So You Want Some Bubbles,eh…?
FourFourTwo UK|January 2017

Refusing to let his dreams fade and die, Michail Antonio has seldom had more to smile about. The West Ham hero and FFT’s Breakthrough Man of the Year reveals his route to the top.

Alec Fenn

Michail Antonio is in a playful mood. The West Ham United winger has spent the previous 25 minutes frolicking about to R’n’B amid a sea of bubbles, in front of a photographer who applauds his every move.

This air of frivolity surrounding him spells bad news for FFT. Antonio sits down and then points at our tired brown leather shoes and offers to buy us some new ones before bursting into laughter. We politely decline.

He has good reason to be in jovial spirits. Over the past 12 months, Antonio has transformed from a figure of social media fun into a cult hero on the fringes of the England team.

In November last year, West Ham co-chairman David Gold was tricked into retweeting a picture posted by a mischievous fan, purporting to be appealing for a ‘missing person’. The image was in fact of Antonio, who had made just one appearance for the club after his £7 million summer move from Nottingham Forest. He remembers the incident with a wince.

“People were calling me the invisible man,” he tells FFT. “They laughed because the chairman didn’t recognise me. But I always knew I would do well if I got a chance. I didn’t lose belief.”

The 26-year-old has an infectious self-confidence that stops short of arrogance. Minutes before our interview begins, he removes his shirt and whirls it in the air before throwing jabs and hooks at the camera.

That force of personality has been a powerful fuel since his teenage years. While many of his friends joined Premier League sides in their youth, Antonio played for Tooting & Mitcham until he was 18. “There were players I thought I was better than,” he recalls, “getting trials at Arsenal and Fulham. But if people asked what I would be, I’d say with authority, ‘I’m going to be a professional.’”

For all his confidence, he began to prepare for an alternative career by studying for a BTEC in sports and business at sixth form and working part-time as a lifeguard – a job he calls “the most boring in the world”.

His route to professional football was as unfashionable as his maiden West Ham goal. It came in a moment of slapstick during a 2-1 win over Southampton last December, when a clearance rebounded off his back as he lay upon the ground and looped over Saints’ goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg. Yet it was oddly typical of Antonio’s unconventional style, favouring hustle and bustle over artistry.

“When I signed for Reading at 18, I wasn’t the best technically,” he admits. “I had to go out early every day and work doubly hard on crossing and finishing. Tactically, I educated myself on shape and formations, because you’re not schooled in that at non-league level.

“I’m the type of person who isn’t embarrassed to ask questions if I am struggling. I’ll say: ‘I don’t understand that – can you explain it to me?’ You should never try to play it cool; always make sure you understand before you start anything.”

Antonio retains a technical rawness, but his pace and power have smashed through top-flight defences like a human wrecking ball. He scored nine goals between December and May last season, despite being made to play at right-back on a number of occasions, and as FFT goes to press he has already scored six in the league this term.

His style has also won over West Ham fans, whose campaign for Antonio to be included in England’s Euro 2016 squad proved to be in vain. We ask whether he feels that his image counted against him.

“That’s been the story of my career,” he says with a sigh. “I have to do three things to get noticed when another player has to do one. In my last season at Forest I scored 15 goals and got 15 assists but still wasn’t in the Championship Team of the Year.

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