Dagenham & Redbridge

What the future holds for Kevin Lokko is so far undetermined; a new club or maybe even a return to the team he captained in 2019/20. Regardless of destination or division, the recent Dover Athletic defender will be taking with him plenty from his first few seasons in the rough and tumble of senior football.

Romford-raised but with a multi-national background, the 24-year-old is a wise head on young shoulders. The former Norwich City youngster was one of seven Dover players announced as leaving the club in mid-June, with uncertainty at an all-time high in the National League and far beyond. In this detailed discussion, he reflects on captaining the club, the past few months since the action was first halted, and plenty more on his early career, plus life away from the cut and thrust of a match day.

 

It still seems the only place to start, so what have these last few months looked like for you in general?

It was difficult with the season getting suspended. For me personally, I had to get a job, because I wasn’t getting paid at Dover; I started working for Amazon driving vans, delivering parcels. I did that for about six weeks, and then obviously trying to keep fit at the same time, which was difficult. I think now we have an end goal in sight, because soon we’ll find out when the season’s gonna start. Hopefully things will get a bit better now.

There were quite a few of you announced as leaving Dover last month, was it one where you could have stayed? How was it communicated to you?

I think understandably, the club and the owners had some difficulties in terms of knowing what sort of budget they’d have for the new season, so we had to take a percentage cut of our wages. In terms of a new deal, they couldn’t really tell me what they could offer. Obviously coming to the end of my contract, and not having any money coming in, I had to sort of think ‘at this moment in time, I’m gonna have to try and look elsewhere, or look at a club that maybe can offer a contract relatively close to the season.’ Even now it’s up in the air really at Dover, without knowing what their budget’s gonna be. At the same time, now being 24, I ideally would like to explore some options, potentially in the Football League, but if not, then a National League club. I’ve had a really good time at Dover, and the manager’s very willing to keep me if I don’t really get that opportunity, and I’m grateful for that. He said the door was still open, so we’ll see what happens.

Reflecting on the season, what stood out as plus points, and what was less satisfying?

I think right from pre-season, the manager pulling me in from the first week and telling me I was gonna be captain for the season, that was a massive high point for me. I’ve never really been a club captain in senior football, and to do that at 24, at a club like Dover, I was really proud about that. So that was an instant high from the start, and we were in and around the play-offs a lot. We had a really good opportunity to hit the play-offs, and I think if the season had kept on going, we might have had a chance. Obviously the FA Cup run was huge, beating Southend and going away to Peterborough and giving them a good go was a really big high. I think the first full season with the manager in charge, I think we did really well to be around the play-offs, and could have potentially found ourselves sneaking in there towards the end of the season, so I think we could hold our heads up high.

How did you approach taking on the captaincy? Would you have conversations with individuals, would you give a speech before a game etc.?

I think for me personally, it was a case of being myself, as I was the season before, but to try and demonstrate on the pitch my leadership capabilities. In terms of off the pitch, it’s not really a case of pulling people and having chats with them in a sort of authority/hierarchy manner, it was just more a case of on the pitch. Communicating well on the pitch, leading by example, training really well, and making sure I’m punctual and disciplined. Just things that people can look up to, as opposed to digging people out more than I would have the season before, or having meetings. I think leave that to the manager.

Going back to 2015/16, how huge was that season at Welling for you, throwing you right in at the deep end of senior football on a regular basis? Could you enjoy it when the team’s up against it so much every game?

Yeah, it was a sort of unexpected start. I wasn’t meant to start the first game at Welling; when I first arrived, I was only 19. My first year of senior football, I didn’t really expect to play as much as I did, but to be thrown in like that and to stay in the team for the whole season, despite the league position, was massive for me. People say when you lose games you learn a lot more than when you win, so I learned an awful lot, because we lost an awful lot of games! Coming up against some big clubs, and it was a real test coming up against some really seasoned professional players. I think that experience, playing 40 games in my first year of senior football, despite the results, my head was held up high. Really pleased with how I’d done, got a couple of awards at the end of the season as well, and I was really grateful to Welling, Loui Fazakerley and Paul Barnes, Matty McEntegart for giving me the opportunity. I think without that year, maybe things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did, because it was a real struggle for me; not many clubs wanted to come in for me but Welling did. They’ve given me a chance and a platform to play on, so I’ll always be grateful.

Was there an individual opponent that stood out from that season? For the physical test they gave, ability-wise, or for the verbals even?!

Yeah, that’s easy: when we played against Lincoln, Matt Rhead. That was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, because if you can compete against a striker like Matt Rhead, you’re well adapted to come up against any other striker in the National League. He epitomises what a centre-forward is, especially in the National League, with the size of him, how clever he is, and gives you a lot of stick in your ear as well. I think as a 19/20-year-old, that was a really good experience, because he gave me a tough time, but I won my share of battles as well, so it was a real good test.

Tell me about where you’ve grown up and what’s home for you. Is it a Ghanaian heritage you have as well?

Yeah, so I’ve got a massive mix in my family. I was born in Poplar, in east London, always grown up in Romford, but I’ve got a Ghanaian dad and a Ukrainian mum. A massive mix, but London-born, Romford-raised, and always been Romford really until I sort of got stuck into football and moved out to Norwich. Since then I’ve been here, there and everywhere really, but home for me is Romford, in Essex.

So would you know or speak any Ukrainian growing up?

When I was young, I was actually speaking a lot of Russian; my mum’s from the side of Ukraine where they speak a lot of Russian. When her and my dad came over to England, they couldn’t speak too much English, so a lot of my first language was Russian. I still speak it with my mum, but unless it’s with my mum, you won’t really hear me speak it!

In those years at Norwich, would there be any senior pros who would especially take time out to give advice or support to the younger lot?

It was a really good experience, and a professional Premier League academy was a massive thing in my development. Really enjoyed it there, gave me a huge platform to progress, and even though I didn’t get a pro there, it stood me in good stead to go out and find other clubs. When I did get released, the likes of Grant Holt and Russell Martin were huge characters, and they had plenty of time for the boys, so there was loads of advice from those two in particular. They’d always pick up the phone or be the first for a chat at the training ground. It’s nice to see Grant Holt’s working in the National League now and I’ve seen him a couple of times when he’s played at Barrow, or when he’s been doing the BT Sport live games. It’s good to have these people around you sometimes.

What kind of approach from a manager have you found tends to work best with you?

Me personally, I think I work best under someone who understand what sort of player I am and allows me to make decisions. Someone who does encourage me, but is also honest with me, and gives me a kicking when I need it. Andy Hessenthaler obviously is my most recent manager, but he’s been the best for getting the most from me, purely for the fact that his belief in me sometimes was more than the belief I had in myself. That’s massive for a player, and with his ambitions for my career and where I can go, sometimes they were even bigger than where I think I can go. No matter what anyone says, I think everyone’s a confidence player – me definitely – and the confidence he gave me was massive, and allowed me to perform in the way that I did.

Who would be some of the standout characters you’ve been around in the game so far? Who instantly comes to mind?

The first person to come to my head is James Rogers, who was at Maidstone. My second year of senior football, I signed at Maidstone, and he was a huge character, really funny guy. Full of banter but also wanted to win. He always sticks out because some of the things he used to do in the dressing room, and his banter in the group chat, was brilliant. Kev sticks out, and I think Lee Worgan as well. These sort of characters help you become a man, I guess, because they’re up for a laugh and a joke, but when it comes to playing, they wanna win more than anyone else.

What about a player you’ve been alongside whose ability alone perhaps belonged/belongs at a higher level? Anyone who’d do things in training that would make you think ‘wow’?

I think the first person who comes to my mind is at Dover actually, Nassim L’Ghoul. I think anyone who trains with him or plays against him or with him, the boy has got talent that matches those in the Premier League. His footwork and his close control, his skill set, sometimes you stand there in training and you’re just like ‘wow, how’s he done that?’ Sometimes he does things that you just can’t stop. He does things that players in the Championship can’t do, or League One or Two. To think that he plays in the National League is surprising at times, but everyone is at their level for a reason, so hopefully he can improve in other areas and really sort of work his way up, because he’s got huge potential. I’d be surprised if I don’t see him play League One or Championship at minimum.

You mentioned the difficulty finding a club prior to Welling, would that stand out as the most difficult spell you’ve had in football so far?

Yeah, it’s when I left Norwich. Like I said, at Norwich it was amazing; really good facilities and you really develop as a player, especially technically. I think when I left there it was difficult. I managed to sign at Colchester and I was hoping that might be a breakthrough season for me; dropping down into League One, I thought I might be able to get a few appearances. I was on the bench for the first part of the season but I had an injury to my hip which required surgery. I was out for a whole year, which led to me dropping into non-league, and in the space of three years, I went from winning the Youth Cup with Norwich to not being able to get a club in the National League. I think that sort of shock was huge mentally for me. I was ready to give up football until Loui Fazakerley picked up the phone and gave me a call to come down to Welling. I’d say that injury and the rehab from it was the biggest setback I’ve had, physically and mentally.

Have you ever had to sing when you joined a new team?

Yeah, every club, to be fair! It always used to be ‘Let Me Love You’ (Mario). Obviously I haven’t done one for a while because I’ve been at Dover for two-and-a-half years, but I’m always up there. I think if you put on a performance and really go for it, it’s a lot better for your nerves. You’ve got to go up there and act like you’re a natural!

Besides rest and recovery, what else away from the game interests you or takes up your time?

A lot of the time I just try to relax and chill out, but I’m quite interested in property. My dad is massive on property, he’s built a living through it, and a couple of years back, we bought a place in Cape Verde. We go there now and again, and we use it for business as well. A lot of the time, I’m with my dad, and he teaches me the ropes of property, because that’s something I do wanna get into, especially when football comes to an end. Other than that, just a lot of self-education really. I’m still relatively young and anything can happen, so I try to educate myself on all areas of life. Apart from that, spending time with friends and family, keeping my feet on the ground, so nothing in particular apart from property, I’d say.

Finally, still only 24, but from these first few years in the game at senior level, what do you now know that you didn’t when you were back at Norwich? Has it changed or developed you a lot?

Yeah, massively. I think the style of football when you’re at an academy compared to senior football is completely different. Everything I learned at the academy, I’d say only five or ten per cent I actually use in the game now. Especially in the National League, it’s a lot about game management, and playing at the right times, quick decisions and dealing with adversity in games, and trying to be a leader. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot about myself as a player. I think I now have an identity that I need taking forward throughout my career; a big, imposing centre-back, who’s got a good left foot and is a threat in both boxes. That’s something I take pride in and try to improve daily really, as opposed to not really knowing who I am, and trying to do things that other players do. It’s really good to have your own identity and I think I do have that now.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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