Philip was described by reporter Osas Mahawi as “tall, lanky, and deadly with the ball at his feet due to his searing pace”. And the 18-year-old was said to be tipped as a future Nigeria U-20 international. More importantly, the article mentioned Damani Ralph - formerly an MLS player and Jamaica international, now a player agent who channels a lot of talent the Red Bulls’ way. If Ralph was involved, it seemed very plausible that RBNY was involved: there aren’t many agents in the world who have a better handle on what the Red Bulls of New York are looking for in a player. The name Damani Ralph speaks more loudly than any adjectives in any discussion of a player’s potential fit with RBNY.
But, on January 20, 2018, Own Goal Nigeria reported that Philip had scored a goal in a recent friendly for Norwegian club Lillestrom. The player was said to be in talks to sign with the 2017 Norwegian Cup winners.
Not the first time the rumor mill has been wrong, but unusual for the same outlet to contradict itself quite so conclusively. Once A Metro contacted RBNY, Lillestrom, and Stellar Group - Damani Ralph’s agency - for clarification.
Stellar Group’s response was eye-opening:
The player Jerome Philip is under contract with @NYRBII. Serious foul play involved in this transfer. @LillestromSK is aware of the these facts. Matter will be referred to FIFA. https://t.co/iUXS1FDWHF— Stellar Group (@Stellar_Soccer) January 23, 2018
Ralph provided additional detail in a letter provided to OaM by Stellar Group. In that letter, the agent explains he first saw Philip at a three-day showcase in Nigeria back in June, 2017. “I immediately reached out to Denis Hamlett, the sporting director of New York Red Bulls,” he writes.
By the beginning of July, a month-long trial had been arranged. The player was due to train with RBNY from August 10 to September 10, per an official invitation from the club seen by OaM.
On August 8, however, Philip was denied a visa at the US Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. Negotiations continued with the player’s management, Babawo Mohammed, owner of Gee-Lec Football Club. But the parties were unable to secure a work permit for Philip before the MLS roster freeze on September 15, 2017. Per Ralph, it was agreed that the player’s registration with his new club would wait until January.
In late November, Ralph was back in Nigeria to finalize those arrangements: “I personally met Jerome in Kano, where he re-signed his contract with the New York Red Bulls. The player was delighted and showed great excitement about his future with [the club].”
Ralph left Nigeria on December 3. On December 18, Own Goal Nigeria published its article about Philip joining RBNY, quoting Babawo Mohammed. Quotes that support Ralph’s version of events:
It wasn’t easy picking a club for Jerome as we had offers from Norway and Czech Republic for him.
We settled for New York Red Bulls because of several indices but particularly due to the fact that I have given my word to the agent who brought the deal Damani Ralph.
The other options would have given us more money than the move to NYRB, but in life money isn’t it all the time. He (Jerome) will join them next year before the start of the next MLS season.
On December 19, Complete Sports Nigeria covered the same story, including quotes from Philip himself:
I am happy that I’m getting a chance to start a professional career abroad and I want to assure New York Red Bulls that they will not be disappointed.
So far, so very normal. But the story took an unexpected turn in January.
Ralph had got Philip a visa appointment for January 12, 2018. Plenty of time for the player to get his travel documents in order and land in the US in time for RBNY’s preseason training camp on January 22. But the agent received word from Babawo Mohammed that “Jerome is unable to make the appointment date as his passport is being held at the Norwegian Embassy in Abuja.”
The next word in Ralph’s statement is “confused”.
Still, the agent received assurances that “the player was set to be a New York Red Bulls player” and told not to worry.
Worry quickly became unavoidable. “I received a call from an agent, Atta Aneke, stating he had a relationship with the Gee-Lec club and he was taking Jerome to Lillestrom, as he had not heard anything mentioned about NYRB until I mentioned it,” writes Ralph.
“After pausing a minute, I explained to Atta the timeline and that the player and NYRB have already signed a contract and club agreement since December 3, 2017,” he continues.
When in possession of new facts, it is often advisable to adjust one’s thinking. This was what Ralph assumed would happen in this case: “I thought Atta would then do the right thing, and have [Philip] travel to the USA.”
The next words in Ralph’s statement are “to my surprise”.
“I was told that it doesn’t matter, and the player will travel to Norway as Lillestrom had already bought his ticket,” he continues.
Ralph notified RBNY’s Denis Hamlett; Hamlett wrote to his counterpart at Lillestrom. OaM is told no response has been received, yet. But both the Red Bulls and Stellar Group are aware of the Own Goal Nigeria report stating Philip is in talks to sign with the Norwegian club.
Per Stellar Group, “Red Bull is contesting the transfer”.
Once A Metro has reached out to both Lillestrom and RBNY. The Norwegian did not respond immediately to the request. The Red Bulls - consistent with longstanding club policy regarding transfer stories - declined to comment. OaM will update accordingly in light of new information from either club.