Michail Antonio: How taking the long road made West Ham star a striking sensation

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·8-min read
Michail Antonio: How taking the long road made West Ham star a striking sensation
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From right-back to record breaker, Michail Antonio has been on quite a ride at West Ham.

Following his brace against Leicester on Monday, the 31-year-old climbed above Paolo Di Canio to become the club's all-time top scorer in the Premier League with 49 goals.

Antonio's journey at West Ham - from filling in here, there and everywhere, to tears at Newport after another hamstring injury and finally settling as a No9 - is a microcosm of his career and path to the top. Battling from non-league, facing rejection but never shying away.

Here, Standard Sport charts the rise of the West Ham striker from his days of planning a career as a PE teacher to becoming a formidable force in the Premier League.

Antonio's path to the top harks back to an old era. He was not shaped by an academy, meaning he did not rise through the bubble of elite football from a young age.

In his late teens, the south Londoner was applying to universities and turning out in non-League for Tooting and Mitcham United. They knew he was special but after both Arsenal and Chelsea took a look at Antonio but decided against a move and his mum said no to joining Tottenham because of the travelling distance to training, a career away from professional football beckoned.

But Antonio had put everything into being a footballer. He has spoken in the past of how advice from his older brother steered him clear of local gangs and put the focus on football.

“I know Michail had a few issues in south London as often happens, but he turned away and made decisions,” says Steve Adkins, chairman of Tooting and Mitcham. “My first memory of him was how much skill he had, speed and the way he played the ball.”

Antonio was a raw talent, a rough diamond, Adkins says, as he still is now in some ways. That may not have attracted Arsenal or Chelsea, but Reading came calling and, at 18, he made his move.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A step to one of those bigger clubs may have offered a more sheltered rise into the Premier League, but Antonio's journey has made him the player he is today. There were five loans across four years during his time with Reading, including one back to Tooting and Mitcham.

After a spell with Cheltenham, Antonio landed with Southampton in League One under a manager in Alan Pardew who had been hearing about the burgeoning forward for years.

“He was someone I knew about very early," says Pardew. "Can you imagine how many Ian Wrights I’ve had put to me over my time? But I was from non-league so I have a soft spot for these players.

“He had a chaos factor about him that is needed in a football match, otherwise it is painting by numbers. He gave us that and he still has that. You’re still not quite sure how quick he is, what he’s going to do.

“I think sometimes academies can take away that rawness and freedom. That chaos factor wasn’t knocked out of him.”

Antonio would taste regular professional football over a full season for the first time at Southampton, even scoring in their Johnstone's Paint Trophy win at Wembley.

Pardew was desperate to keep the then teenager on the south coast but finances and a sporting director in Nicola Cortese worked against him, meaning Antonio was left to go out on loan again.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There was a spell at Colchester before another loan, to Sheffield Wednesday this time, followed before a permanent deal was struck to keep him at Hillsborough, where he really started to hit his groove.

Sheffield was where he made a name for himself, but Nottingham Forest was where Antonio proved he was ready for the Premier League.

Dougie Freedman, who had failed in attempts to sign Antonio at Crystal Palace and Bolton before inheriting him at the City Ground, knew he wouldn't have long with the player he had chased at so many clubs.

"Luckily enough I bumped into him at Forest," says Freedman. "In one training session I realised he’s not only a knock and run, he knew how and when to do a one-two, how to use his body and the timing on his jump for his headers. He excelled in four or five key areas of his game.

"He really was lighting the place up. At Forest he was the best player the Championship.

"I had [Yannick] Bolasie and [Wilfried] Zaha a few years before him and, in my eyes, he was equal to them at that time four or five years ago. They were in the Premier League at that time doing very well so I knew this guy was going to go."

Working with limited resources, it was Freedman who was the first to really give Antonio a run in the central position that he has now made his own. There were nine goals in 23 appearances under the now sporting director at Palace, who made tentative enquiries about a reunion at Selhurst Park a couple of years ago. They were quickly rebuffed.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

When West Ham and David Sullivan came calling, after offers from other Championship clubs had been rejected, Freedman was powerless to stop the sale.

“David Sullivan, don’t be fooled, he knows a player," says Freedman. "He knows exactly what is going on. He did the signing. When I heard he was involved, that was it. Good luck.”

All those who have worked with Antonio shared a sense of bafflement when, having arrived at West Ham, they saw this raw talent turning out at right-back under Slaven Bilic.

But just as he did with Marko Arnautovic during his first spell as manager, David Moyes has found the perfect place for Antonio's "chaos factor".

"When I saw him play there under David, because of how his game evolved, I thought, 'Yeah, I can see that'," says Pardew. "It will be very difficult to replace him, he’s a complete one off in that sort of role.”

Antonio has scored more goals for Moyes than any other manager he has played under.

"I think Mich's got a big personality, he's a big character and I think he probably just needed a little bit of real direction," said Moyes. "But I think he's got it himself, his family life, his home life has given him something nice and steady.

"I think we have come in and given him a position when I feel that he's playing really well, and he's probably looking back and thinking, ‘Why was I not a centre-forward earlier, I might have scored loads more goals’, because he is now enjoying the feeling.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

"You can see what he thinks of it in his celebrations. So, I think he can score more goals and this year we're hoping that he can do."

Antonio's story is one of hard work and battling rejection, never backing down. He has fought throughout his career to prove doubters wrong. Those who thought he could never succeed in the Premier League or as a centre forward have been silenced.

He is becoming a master of his position. All the best facets of his game were on show against Leicester, but he remains as grounded as a Premier League footballer can be.

Not too long ago he could still be seen working alone on the pitches at Tooting and Mitcham during time away from West Ham or returning to the club to play matches between family members.

"There’s absolutely no airs or graces about him," says Adkins. "If he comes to the club, he comes to the club and no one troubles him."

All who have worked with him know he has an infectious personality and character, shown in Monday night's ‘Dirty Dancing’-inspired celebration with a cardboard cutout that only he could pull off.

That side hides an inner drive, however.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

"He always had a little smile on his face but he was very determined," says Freedman. "Determined to get to the top and to work hard in the gym. He deserves everything he gets."

Antonio is someone dedicated to his craft. With injuries having plagued his career, there is now a focus on protecting himself. His family home is in Manchester but he spends more time in London now to avoid long stints sat in the car on the motorway.

A new workout was developed over lockdown to help strengthen his problem areas while Antonio has taken a keen interest in nutrition.

With that additional time in London, team-mate Pablo Fornals has also taken to cycling with the No9 - a hobby which not only helps his fitness but aids mental health, too.

Despite being 31, Antonio has no intention of slowing down just yet. There are plans to push for the World Cup with Jamaica and Moyes has challenged him to hit new levels with his goalscoring.

Whatever happens this season, no one will be writing him off.

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