Benik Afobe exclusive: After a tough time, Crystal Palace clash is a chance to remind people what I can do

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Benik Afobe will hope to fire Millwall to an FA Cup upset against Crystal Palace  (Getty Images)
Benik Afobe will hope to fire Millwall to an FA Cup upset against Crystal Palace (Getty Images)

Benik Afobe was born in Leyton and raised at Arsenal, but the Millwall striker is genuinely stumped when asked if he had ever played in a London derby before this season.

“I must have, surely,” Afobe says. “Wait, have I ever played for another London club? I only played five games for Millwall [in my first loan spell in 2013]. What other London teams have I played for?”

A quick Wikipedia check confirms that of Afobe’s 11 clubs since leaving Arsenal, Millwall are the only one from the capital, which makes tomorrow’s FA Cup tie against Crystal Palace even more significant. “You learn something new every day!” he says. “For sure, Saturday will be my biggest London derby.”

As soon as the third-round draw was made, Afobe sensed a chance to remind the country of his talent, which once made him a great hope for English football as a teenager and has since persuaded clubs to part with more than £34million in combined fees for the forward.

“These sort of games are a chance to impress and remind people what you can do,” he says. “Maybe when that hunger goes, I won’t really care what team I’m at and what level I can get to. But it’s still there. As soon as the draw happened, I was absolutely buzzing, thinking this is a chance not just for me but for Millwall. We’re not going to have many games on TV this season, so it’s a chance to show people what we’re about.

“That’s why us footballers play — you want to see what level you’re at. A heavyweight boxer would love to fight Tyson Fury because you want to see how far you are from that level. Or cause an upset.”

And how close does Afobe, 28, think he is to Palace’s level? “I’ve had a tough time with injuries, personal tragedy, not playing, but I believe I can play in the Premier League,” he says. “Honestly. Stuff has to fall in place, but I definitely believe I could be at that level, for sure.”

The tragedy Afobe mentions was the death of his two-year-old daughter, Amora, in November 2019, while he was on loan at Bristol City from Stoke.

Something of a journeyman, Afobe is still contracted to the Potters but spent last season on loan at Turkish side Trabzonspor before joining the Lions on a year-long deal in the summer. He would like to settle down at one club, but losing Amora has put all of his previous concerns into sharp perspective.

Afobe is still contracted to Stoke, but has been sent out on loan by the Potters three times (Getty Images)
Afobe is still contracted to Stoke, but has been sent out on loan by the Potters three times (Getty Images)

“When something like that happens to you, I feel like nothing else can be as bad,” Afobe says. “So not knowing where my future is... blah blah blah. Things like that become small problems for me compared to a few years ago. It gets put in perspective. I don’t start thinking, ‘where am I going to be next season?’ or ‘what’s the money going to be like?’ It’s not about that anymore. I just want to enjoy my life again, because it’s been tough.”

Afobe is enjoying life and his football at Millwall, and is confident against the Eagles of continuing the Championship club’s remarkable record of FA Cup scalps.

When told that Millwall are the joint most-prolific giant-killers in the history of the Cup (level with Southampton on 25 upsets), Afobe is superstitious (“Don’t jinx it!”) but he believes the Lions naturally raise their game against more established opposition.

“It’s the DNA of the club. We like being underdogs,” he says. “The lads thrive off it and I think our manager [Gary Rowett] prefers it. If we played the [Championship] top six every week, we’d be in the top six. We know it’s a massive game for the fans and the club. A south London derby, on the tele, in the FA Cup. I’ll be honest, we’ll back ourselves. We should do.”

The Den is sold-out for the lunchtime kick-off and Afobe already rates the atmosphere at the ground as one of the best he has ever experienced, although Covid robbed him of the chance to experience Turkey’s fiery derbies.

“There’s been a couple of games this season where [the Den] has been going off,” he says. “It’s been one of the best stadiums for atmosphere I’ve played in — of all the 100 clubs I’ve been at! It’s unreal.

Afobe came up through the Arsenal ranks and is still close friends with Jack Wilshere (Getty Images)
Afobe came up through the Arsenal ranks and is still close friends with Jack Wilshere (Getty Images)

“I’m devastated I missed out on the hostile fans Turkey is known for, but it was still crazy! Before the games, you’d go into a restaurant and people would be like, ‘we’re going to kill them!’ When we beat Istanbul Basaksehir in the [Turkish Super] Cup, I went to a restaurant the next day and they gave me my food for free.

“Turkish culture can be like that. You have a bad game and they say, ‘maybe stay in your house for a couple of days!’ But you win, and you’re the best thing since sliced bread.”

Afobe is looking forward to seeing Palace boss Patrick Vieira, a childhood hero from the Highbury terraces, and after the game he plans to meet up with another former Arsenal midfielder, his close friend Jack Wilshere.

He says: “Hopefully I’ll have some good news to tell him. But I haven’t tried to get him to sign here. He was at West Ham and the Millwall fans would kill me!”

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