The People & Places Behind The Defiance & Drive of Michail Antonio

In partnership with

Photography: Dean Martindale / Styling: Carlotta Constant / Words: Buez Hadgu

Twenty four years ago Dr. Martens became the primary shirt sponsor of West Ham United, welcoming in one of the most iconic club partnerships that the Premier League has ever seen. As part of our mission to unearth new stories to unite and inspire football communities across the world, GAFFER have joined forces with Dr. Martens to retrace some of the brand’s earliest footsteps in the game and pay homage to the route and rise of West Ham United’s all-time Premier League top goalscorer, Michail Antonio. 

Louder Together takes us around the streets of South London – to the home of Antonio and now the hotbed of emerging English football talent – to shine a light on the strength, successes and secrets that make up one of the greatest football communities in the world.

Standing on the very school pitch he spent his childhood years dreaming of making it professionally, Michail Antonio is his usual humorous self. 

“You see this pitch, it’s 3G now. It wasn’t like that when I was playing, it was grass and it was mad bobbly, there were no easy games,” he laughs as he steps forward onto the astroturf to take in the familiar surroundings. 

“There’s so many memories going through my head right now. Tyrone Bunting. Overhead kick, outside the box, top bins, one of the best goals I’ve ever seen in my life, still. Unbelievable.

“But the truth is it took some time for me to make my name [at this school] to be fair because we had serious players here. Matthew Briggs [Fulham] – one of the youngest ever players in the Premier League – Craig Eastmond [Arsenal], Magnus Okuonghae [Colchester United] but I then got the call up to represent the Year 10s when I was in Year 09 and I never looked back after that.”

The journey of Michail Antonio is one not many footballers can rival. Despite his rise through the school ranks there was a time when nobody thought Michail Antonio could make it this far. He watched on as teammates were scouted and friends fell out of the game. At an age where it felt as though everyone was moving in a different direction, his only focus had become trying to stay afloat and to enjoy playing football for what it gave him, a sense of freedom, a form of an expression for him to enjoy all that his estate had to offer. In fact, Antonio attributes a lot of his development to the football he played in his early years, growing up on the Henry Prince Estate – notably also home to Sadiq Khan as a child. 

“This cage is one of the first places I used to play. I was around 10 years old having a kickabout with grown men, serious. This is part of the reason for my style of play and why I’m tough because no one cares how old you are when you’re playing football in this cage. Everyone is working together, battling together and trying to play free. 

“All the locals from the area used to come here, from kids to 21-year-olds. All on the same pitch. All feeling right at home. They used to make Tuesday night football night, sometimes twice a week, so we’d choose Thursday, and everyone just met here. It was like five or six-a-side, the winner stays on. It was intense, it was hard but it was honest. The community was connected through the cage.”

Remarkably, in 2020, 14% of the Premier League’s English-born players came from within 10 square miles of South London. Two years later South London remains at the beating heart of the English game. Just like Michail, many of the country’s brightest talents – Emile Smith Rowe, Jadon Sancho, Tammy Abraham et al – have paid testament to cage football for giving them the space to hone their skills, the freedom to flourish, and thick skin to prepare them for football’s mental battles.

In a lot of pockets across South London, and across the entire capital, the cage represents a sanctuary. A place for tight-knit communities to grow closer and avoid the usual  trappings of teenage life. 

“To be fair, when I was growing up, there were loads of youth clubs and adventure playgrounds in and around the estate, particularly the Kimbo adventure playground. I was always in the youth clubs, I loved playing little games like pool and table tennis. Those are my types of games, even to this day. I will beat anyone!

“But those places were key. Those youth clubs kept me from being mischievous in and out of school, they give you a place to learn, live and grow with the people of your community. When you’re young and you can’t always play football, you don’t have a lot to do and that’s when you end up doing things you shouldn’t really be doing.”

Michail had to be responsible from an early age, with the ambition of becoming a professional footballer something he had to not only prove to himself but also to those around him. Growing up in a Caribbean household, his father was a huge cricket fan with little interest in football, meaning Michail had to motivate himself and prove to his parents he could make a living through the sport.

“You learn to form that never-say-die attitude to keep going,” he smiles, bearing very few resemblances to that teenager whose hopes of making a living from the sport had worn so thin.  Having started his career with non-league Tooting & Mitcham, Michail had to prove himself at various levels, with many different clubs, in several positions, to even get a proper shot at the professional game. At Tooting and Mitcham, two members of the club convinced Antonio’s mum that her son had a special talent and offered to take him to matches on a Sunday while the rest of the family were at church. “I told him he had to go and ask her because there was no way on earth, I could have convinced her myself,” he laughs.

“I owe him a lot because, without fail, every Sunday he would pick me up, drive me to the game, cook us all a roast dinner before dropping me home at the exact time my family returned back from church. He truly believed in me, he always said that I had a chance at making it.”

Throughout this time, Michail was working hard off the pitch to help serve his family and ensure he fell on the right side of the success-or-survival line. As we speak to Antonio poolside, in Aspire Leisure Centre where he had his first-ever job – as a lifeguard – he links his job and the skills he learned to take throughout his career.

“It taught me resilience, because being sat here for an hour and a half in this stuffy heat with your head bobbing, it just wanted to put you to sleep. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard pushing. I had to work long shifts, save a few children – I put the whole nine yards in – as well as trying to make it at Tooting.”

While still playing non-league football and being a lifeguard, Michail also studied his BTECs and was about to go to university before being picked up by Reading. 

“I was making £150-a-week playing in old F30s from JD Sports. I was ready to pack it in but my brother knew how much I’d given up for football. He said he’d buy me a new pair of boots if I carried on. I’d never had a real pair of boots in my life. He bought me a pair of Total 90s, the ones Wayne Rooney used to wear. Within three months, I got signed for Reading, who were in The Championship at the time.” 

Had Antonio not made it pro, he reckons he probably would have ended up as a PE teacher, a testament to his love for sport. 

“Everyone was working together, battling together and playing free. The entire community was connected through the cage.”

“Growing up, the PE teachers were always a vibe. They always just enjoyed their job, playing football with us, they were just always jokes, so that would have been me. Everyone knows me, when I play football, I’m happy to be lucky, I’ve always got a smile on my face because it’s a joy to be here. 

So, had things not fallen into place for Michail, the Premier League would have been robbed of more than just goals but celebrations. 

“To be fair, I love it. When it comes to the celebrations all I do is think of the craziest things, I’m like what will go nuts? What will go viral? I take inspiration from anything I can think of from TV shows, games – the lot.”

“But looking back it was Ian Wright who had a big impact on the way I play. He had such a proud, infectious and unapologetic character. He’s the reason why I do my celebrations, he’s the reason I play the game, he’s the reason why I believed I could really make it. He made his way into the game late and became the guy in the Premier League that made everyone on the streets and cages in South London believe. Ian Wright played the game, scored goals and celebrated them in a way that all of us could feel.”

Today, Michail carries that same spirit. It’s something you feel in the excited tone when he speaks and something you sense when he shares his home-made memes on social media. But, underneath the smile there is a clear sense of vindication as we talk about the levels of self-belief that led him exactly where he knew he would end up. 

 “You have to keep fighting and believe in yourself,” he explains. When I was in the lower-leagues, it would have been easy to say I’m happy where I am, but you have to aspire to be more. I wanted to be better. I’ve always had that and I still feel that today, every game you have to prove yourself.”

As we return back to the school pitch where he first played, we continue to get a deeper insight into what makes Michail, Michail; one of the most-feared and most-loved forwards in the game.

So, the Henry Prince Estate. The real home of Michail Antonio. What are the first memories that flood back when you step on these roads?

I just remember being out in the cage, playing football whenever I could. Some of my skin cells are probably on that very wall, that’s why it’s all just scraped off. The number of people that got barged into that and lost their skin on that? Nobody took it easy on you, if you’re playing, you’re playing because everyone wants to win. 

You said you had a bit of an anger issue when you were growing up around here; talk me through that mindset you had back then?

My school wasn’t an easy ride. I was cheeky and had a bit of an attitude problem. When you have a little bit of an attitude problem, people want to test you. I wasn’t bad, I was cheeky! I used to do a lot of mischievous things and I fought a lot, but other than that I wasn’t that bad. It’s just one of those things where I grew up.

What is the greatest thing your area taught you?

It’s either you’re tough or you’re not. I knew that in the end, it was down to me and what I wanted to do. You have to believe in yourself and back yourself to achieve your dreams. That’s what my area instilled in me, that toughness, and that never say no attitude.

When you were playing football in the cage and scoring goals, what footballers’ name were you shouting?

I always said, Ian Wright.

So how was it putting on the same Dr. Martens shirt you wore today that Ian Wright put on when he moved to West Ham

I’ve said this many times and I’m going to keep saying it, Wrighty should get knighted! That’s why I call him Sir Ian Wright. He was pivotal for me because he came through the non-league system. He was always the person I looked to inspire me in my career.

At Tooting and Mitcham, two members of the club convinced your mum that you had a special talent and offered to take you to matches on a Sunday while the rest of the family were at church. How much convincing did she need in those times?

For me to even get into Tooting and Mitcham my manager had to come and knock on my door and ask my mum if I could play football on a Sunday because Sunday is church day. I told him he had to go and ask her because there was no way on earth, I could have convinced her myself.

You were also working at your time at Tooting. Why is Aspire Leisure Centre a place of significance in your story?

I had friends who would be on the street and stuff like that, but while I was at work, I was being responsible, it kept me out of trouble. Trying to make some money for myself, I didn’t have much of that back then, and now I’m using the same philosophy from when I was younger, in football.

Obviously, everyone tries to become professional, but not everyone succeeds. So, I thought to myself I need my education, but I also need some money. Because when I want to go out with my friends and stuff, my mum is not always going to give me money. I’m at an age now where I’ve got to make my own money.

For all the hours that you sat on this chair right here, what was the one image in your head that you were working towards?

I always believed as long as I kept doing what I do, as long as I kept working, I was going to get an opportunity. When I did, I took it with both hands.

Who in particular helped you realise your potential?

There was one teacher who used to be my PE teacher here and the manager for my school team, Neil Watson. You know what, he’s the one that got me the trial with Tottenham Hotspur where my mum said I couldn’t go. But yeah, he got them to come down, watch me train, and stuff like that. He always believed in me, he always said how good I am, and that I’ve got the ability to be professional.

You mentioned your parents weren’t into football and didn’t track your journey. What did that teach you?

I had to have that resilience growing up, I had to have that. Because I didn’t have that support that a lot of people did, where I was going to these games and people had their parents on the sidelines shouting their names. I didn’t have that. I was just there, and I was doing my thing and just playing because I enjoyed playing.

When you signed for Reading, it must have been an unbeatable feeling to know your hard work had finally paid off.

100%. Everyone was over the moon for me because it was my dream. It’s the only thing I thought about, obviously, there were other things that I was trying to do but that’s the only thing I wanted to be. And I was grateful I got that opportunity.

What do you think of yourself now, all these years on?

I always believe in myself; I always believe in my ability. Football is always about opinions. One manager might have an opinion, but another might not. Even today, people still see me as that raw player from Tooting and Mitcham, but I feel I’ve come away from that, but they have the opinions and they will choose to have that opinion, no matter what I say to them. I’ve always used my belief to fuel my entire life. 

​​Michail wears the brand-new Tarik, the latest evolution in AirWair footwear by Dr. Martens. Lightweight, hardwearing and set on a newly designed utilitarian outsole, the Tarik provides sneaker-levels of comfort and practicality across both the Low Shoe and Toe Guard Boot. Shop the Tarik alongside all featured footwear at Dr. Martens

Subscribe now!