Men Of The Year Michail Antonio blows bubbles.
Refusing to let his dreams fade and die, Michail Antonio has seldom had more to smile about. The West Ham hero and FFT’s Breakthrough Man of the Year reveals his route to the top
Michail Antonio is in a playful mood. The West Ham United winger has spent the previous 25 minutes frolicking about to R’n’B amid a sea of bubbles, in front of a photographer who applauds his every move. This air of frivolity surrounding him spells bad news for FFT. Antonio sits down and then points at our tired brown leather shoes and offers to buy us some new ones before bursting into laughter. We politely decline. He has good reason to be in jovial spirits. Over the past 12 months, Antonio has transformed from a figure of social media fun into a cult hero on the fringes of the England team. In November last year, West Ham co-chairman David Gold was tricked into retweeting a picture posted by a mischievous fan, purporting to be appealing for a ‘missing person’. The image was in fact of Antonio, who had made just one appearance for the club after his $12m off-season move from Nottingham Forest. He remembers the incident with a wince. “People were calling me the invisible man,” he tells FFT. “They laughed because the chairman didn’t recognise me. But I always knew I would do well if I got a chance. I didn’t lose belief.” The 26-year-old has an infectious self-confidence that stops short of arrogance. Minutes before our interview begins, he removes his shirt and whirls it in the air before throwing jabs and hooks at the camera. That force of personality has been a powerful fuel since his teenage years. While many of his friends joined Premier League sides in their youth, Antonio played for Tooting & Mitcham until he was 18. “There were players I thought I was better than,” he recalls, “getting trials at Arsenal and Fulham. But if people asked what I would be, I’d say with authority, ‘I’m going to be a professional.’” For all his confidence, he began to prepare for an alternative career by studying for a BTEC in sports and business at sixth form and working part-time as a lifeguard – a job he calls “the most boring in the world”. His route to professional football was as unfashionable as his maiden West Ham goal. It came in a moment of slapstick during a 2-1 win over Southampton last December, when a clearance rebounded off his back as he lay upon the ground and looped over Saints’ goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Yet it was oddly typical of Antonio’s unconventional style, favouring hustle and bustle over artistry. “When I signed for Reading at 18, I wasn’t the best technically,” he admits. “I had to go out early every day and work doubly hard on crossing and finishing. Tactically, I educated myself on shape and formations, because you’re not schooled in that at non-league level. “I’m the type of person who isn’t embarrassed to ask questions if I am struggling. I’ll say: ‘I don’t understand that – can you explain it to me?’ You should never try to play it cool; always make sure you understand before you start anything.” Antonio retains a technical rawness, but his pace and power have smashed through top-flight defences like a human wrecking ball. He scored nine goals between December and May last season, despite being made to play at right-back on a number of occasions, and as FFT goes to press he has already scored seven in the league this term. His style has also won over West Ham fans, whose campaign for Antonio to be included in England’s Euro 2016 squad proved to be in vain. We ask whether he feels that his image counted against him. “That’s been the story of my career,” he says with a sigh. “I have to do three things to get noticed when another player has to do one. In my last season at Forest I scored 15 goals and got 15 assists but still wasn’t in the Championship Team of the Year. “Some players score half the number of goals I do and get praised for throwing some stepovers. I like to drop the shoulder and get some crosses into the box. People call James Milner boring for playing the simple passes, but it’s about being effective.” The honesty in Antonio’s endeavours was forged in his upbringing, in a working-class family where money was sparse and his mother, Cislyn, could afford to buy him only “cheap $50 boots from JD Sports”. “I never wore proper football boots until I turned professional,” he says. “She’d try her hardest to get me what I wanted, but I’d be running down the flank and the boot would rip. I’d have to ask for another pair.” He didn’t always get his own way. By the time he was 14, Antonio was offered a contract by Tottenham Hotspur following a successful
trial, only for his mum to reject their offer on behalf of her young son. “I remember going home buzzing and then telling my mum that Spurs wanted to sign me,” he recalls. “But I was doing my SATs at the time and she wanted me to focus on my education. I would’ve trained two or three times a week in north London, getting home at midnight. She said it was too far and that I could only sign for a club in south London.” He appears to have inherited his mother’s stubborn streak. In March, Antonio rejected a call-up from Jamaica, the country of his father’s birth, due to his conviction that he would one day pull on an England shirt. His iron will was also welded in the furnace of non-league football. He made his debut for Tooting & Mitcham at 16 against grown men with mortgages to pay “who try their hardest to cut you down”. Antonio is convinced his non-league apprenticeship has given him a hardened edge. “I was playing men’s football from an earlier age than academy players do,” he says. “When they’re 16 they spend the following two years playing youth football. I remember a game when I was running down the wing and then had to hurdle over three tackles. They weren’t going for the ball; they were going for my ankles! But that experience built me as a player and helped to toughen me up.” He does have a softer side. In August this year he was rewarded with the call-up that he craved, when he was named in Sam Allardyce’s first (and last) squad as England manager for the opening 2018 World Cup qualifier against Slovakia. West Ham physio Fraser Young told Antonio this as he made his way towards the dressing room following a 3-1 loss at Manchester City – another game in which the forward had found the back of the net. “I’ll never forget that day,” he reminisces with a smile. “I thought it was all a joke – I told him to stop playing games. He told me again that I’d been called up and I said, ‘I don’t believe you; you’re lying.’ I must have stared at him for about 30 seconds. Then I started jumping up and down and was crying. I had a three-way hug with the physio and the club’s player liaison officer. It was so overwhelming.” Antonio’s call-up brought with it media scrutiny he hadn’t previously experienced. Ahead of his first England training session, he faced a room full of journalists and photographers eager to hear about his storied past. “It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done,” he tells FFT with a now-familiar laugh. “I walked in and as soon as I opened the door all I could hear was ‘click, click, click, click’ from the cameras. I took a deep breath and sat down, but when I turned to one of the media guys on the table, the cameras started flashing again. I thought, ‘Oh my god, I can’t handle the pressure.’ I managed to keep my cool but it was crazy.” England recognition has changed his life off the pitch. In September he took his partner and three children to the Marvel Universal show at London’s O2 arena, and was mobbed by 25 children asking for pictures. “I’m not used to fame,” he says. “And I don’t see myself ever being used to it. People come over and say, ‘That’s Antonio’ even if I’ve got a hat on and my hoodie zipped up! I suppose I am a certain type of celebrity and role model now. I find it all crazy.” Antonio’s agent, Mike Appiah, is also the godfather to his youngest daughter, Myla. He is part of a small group of close friends and family who’ve ensured the rising star’s feet have stayed firmly on the ground. “I don’t see him as my agent, he’s my friend,” says Antonio. “If I have not played well and I insist that I have, he tells me I was terrible. That is what you need; you don’t want someone agreeing with you for your whole career. He doesn’t like saying nice things about me, though!” The pair have known each other since they were 12 years old when they played in the same Tooting & Mitcham junior side, before Appiah – by his own admission – “started chasing women”. “We were both wingers and we were both called Mike A, so there had to be a number one and a number two,” Antonio recalls. “I was Mike A one and he was Mike A two. He’s always been my number two! “Even now, when he picks up his tickets from the stadium I write his name on the envelope as ‘Mike A two’ and tell the receptionist not to give them to him unless he specifically says, ‘Mike A two’. He hates it!” Here, Appiah lets out a telltale laugh, shaking his head at his friend and client. “I’ve had to put up with this sort of stuff for years,” he tells FFT. Not all of Antonio’s old friends are still here to share his journey. He grew up in Earlsfield, a pleasant suburb in south-west London, but in neighboring areas violence was rife between gangs SUK (Stick’em Up Kidz) and TZ (Terror Zone). In 2006 his friend, Eugene Attram, joined SUK and was stabbed to death at the age of just 16 after becoming embroiled in a 75-man confrontation with the TZ gang’s members in Mitcham. Another friend went to jail for his murder. Antonio recently returned to his old school, Southfields Academy, to speak to children about his journey. He is also using his experiences to set up a soccer school aimed at helping players follow in his footsteps. “I want to try to bridge the gap between non-league and professional football,” he explains. “The coaching standard is completely different, so when a decent non-league player gets a trial at a professional club they start off miles behind. They’ll never have done any of the drills and sessions that you do at a club. I want to develop a soccer school that offers a professional standard of coaching for non-league players.” His own battle to make it means Antonio refuses to take his life for granted. “I cherish every moment of my career,” he insists. “I would genuinely do this job for free. If I hadn’t made it, I would have been a PE teacher and played non-league or Sunday League football at the weekend. I get such a thrill from being a footballer.” Thrill is an appropriate word. Three days after our interview, Antonio scores the opening goal in West Ham’s 3-2 defeat to Spurs at White Hart Lane and celebrates with his own rendition of Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance routine. Last season, he paid tribute to Homer Simpson in another goal celebration. “I’m a massive Simpsons fan,” he reveals. “I was watching it the night before the game and I thought, ‘I’m going to do that if I score.’ I found it hilarious when I watched it back on TV.” Antonio would be a fitting cartoon good guy. In October, he drove 200km to a charity auction in Birmingham on a Saturday night to deliver a signed shirt to the founders of children’s charity Libby Mae’s Little Angels, having failed to post it in enough time. Helping those less fortunate is a passion of his. He is an ambassador for the Guy Mascolo Football Charity and often does some work for the Jason Roberts Foundation. He’s also exploring the possibility of buying property to help house the homeless. “I feel gifted to be in the position I am,” he says. “I’ve had a crazy year and I appreciate everything that’s happening to me right now. I want to use my job to help other people.” Antonio’s in a giving mood as FFT goes to leave West Ham’s training ground. He opens the boot of his car and asks for our shoe size, before handing us a new pair of trainers as a gift. We’ve a feeling he won’t be quite so generous to Premier League defences in 2017.
Above Call off the search – Michail Antonio has been found (and he’s a little bit good)