Michail Antonio says West Ham will need last season’s resilience today!
Michail Antonio is so softly-spoken, so gentle-mannered, so quick to smile, it’s hard to imagine him being a gang member. But that’s the point. Where Antonio was raised, even good kids found the bad path. It would happen accidentally. Antonio didn’t succumb, only thanks to his brother, his football — and Providence.
But a friend ended battered in a gang attack for one word, while another was murdered and a third was jailed for his part in the killing. Antonio is at Aspire, a community and sports wing of Southfields Academy: this go-ahead school also helped keep him from trouble. He talks about growing up on the edge not with braggadocio but mild-voiced matter-of-factness.
He lived a mile from here, in Earlsfield — a generally comfortable area. But either side were Tooting and Battersea, where gangs were rife. As a teenager, Antonio had friends in the Stick ‘Em Up Kids (SUK) gang and its rival, Terror Zone (TZ). He played football with Eugene Attram for Wandle Wanderers. At 16 Eugene was cornered, beaten and knifed to death in a horrific street battle between factions.
“There was a stage when SUK joined up with TZ and became SNT. That was Clapham Junction and Tooting/Mitcham both together. That lasted a month,” Antonio says. “After, everyone from Tooting couldn’t go into Clapham Junction and everyone from Clapham Junction couldn’t go into Tooting.
“One of my good friends, Eugene, went with SUK to Mitcham, I don’t know why. He got stabbed to death and one of my other friends went to prison for it. Within a month of being friends, all in one crew, all happy . . . ”
Six months later yet another friend died in a stabbing. “I easily could have gone down that path,” reflects Antonio. He describes how normal lads end up in gangs. “It’s not actually pressure. They ask, ‘You want to join? And you’re like, ‘Yeah or no’. As soon as you say ‘Yeah’ it’s like, ‘He’s in this crew’. And it’s such a small bubble.
“All those in the crew, they have the money [through gang crimes, mostly drugs] and they’re attracting all the young girls — at that stage, all girls like a bad boy. That’s why it’s easy to join.
“I’ve known someone who said,‘Yeah’ and joined SUK. He was going to school in Tooting. He never did anything with SUK, he had just said, ‘I’m in’, but now his name was round. TZ have beat him up, just because he’d said, ‘OK I’m in’.”
His brother, John, “coached me through life.” Two years older, John avoided gangs and by 13 was a fledgling entrepreneur: he now has his own building and decorating company. “He said, ‘Why would you join a gang and have friends just from one gang when you could have friends all over?’”
Teachers saw and encouraged the upstanding in Michail and he worked as a swimming pool lifeguard at Aspire, also helping to run children’s parties there. Providence? That’s the remarkable youth club on the edge of Battersea’s notorious Winstanley Estate. Providence House provides activities, sports and a social hub and Michail went from 11 until 16. In Maria’s chip shop nearby there’s a photo of him, beaming in the front row of a victorious Providence football team.
It’s not we’re not scoring goals, it’s that we’re not stopping people scoring
“The most important things in my life were coaches. Teachers, I didn’t listen to much,” he says, and the biggest lesson was “never give up. You could make a million mistakes but never give up because after that millionth time you could be an inch away from what you want to achieve.”
‘Never give up’ epitomises him. Like Jamie Vardy, Troy Deeney, Yannick Bolasie, he was developed outside the academy system and — direct, bold, unorthodox — seemingly all the better for it.
At Tooting & Mitcham he learnt to handle himself. One match he ran down the line, hurdled one guy who tried to take him thigh-high, another who flew in at his waist, then was nailed by a third tackle at hip level. “The guy didn’t even get a yellow!” Antonio laughs.
Reading found him but he was so unrefined. In training games “players were, ‘don’t want him with us, he loses the ball every time!’ But when we played five-a-side I’d come alive. I was sharp, I was nippy, scoring all the time.”
He had five loans and pushed for them all. He wanted to play. Every new club brought the same initiation ceremony — stand on a chair and sing. “Fresh Prince of Bel Air is my go-to,” he hoots, “but it gets worse every time. I’m like ‘I’m ready, I’ve got this’ then you stand on the chair and it’s one of the worst feelings in your life. You just get a head rush… and then I just start mumbling.”
One loan involved a very happy season with Southampton but he can’t be friendly today. West Ham need a turnaround.
“It’s not we’re not scoring goals,” he says, “it’s that we’re not stopping people scoring. We were very resilient last season and it’s the exact same players so we need to get that resilience back.”
The stadium move requires adjustment. “At the Boleyn Ground the fans were on top of us and other teams would get intimidated. The pitch was small. We could, like, hunt the opposition. It was very intense. Now being at the Olympic stadium there are a lot more people… the pitch is bigger and it’s harder to press and stuff like that. But over time we’ll adapt,” he says.
Actually it’s others who need to catch up. Antonio, with five goals in five games, has adapted. Positive thinking helps. “I say to myself I’m the best player in the world. If you don’t have that self-belief you’re losing the battle already, you’re losing to yourself,” he says.
He sets goals. After reaching the Premier League he gave himself two years to make the England squad and got there in one. Now the target is playing. He’s joint-top Premier League scorer but not satisfied — “I want more assists.”
The kids at Southfields Academy feed off Antonio’s approachable positivity. He visits regularly, keen to help youngsters like his brother helped him. “I thought I would never make it, when I was 17,” he says.
“My dad [a minicab driver] used to say, ‘stop playing football and go get a real job’. There wasn’t much money in the house. I kept asking for money for football boots and he was like, ‘stop wasting money when you could be buying other things’.
“I was thinking about stopping but my brother was like, ‘don’t give up’. He’s gone out and got me my first pair of real boots. I used to wear the £30 boots, the plastic ones — you play six or seven games and they rip.” John spent £150 on some Nike Total 90s. “Those were the boots that got me to Reading.
“My dad takes it all back — massively! We joke. He’s still like, ‘go and get a proper job’ and I’m like, ‘is this job good enough for you now dad?’”