“Life was difficult growing up,” says Ademola Lookman simply as she recalls her childhood in Peckham. “There were some nights when I didn’t have… how can I say this? It didn’t have the best food. He also didn’t have certain things when he was younger. It was a real struggle for my mom and she had to take care of all of us. He did the best he could and made sure there was food on the table and that I had clothes to wear. Everything I could ask my mother, she gave me. She was happy but as you get older you realize how difficult it must have been for her. “
Lookman, 23, is one of the most interesting and talented young footballers in England. He was ignored by all professional clubs in London until he was 16 years old as he followed an unusual journey through football. In early 2018, having played for Charlton before moving to Everton and the Premier League, Lookman Sam Allardyce questioned “stubbornness” when he insisted on joining RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga instead of being loaned out to Derby County in the Championship.
Lookman scored memorable goals in his debut for Everton and Leipzig, but is now back in London and on loan from the German club to Fulham. He has lit up Premier League matches this season, amid the struggles Fulham have faced, while also suffering a Panenka’s failed penalty attempt which briefly devastated him. But his quiet endurance was forged during those trying times at Peckham.
“Definitely,” Lookman says. “A lot of it had to do with being the only kid too. I was willing to step up and do something for my family. I wanted to make my mother and sisters proud. That was definitely one of my goals, and it still is today. Both of my parents are Nigerian and my two older sisters were also born in Nigeria. So I was the only one of us who was born here. My father and my only sister were in Nigeria, so my mother raised me and my other sister alone. He worked all kinds of jobs: cleaning jobs and whatever he could take. She was always looking for work. “
Soccer offered an escape and Lookman savored the pleasure it brought him. “I liked playing soccer because I was good at it, but also because I had a lot of fun with my friends. Soccer gave me a new sense of energy and enthusiasm. It was also freedom. We were playing in different places in South East London and beating teams in certain areas was very important. I grew up around Peckham and Camberwell and there were a lot of properties there.
“Everyone knows the talent that emerges from South East London. Growing up, many of my friends were just as talented as I was. To this day I wonder why we all didn’t make it. As I grew older, my love for soccer became stronger and stronger. I thought maybe I could pull it off. “
Lookman was not seen by any of the London academies, so he played Sunday league football for a park team in Lambeth called Waterloo FC. He also avoided the dangers that so many kids face on the streets of London. “Of course there is pressure in many areas. But even as a child, you must make decisions that don’t put you or your family at risk. I was able to tell the right from the wrong and hanging out with the wrong people and hanging out with the right people was key for me. I took school very seriously and for my GCSEs I got five A’s, four B’s and one C. It definitely helped me focus. ”
Were you worried that your dream of playing professionally seemed to fade with each passing year? “I only got worried when I turned 16 because at school you start applying to college. I really realized then, this may be the route I should take. That’s when I thought, ‘I need a breakthrough.’ And that’s when God appeared and I had my chance. “
Lookman was selected to play for the London counties in a friendly against the Charlton academy team in 2013. “I started that game on the bench but someone got injured and they put me in. We lost the game 1-0, but Charlton liked what they saw and invited me to come back. “
A less measured account is that Lookman dazzled that afternoon and Charlton was incredulous that no other club had caught him. “It felt like a door opened that day,” he concedes in his quiet way. “But I didn’t feel that until the moment when, after the game, they said they were going to offer me a scholarship. My mother was surprised to think that I would definitely go to college. Charlton’s offer was unexpected. They were happy years for me at Charlton. Nothing more than the progress from the U-18 to the U-23 and the first team ”.
Karl Robinson was his coach at Charlton and, believing in Lookman’s potential, he took the teenager to watch Dele Alli play for Spurs in the Champions League at Wembley. There he had played for Robinson at MK Dons and had also flourished late in youth soccer. “I think [Robinson] I saw a lot of similarities in our situations, so I wanted him to see Dele at the highest level and show what was possible. I had many talks with Karl Robinson and he gave me a lot of confidence. He taught me to always believe in myself. “
Did you feel that one day you would play the Champions League when you saw Alli? “Yes, definitely. I had seen those games on television, but being there in person made it very real. “
In January 2017, Everton bought Lookman for £ 11 million later, as he recalls, “Steve Walsh, their football director at the time, came to see me several times and he really liked what he saw. I spoke with him and with Ronald Koeman [then Everton’s manager] and they gave me the confidence that this was the right club to join ”.
Lookman started with a bang. He came off the bench against Manchester City and scored in Everton’s 4-0 win. “It was a crazy day. The next day I was destined to play for the U23, but as I scored they told me they wanted me to train only with the first team. My family was there so it was a great day for them. But they went back to London, and like anyone away from their family, I sometimes felt lonely. But I understood that you have to sacrifice some things for football ”.
Six months later, Lookman and three of his clubmates, including Dominic Calvert-Lewin, were part of the England team that won the U-20 World Cup in South Korea. That victory still resonates with Lookman and intensified his hunger to succeed. When he felt he wasn’t getting enough first-team opportunities at Everton, he decided to move to Leipzig on loan in January 2018, thus resisting Allardyce’s insistence, as his new coach, that he accept a seemingly guaranteed place on the team of Derby.
“Everton wanted me to play my football in England. But he had different ideas. I wanted to go to Germany to face a new challenge with a top team in Leipzig and learn a different style of football. It had a lot to do with the platform Leipzig has and the football they played.
“Ralph Rangnick [Leipzig’s director of football] he had gone to see some of my games in Charlton. He had known me for a long time. So I spoke to him and to Ralph Hasenhüttl [then Leipzig’s manager] and they were sure that he would do well in the Bundesliga. I had that same belief. “
Lookman wasted no time in matching that conviction. He got off the bench on his debut and pushed his way through the Borussia Mönchengladbach defense to score a sublime late winner. He emphasizes that Hasenhüttl “helped me a lot. I remember there was a time when he told me that I had to be more selfish. I looked at my game and thought, ‘Yeah, he’s right.’
Lookman was just 21 when Leipzig converted the loan into a permanent transfer with a five-year contract in the summer of 2019. He did not play regularly last season, so a new loan contract to Fulham in September 2020 offered the opportunity. of much more. consistent football in the Premier League. “Scott Parker [the Fulham manager] He spoke to me a lot and I liked what he wanted from me and where he saw me on this team ”.
Lookman has played 21 games for Fulham, scoring three goals, and his loan has been a clear success with outstanding performances against Spurs and Leicester. “I’m always thinking about being better and where the team is. But the highlight for me would probably be Leicester away. We won 2-1 and that mattered more than anything ”.
Lookman’s lowest moment came in November when, with Fulham just conceding a goal in injury time to be 1-0 at West Ham, he stepped forward to shoot a penalty. It was to be the last kick of the game but instead of hitting the ball into the net, Lookman attempted a penalty from Panenka. Instead of passing the ball over Lukasz Fabianski, he weakly threw it into the goalkeeper’s arms.
“When that incident happened, I couldn’t even describe the devastation,” Lookman says. “I can only try to repair that error. That was a key thing people told me after that moment happened – it’s about how I go back and I use it to turn it into something positive. “
Did you hear the predictable rumors against you on social media? “I was aware of it, but didn’t pay attention to it.”
Lookman has responded impressively and helped Fulham beat Everton 2-0 last Sunday. The club is third from the bottom, and six points behind Newcastle, which is just outside the relegation zone. But on Saturday night, at home, they have a chance to bridge the gap when they play Sheffield United.
Can Fulham avoid relegation? “Definitely,” Lookman says. “We all believe it is about sticking to the task and working hard every day. We can do it and my goal is to help keep the team in the Premier League. “
As much as you have loved your time in Leipzig, do you feel, looking back to your Peckham days, that you have returned home? “Yeah, more or less,” Lookman says as his face lights up. “But a lot has to do with football. Playing football, wherever I am, makes me feel at home ”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism