At 31, Michail Antonio is on his first group stage adventure in European football, the West Ham striker’s journey in the game having started at non-league Tooting & Mitcham United before he made his circuitous way to the Hammers.
A firm fixture at the London club since 2015, he is now their all-time top scorer in the Premier League and got off the mark in his first UEFA Europa League group match when David Moyes’ side beat Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia. If Antonio’s self-belief is as infectious as his personality, the Hammers could well find themselves contenders for their first major continental title since the 1964/65 Cup Winners’ Cup.
On playing in Europe
Every game’s the same for me. If I’m out on the field, I’m going to give it my all. I don’t see any difference between any games, whether it’s a Premier League game, a cup game, an FA Cup game; all those games are the same for me. I want to score in every single game I play.
If I told my younger self that I had scored on my European debut, he’d think I was lying. [The same if] you even told him that he’d get an England call-up and end up playing for Jamaica, if you said that he’d be a professional footballer who’s been playing for seven years in the Premier League, or that he started off as a right-back and ended up as a striker. There are so many things that have happened in my career that I’d never have believed, but it’s happened.
On his footballing background
In the area I grew up, there were loads of gangs and stuff like that, and I was a bit of a fighter growing up. So, it was easy to be attracted to it, but I had my brother there giving me good advice, telling me it’s pointless joining gangs, and things like that. I’ve always listened to him.
When I was 14, I could have signed for Tottenham; I had trials and they were going to be six weeks long. Every day, I would go over to the north of London in a cab from the south. By the time I was getting home, it was between 11 and midnight, then I had to get up to go to school in the morning.
My mum said: “It’s going to affect your education, so it’s not worth it.” To be fair, my family wasn’t a football household. My dad was a cricket man, a West Indies man, so he believed in cricket; he never believed [football] was something that was going to make me money.
On the secret of his success
I never question my ability. I’ve had so many different managers, and when each manager has come in, I might not have been their cup of tea. When I first came here [to West Ham], Slaven Bilić [was manager and] I didn’t really play for the first three months. Then I broke into the team, and I became one of the first players on the team sheet.
[Manuel Pellegrini] liked classy, technical players – people might say I’m not the most technical. But then, by the end of it, I was one the first players on his team sheet as well. When David Moyes came in the first time, I wasn’t really in the team at the beginning, and then I managed to get in.
There are times I pinch myself. There are times where I’ll wake up and be like, “I’ve got four kids,” or I’m like, “I’m actually playing in the Premier League.” Now, the other day, I woke up and I was just like, “I’m the record holder for West Ham [for goals scored in the Premier League].”
These types of things literally just randomly hit you. Because, normally, you just take things in your stride, and every now and then it just hits you and you’re like, “Oh my God, this is unbelievable.” But it is crazy.