Just 19 years old, Udoka Godwin-Malife is one of many Rovers youngsters impressing under Mark Cooper, and the defender is looking to take his experiences so far into a big season at The New Lawn.
Where did it all begin, what was your first step into football?
I was playing for a local Sunday League team called Littlemoor FC, which is the area I live in. My mum took me to the park with a few of my mates from primary school because they were playing with the team, so I signed on and was playing with my friends, training every Tuesday and Thursday.
Where did that switch come from you playing for a Sunday league side, to people watching you and thinking ‘this kid has got something?’
I kept playing Sunday League for a while, but when I was in year 8, I started playing in the Junior Premier League. It’s a mix of non-league teams and development sides from across the country, and it’s split into regions. The top two from each division would go into the finals and there would be one big final to decide the best team form academy football.
I got a trial with Oxford City to play in that competition, and I got in. Some of my friends from Sunday league joined me as well, and we actually went unbeaten for a while.
You then got offered your first contract with Oxford. What was it like when they told you that you were one of the ones they wanted to bring through?
It was one of the best days of my life. So many people would have written me off, and while some people would have believed I could do it, there were many that said I didn’t have what it takes.
For me, all the hard work counted for something that day, and it really meant a lot to me.
What makes you think that some people wrote you off?
I wasn’t very well behaved as a kid, I was pretty naughty and I didn’t like school. I wanted to do nothing but play football, and I felt that I wasn’t really learning anything or doing anything of value.
I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to start looking at the real world, I can’t spend my whole life trying to become a professional’.
Some teachers told me I wasn’t good enough and I wasn’t disciplined enough to be a footballer, but I took it upon myself and refused to let anyone else tell me what I can and can’t do. I set my mind on doing everything in my power to become a footballer.
Was it difficult, especially at that age, to hear that you weren’t disciplined enough to follow a dream?
It was, but in a way I did understand it. I knew it was something that I did need to change, and I needed to grow my character.
A lot of people wouldn’t think it, based on the type of person I am now, but I had to make a big change to my character and mature as a person to give myself a chance. I did believe I had talent.
That maturity shone through, you were playing men’s football in the National League South at just 17. How did you balance your football with essentially still being a kid?
I did my college course at the ground, so I was at the football club the whole time, which helped, but it was hard.
Your career took a steep upward curve after that. You turned 18, and not long after that you got the call from Forest Green.
It was my agent that called me and said that Forest Green were interested. I couldn’t believe it.
I wanted to believe it, but at the same time I didn’t, because for a minute I didn’t think it was true. I soon realised that this was my chance to become a professional footballer, and he told me what was going on and I couldn’t speak. I was smiling all day.
I remember when you joined, there was a real reaction from your friends on social media and they were all congratulating you. How was it to have those guys, who have been with you all through school, bigging you up and supporting you?
They always had faith in me. They’ve always said to me that I was probably the one with the best chance to do something, so they kept pushing me to develop my game.
They’ve always played a part, and without their support it would have been even tougher for me to get where am now. They were always there supporting me at games, every game I played, I had at least one of my friends watching me and it’s nice to have someone there, telling me how I’m doing.
I remember when you first arrived at the ground, still just 18, that you hadn’t passed your driving test yet, so your mum brought you. I got the impression straight away that she played a big role in your life as a player.
She was. When I was younger she would always be the one taking me to away trips and standing out in the cold and the rain or the heat in summer.
You got the chance to repay just a little bit of that, she must have been proud when you got the deal at Forest Green.
She was at work when I first heard, so she texted me saying ‘Well done Dokes, I’ll call you back,’ and that’s all she said.
She rang me back later in the day in tears of joy.
For fans that follow you on social media, they’ll probably have picked up that you are religious. Does that faith play a role in, not just your life, but your career?
I come from a Christian family, and my mum’s very religious. Recently my faith in God has grown stronger because through him everything is possible. I believe that god is the reason I’ve got this professional contract, and I know I’ve put in the hard work, but he’s given me the strength to do that.
Having faith has allowed me to get some incredible opportunities so far, and that’s partly thanks to God answering my prayers, he really is blessing me and I’m grateful.
We don’t have to move far down the line from that day you signed. Just one month later you made your professional debut. You got some minutes at Mansfield, but your full debut came in a tough meeting at Morecambe.
It was a difficult game, but I was grateful for the opportunity to even play. Making my full professional debut was something I’d dreamt of for a long time so for it to happen was unbelievable.
Was there some mixed feelings on that day? it wasn’t the result you wanted but it was a great personal achievement.
It’s never good to lose. I was trying to help the team on my debut, and when you come away after a 3-0 defeat you can’t really say you had a good performance, but the manager spoke to me at the end of the game and told me that for a young player he could see some maturity in me.
He told me that despite my age and it being my debut that I did really well and was one of the best players on the pitch.
It was hard to be happy at full time, but the gaffer said, ‘It’s the day you’ve made your full debut, and that’s something to be proud of’.
He showed that that belief in you was real at the start of this season, and he gave you the opportunity to kick on while Liam Shephard was injured.
It’s never nice to see a teammate injured, but I had to be ready to take the opportunity.
I had my full pre-season with a professional club, and I’d like to think I did well, and maybe that helped the manager have faith in me and trust me.
Did that pre-season bring the squad together?
It did. Some new lads came in, but we already have a great changing room with a good, genuine guys.
That closeness has really showed this season, with some good performances and the outstanding clean sheet record.
There is a togetherness and a desire about this squad. We want to work for each other and keep those clean sheets and get the result.
We got the clean sheet away at Bournemouth which was a great feeling, especially playing against an international striker.
You must feel like you’ve come a long way in such a short space of time.
You could say things have moved really fast for me, but at the end of the day this is the opportunity that I’ve wanted. The time scale doesn’t really mean that much, if I’d been at Oxford City for just one day and the call had come in from Forest Green I would have taken it.
I want more of the same for the future, and although the club missed out on promotion last season we want another shot at it. I want to help get this club to where it should be and playing in the league it should be in.