Portsmouth’s Ini Umotong is on the verge of her first international cap after being included in Nigeria’s 18-player squad for their All-Africa Games qualifier against Mali tomorrow.
The 20-year-old, who was born in Nigeria, but moved to England when she was one, scored for the second game running in a warm-up match against club side Spotlight Queens, of Katsina, earlier this week, earning her the only place for a foreign-based player in coach Edwin Okon’s squad, which has been whittled down from the initial 36.
Former Aston Villa striker Umotong, whose profile was raised after a 12-game scoring streak soon after making her Portsmouth debut, joined Okon’s month-long training camp halfway through after sorting out university commitments and playing in her club’s games against Sheffield and Millwall Lionesses.
She wore the international colours of the country of her birth for the first time last week as a second-half substitute against Nigerian Premier League side Confluence Queens, scoring in the 90th minute.
And she was on target again this week, rattling in one of eight second-half goals in the Super Falcons’ 12-0 demolition of lower-league side Spotlight Queens.
There’s no better time to crack on with your assignments than when you’ve got down time from training – Perry Northeast, Portsmouth manager and university sports coaching mentor
Her form sufficiently impressed Okon to put her on the plane to Mali, where Nigeria play the first leg of their All-African Games qualifier tomorrow evening. The return leg is in Abuja next month.
The two countries also meet in an Olympic Games qualifier in May, by which time Okon should have finalised his squad for the World Cup in Canada, which begins on June 6.
Such is the interest in the African champions that their World Cup group game against Australia in Winnipeg is already sold out.
Umotong’s involvement with the national team in Mali means her return to England will be delayed, throwing into question whether she will be available for Pompey’s vital Premier League game at home to Plymouth Argyle on March 29, by which time she will already have missed two games for the championship challengers – last weekend’s 2-1 victory over Brighton and this Sunday’s fixture at home to Copsewood Coventry.
Her proud club manager, Perry Northeast, said Portsmouth were in regular contact with the Nigerian Football Federation but it was not yet certain when the young striker he signed at the start of the season on her return from university football in the United States would be back.
“We take each day as it comes,” he said. “The Nigerian FA are very amicable and they realise that Ini has got a life away from football. More importantly than playing for us, they realise that she has academic requirements that need to be fulfilled, as well.”
Umotong is in the first year of her degree course in economics and actuarial science at the University of Southampton, but Northeast – who works at a university himself, is confident her lecturers will be understanding and flexible about her incredible opportunity.
He told Sent Her Forward: “Knowing Ini, she’s probably taken some work out there with her. That’s what I suggested to her. There’s no better time to crack on with your assignments than when you’ve got down time from training.”
Umotong became something of a talisman with Portsmouth, scoring goals in four different competitions during her purple scoring patch either side of Christmas.
But last week’s victory over Brighton was achieved without her – as was their 2-0 away victory over their title rivals earlier in the season.
And the Pompey boss said there was a buoyancy among the players at training this week following last Sunday’s hard-fought 2-1 win that he was confident would carry over into Sunday’s ostensibly easier fixture against Coventry side Copsewood.
However, Northeast has immense respect for what his opposite number there, Ryan Conneely, has achieved with meagre resources and promised that neither he nor his players would be taking them lightly.
He said: “I’m a big admirer of Ryan. I speak to him often… With that guts and tenacity that he possesses and his coaching team possess – and that their players can possess – it means they are a threat.
“Also, they are at the wrong end of the table, but they are now playing their own little title play-off, so it’s not going to be easy.
“The players know that. I’ve got a fairly mature squad who, when they look at the league table, they look at what I look at and think, Coventry aren’t just coming here for an end-of-season bash. They’re coming here to get something.”
Portsmouth beat Conneely’s side 5-0 just over a month ago – when, ironically, Umotong failed to score for the first time in 13 successive games. They also won 4-2 in Coventry in the Premier League Cup at the start of the season.
Victory again on Sunday could take Pompey top if leaders Cardiff City fail to win at Brighton, as an excellent Premier League season heads for a mouth-wateringly exciting finish.
But even without that prospect, his Portsmouth team have plenty to celebrate – not least, the meteoric rise of their friend and team-mate, Umotong.
Northeast added: “What a highlight to come out of the season, whatever happens now. We’ve discovered an international footballer for the first time in the club’s history.”