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

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS - Words Alec Fenn Por­traits James Can­non

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)

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