Issue 02: Michail Antonio
This article is an excerpt from the Michail Antonio interview feature from Issue 02 of GAFFER: Heart & Soul. Available now from our online store now.
Nobody thought Michail Antonio could make it this far. Treading water as a 17-year-old semi-professional at Tooting and Mitcham United, he’d 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, after weeks spent asking his mother for change to get the tube to training, Antonio finally began to look over the precipice and accept that his dreams had been sunk.
“I always said to myself that I’d be a professional but all my friends had money and I had nothing,” he says. “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.”
Armed with an endless grin, Antonio bears very few resemblances to that teenager whose hopes of making a living from the sport had worn so thin. The West Ham winger has made over 100 Premier League appearances, won numerous awards and has been called up into the England squad twice. He’s nearing his 30th birthday and behind his smile wears the tired eyes that tell of being a father to three young children. But even now, the days spent walking the thin line between success and survival, “still feel like yesterday”.
There comes a time in every young person’s life where one decision can change the entire shape of the future; a fleeting moment where years of hard work can be realised or shipwrecked. Antonio’s had arrived years earlier as a frustrated 16-year-old stuck on the threshold, still haplessly searching for a way to break through.
“When I was younger, I was a bit of a fighter,” he says. “I don’t know what it was, but I had that anger problem. The slightest thing used to set me off and obviously, people see that you’re strong and gangs want you in their thing. I had lots of friends in different gangs, it was a communal thing. He said ‘why be in one gang when you can be friends with everyone?’ Within three years, those gangs were fighting each other, people were getting stabbed, people were getting shot, it was crazy. Thankfully, my brother gave me that insight.”
From that moment onwards, Antonio’s life became consumed by football. 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. After finally signing his first pro contract aged 18, Antonio built a stern resolve to fall back on, as ecstasy quickly descended into disappointment when he was sent out on five loan spells in three seasons.
“You learn to form that never-say-die attitude to keep going,” he says. “You have to keep fighting and believe in yourself. In the lower-leagues, it could be 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. Some people like it, some people don’t. Some people call it arrogance, some people call it confidence, but you’ve got to believe in yourself and have that resilience.”
“In the lower-leagues, it could be 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. Some people like it, some people don’t. Some people call it arrogance, some people call it confidence, but you’ve got to believe in yourself and have that resilience.”
As Antonio grew older, the circuitous and speed-bumped road to becoming a talisman at West Ham has also given him the confidence to have a voice that echoes beyond the pitch. He wants to influence the issues close to his heart and set an example. He’s urging the local council to invest into the area where he grew up and resurrect the now-bulldozed adventure parks in Battersea and Clapham where some of his earliest memories were formed. He is calling for stricter punishments against knife crime to prevent the next generation of teenagers from slipping down the same path he almost did growing up.
“I understand when it’s someone who is 10 or 12 years old getting caught up in it,” he says candidly. “But once it gets to about 14 or 15, you need to start treating people as adults. If you’re old enough to learn for your GCSEs, you know it’s wrong to stab somebody. If kids think they can do adult things, well, then they have to take responsibility for those actions.”
When Antonio was 13, he was racially abused by an opponent during a game for Tooting and has since became one of the first players to publicly implore the FA to introduce point deductions as a punishment. “Millwall got fined £10,000 for racist chanting,” he says. “Leeds got fined £30,000 for having a member of staff watch Derby training from a public path. Robert Snodgrass got fined £25,000 for allegedly abusing an FA drugs tester. How does this work? Is racism lower down than shouting at someone or ‘spying’? It doesn’t make any sense.
“You either have to fine them ridiculous money or take away points because that actually affects the fans. If money gets taken from the club, the fans don’t really care. If you deduct points it can have a real impact.”
His willingness and conviction in speaking up is emblematic of the maturity Antonio’s developed in the decade since signing that first contract. The anger and unsteady temperament which underlined his youth has been replaced by a softer side keen to savour every moment. And, although he can’t quite pinpoint the time where that freedom took hold, his entire philosophy towards life beyond the sport has willingly shifted.
“People say football is my life because it’s my job,” he says. “No, it’s not. I’m going to go into the training ground and I’m going to smile even if I’m angry. I’m going to look on the bright side of everything. When I go home and see my kids, I’m not taking it out on them. That is the portion of my life which I can’t mess up.”
It’s a state of peace that’s not only gained through age and achievement, nor purely by way of overcoming social and sporting obstacles, but by having an identity that’s defined by more than a football. And while Antonio continues to enjoy success and security at the highest level – now in his fifth year with West Ham – it’s a point he stresses and was ingrained long ago when his future was still oh so uncertain.
“Everyone has their own path,” he says. “And everybody should be a shepherd, not a sheep. It all goes by in a blink. You’ve just got to always try and enjoy it.”
Like this article? Enjoy all cover features and interviews in Issue 02: Heart and Soul – available now from the GAFFER Online Shop.