constants in a Hero ISL season that has entailed its fair share of twists and turns.

There are only two things certain in life – death and taxes. In the Hero ISL, the only predictable facet is the glorious uncertainty attached to the competition.

Somewhere in between, though, Ogbeche scoring goals has also become a certainty. That alone tells you how good he has been this season and in general, throughout his Hero ISL career.     

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