West Ham’s winger has come a long way from his days with Tooting & Mitcham and says his time in the lower leagues has helped mould the player he is today!
If some in England’s number returned to St George’s Park this week with scars still smarting from the summer’s European Championship, then step forward the antidote. Michail Antonio had been trudging back, dejected in defeat, to the changing rooms post-mixed zone at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday when one of West Ham’s physios informed him he had been called up into Sam Allardyce’s first national squad.
His initial reaction was one of disbelief, dismissing the news as “great banter”. There followed a moment of doubt, allayed only when the club’s head chef, Tim De’Ath, offered his own congratulations. Then the joy kicked in. “It was emotional,” said Antonio through the broadest of grins. “I said: ‘Come in guys’ and I hugged Tim, hugged the physio, holding them tight. I’ve only cried once, when my first son, Michail Jr, was born but I welled up when they said that. Even now I’m still getting emotional. This is my boyhood dream to play for England. Here I am now and I have the Three Lions on my shirt. A dream come true.”
The England setup needs enthusiasm this giddy after the humiliation endured against Iceland at the Allianz Riviera in Nice. Antonio, a player regularly courted by Jamaica with the last inquiry as to his availability lodged as recently as March, was the surprise uncapped callup to Allardyce’s party. This is reward for eye-catching form at West Ham since six seniors succumbed to injury midway through last season and offered him his opportunity. His game is all searing pace and aggression down the flank, surprising prowess in the air in front of goal and useful versatility which has had him filling in at right-back when required. The 26-year-old considers himself “a winger who likes to score” and there have been two goals this term. Allardyce has picked a player in form.
Antonio has taken the scenic route to this level. His mother, Cislyn, vetoed a move to Tottenham Hotspur when her son was 14 because of the travelling time to Chigwell but the Wandsworth-born youngster was never picked up by an academy system south of the river perhaps because, well into his teens, he was still 5ft 5in and, in his own words, “rather petit”. He grew six inches at 16, by which time he had been playing at non-league Tooting & Mitcham for four years. Life at Imperial Fields now reads like a series of trials, the lack of coherent structure between juniors, youths, reserves and first team at the club meaning players constantly had to prove themselves to new staff oblivious of previous achievements if they were to progress.
He excelled with each age group but the senior manager, Billy Smith, was still blissfully unaware of the raw talent running amok in the second-string until casting his eye over the 17-year-old in person. “The reserves coach called the first-team manager and said: ‘I’ve got this quality player down here,’ but he wasn’t up for having kids in his team,” said Antonio. “When I did eventually go on trial with the first team the reserves boss was there telling him: ‘This is the player I was trying to introduce to you.’ I played a few games, including one against Millwall’s reserves, and they asked me to trial. But Smith knew Steve Coppell at Reading quite well and I eventually signed with them.
“A lot of my friends who were bigger than me at school got into academies at professional clubs but none are pros now. And none of them has put on an England shirt. The way I did it in non-league made me who I am because I had to play against men. I’m not that refined academy player who’s going to pick the ball up, pass it and be neat and tidy all the time. I’m a player who’s going to get it and run at the full-back, run in behind … I’m quite ragged. People say ‘raw’, and some people don’t like raw. They prefer it neat and tidy but you can’t be neat and tidy and also be leaping above people at the far stick to score goals.”
There were setbacks even at Reading, where life proved to be nomadic on the lower division loan treadmill. In hindsight he acknowledges those temporary spells at Cheltenham, Southampton, Colchester and Sheffield Wednesday also helped shape him, earning him his chance at Nottingham Forest and now West Ham.
Yet it is Tooting & Mitcham with whom his bond remains strongest. He has used the club’s facilities over each of the last two summers “to do some technique work in the off-season” and maintain high standards. The pay-off is the occasional return to address the youth team and inspire the next generation, an undertaking he has also willingly taken on at his former secondary school, Southfields Academy.
“I tell them: ‘If you want to become something, don’t ever hesitate. Don’t ever feel like you can’t do it. It’s all doable. Just look at my path, look where I’ve come from.’ Now I can go back there and say I’ve been called up by our country. Where I grew up, kids were quite bad and no one would have expected me to be where I am now. But you need to strive, push forward and keep going for your dreams. Never give up. It doesn’t matter what age you are.”
Jamie Vardy served as an inspiration, though Antonio cited Ian Wright, who went from Greenwich Borough to the England team via Crystal Palace and Arsenal, as his own role model. The winger will hope to follow suit in Slovakia on Sunday. His dream is almost realised.