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Kofi’s symbol of inspiration

Interview with Dons defender after promising start to loan spell

27 February 2024

Club News

Kofi’s symbol of inspiration

Interview with Dons defender after promising start to loan spell

27 February 2024

Kofi Balmer battled away for an opportunity to become professional at the age of 20 – and a tattoo on his leg is a symbol that he will never give up in pursuit of his football dreams.

Dedicated to his late father, the message is a source of inspiration, as the highly-rated defender seeks to play at the highest level after joining Crystal Palace in 2022.

In an interview for the Crawley programme, we talked to Kofi about his rise through the football ranks in Northern Ireland – taking on Swedish side Malmo in a Europa League qualifying match – and how he turned down the chance to play rugby union with Ulster at the age of 17.

Plus, Kofi discussed the origins of THAT long throw-in – a now not so secret football weapon that he started working on as a kid when he was growing up in Newtownabbey, near Belfast.

How do you sum-up your start to life at Wimbledon?

From the first day when I walked through the door, I was welcomed with open arms – everyone was brilliant with me. In my first game at Bradford we got a clean sheet, so it was a good start, and then the first home game was brilliant – the fans were outstanding. They were the 12th man.

I’m a Palace player, but I’m at Wimbledon now. As far as I’m concerned, I’m a Wimbledon player – certainly until the end of the season. This is my sole focus and we’re aiming to finish a high as we can in the league.

Have your family been over to watch you since you signed for Wimbledon?

My Mum Karin was at the Morecambe game, so that was good, but my Dad sadly passed away two years ago in January when I was 21. It was very tough for me and the family. He was diagnosed with a lung disease. With there being no cure, we knew what was coming, but he never let it bother him.

My main inspiration is my Dad. No matter what he went through, he always soldiered on. Once he put his mind to something he did it, so I strive to have that same attitude. I have a tattoo on my leg in his memory, it’s in his handwriting, with the message: ‘Fear? Face everything and rise’.

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Does it make you proud that you’ve made so much progress in your career because of your father?

I have a bit of disappointment that I wasn’t able to come over earlier to England because it would have been great for him to watch me, but you can’t control these things.

He got to see me play full-time back home. That was what he wanted. I always feel he is with me when I’m playing – and I aim to go out and do him proud every day.

My Dad’s name was William, but his middle name was James, so we called him Jimmy. He would take me everywhere for football. When I was with Ballymena we had a game at Malmo in Sweden, and he was there with my Mum. He followed me everywhere I played. My parents played key roles in helping me to make it as a professional footballer and my Mum messages me every day asking how I’m getting on.

With less opportunities to join professional clubs in Northern Ireland, was it difficult to earn a chance to play full-time football?

It’s easier now, but back when I was coming through it was harder because there were no full-time teams. Now there are four or five full-time teams, so they are bringing younger players in, helping to nurture them through their academies, and developing them for first-team football. It’s still difficult, especially if you want to get a chance to play over here. It’s up to yourself – you have to put the work in.

Larne became a full-time club and they came in for me, so I had to think of the bigger picture. I knew that joining them would help me to improve as a player every day, both technically and physically. I was honest with people at Larne - I told them that I wanted to use playing for Larne as a stepping stone to play in England.  

How did you get spotted by your first club?

I was at Ballyclare, where my brother played as well, and I started playing three years above me, which got me physically ready, before I moved to Lisburn Youth – I was there for a year – and then Linfield from the age of 12-16 years. With first-team opportunities appearing to be limited, I talked with my Dad and we decided to make the move to Ballymena. I went there and played for the reserves initially, but there were injuries in the first-team squad, so I was given the opportunity to make my debut at the age of only 16.

It was a big game as well, a derby match versus Coleraine, and we needed a point to get into the Europa League play-offs. I managed to score the equaliser, which got us the point that we needed, so that meant a lot on my debut.

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Your brother also played the game as well, so was football a big thing for your family growing up?

Football was big in my family, though my Dad played Squash to a reasonably high level. My Mum was the odd one out because she supported Arsenal and we were all Liverpool fans. My brother still plays at amateur level and he was very good when we were growing up. He is three years older than me, so he bullied me on the pitch as bit and I had to learn to deal with that!

He had a chance of making it, but he ruptured the medial ligaments in his knee, so that interrupted his progress. He supports me a lot now and sends me messages all the time after matches.

I played Rugby – and there was probably a point when I enjoyed that more than football! I played at number 10, 12 or 13 and on the odd occasion at full-back. There was a match I played in for my school at the age of 17 and I was asked by someone to do with the Ulster Development Squad if I would be interested, but it was football for me by that stage. I also got into the Ulster set-up for Cricket, but it was a bit boring for me!

What has been the toughest time that you’ve had to come through in your career so far?

Thankfully, I’ve never had a serious injury. I did suffer two injuries during my loan spell at Port Vale, and those were setbacks because I wanted to make a real impression there, but I had the right people around me to help. As a young professional footballer, you have to deal with difficult times mentally and come through it. I spoke to experienced players and they told me that I had to take each day as it comes – and make sure that I returned as a stronger player.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

When I played in Europe against Malmo and my Mum and Dad were watching me. They wanted me to play at a high level and it was great that they got to see that. I was actually away at an international camp and one of my mates heard a rumour that Crystal Palace were looking at me. I thought he was joking, but I called my agent to ask if it was true and he said that Palace were interested in signing me. It’s a cliché that every boy dreams of playing in the Premier League, but as soon as they came in for me my mind was made up. I wanted to sign as soon as possible, so that I could develop my game by playing with top players.

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It was certainly a big move for one so young, so how did you cope with that?

Though it’s very different living in Northern Ireland to England, I felt I had grown up a lot by time I made the move. In terms of the football itself, I had played men’s football from the age of 16 to 20/21, so that helped me to read the game and cope with the physicality of football. I had played 130 games before I moved over, so that really helped me. Though the game is quicker and technically better over here, playing men’s football at such a young age in Northern Ireland provided a platform to build upon. I showed I could cope physically.

When did the long throws start becoming a key strength of yours?

I would go out to the front of our house and have competitions with my brother to see who could do the longest throw-in! It’s always something I’ve been able to do since I was a kid. His throw-ins would probably go further than mine. I played Rugby as well, and I spin the ball a bit with my throw-ins, which is a bit unusual!

The long throw-ins are effectively crosses, so it’s about timing. For us now, it’s maybe about picking up the second balls because it’s carnage in the box – everyone is jumping and the ball can bounce anywhere. If we win the first ball, it’ great, but it’s also about getting on the end of that second ball first.

And what about playing for Northern Ireland – have you got ambitions to become a full international?

I played 20-odd games at youth level – and that made me and my family very proud. For the Under-19s and Under-21s, I was fortunate enough to captain the sides as well.

Now my goal is to play first-team football at the highest club level that I can and get into the senior international team.

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