Michail Antonio’s rise from non-league star to getting an England call-up interestingly mirrors that of Leicester City star Jamie Vardy. Both came from semi-professional football to eventually reach the promised land of Premier League and international football, albeit with setbacks and obstacles along the way.
For Antonio, his story encapsulates the beauty of football: a teenager playing for his local inner-city club, not for fame or glory, but for the pure enjoyment of the game, who managed to work hard and turn sport into a full-time career.
Tooting is an area of South London famous for its Asian influence; a walk down the busy high street reveals an abundance of Indian sweet shops and a variety of restaurants influenced by the Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Indian and Afghan immigrants that settled down in the area over the years.
The local football team is combined with neighbouring area Mitcham and is therefore aptly named Tooting and Mitcham FC, yet, as with many non-league sides, particularly within London where the population is constantly changing, the team gets little support outside of the die-hard fans. The club plays its football at Imperial Fields, a modern, compact stadium built in 2002 that has a capacity of 3,500, yet Tooting and Mitcham games average gates of around 130 fans.
However, Tooting and Mitcham FC is exactly where the remarkable rise of Michail Antonio begins. Having grown up in the borough of Wandsworth where Tooting is located, it was a logical step for Antonio’s first foray into football to be at his local club. He had an offer to play for Tottenham’s academy when he was 14 but the journey from south to north London was simply too long and it was declined.
This determination to forge his own path was exactly what led him to turn down an appealing offer to play for Jamaica in 2015, believing that he could one day represent England by this point.
Incidentally, Antonio went to the same school and was in the same class as Colchester United defender Matthew Briggs, who holds the record for being the youngest Premier League player of all-time when he played for Fulham aged 16 in 2007, as well as Sutton United player Craig Eastmond who, after being at Arsenal for many years as a teenager, would sign a pro contract in 2009, aged 19. It would have been hard to predict back then that of the trio, Antonio of Tooting and Mitcham FC would be the only one playing Premier League football in 2016.
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It reveals the character of Antonio that he did not let the instant success of his classmates demoralise his own career playing at a semi-professional level; rather he began to work hard and make the most of his situation. Antonio had been at Tooting and Mitcham since he was 12, playing games for the youth sides but not actually taking part in any structured academy, and officially signed a contract with the club in 2007 aged 17 after impressing at a trial session at Figges Marsh, a small local park. He hasn’t looked back since.
Tooting and Mitcham played in the Isthmian League Division One South at the time, the ninth tier of the footballing pyramid, and were managed by Billy Smith, who says: “He was a strong boy, quick, not as powerful as he is today, but you could see he wasn’t going to be staying with us for very long. There were times when he went past players like they weren’t there.”
Antonio was a hard-working, pacey and strong forward who caused havoc in the league: he scored 33 goals in the 45 games he played at Tooting and during the 2007-08 season and beginning of the 2008-09 season, making headlines in the local Wandsworth Guardian newspaper on a weekly basis. The freedom with which Antonio played with mirrored his footballing education; he was not taught in an academy so he played by pure instinct. That season, he was a major factor in Tooting earning promotion from the league via the play-offs.
When Antonio began the 2008-09 season at Tooting, his second at the club, he scored four goals in the first six league games before being taken on trial at Reading, who at the time were in the Championship. Remarkably, Reading signed him in October 2008 for £25,000, a record fee for Tooting and Mitcham that meant he jumped up five divisions by joining the Berkshire outfit. It was also an indicator of his raw talent as he was seen as being a player of potential Premier League quality even in 2008.
Fittingly, it was Alan Pardew who made the signing as manager of Reading, himself a South Londoner who played non-league football for years before joining Crystal Palace. That experience must surely have given him the belief that non-league players can make the grade at top professional clubs.
Antonio was even loaned back to Tooting in January 2009, picking up where he left off by scoring seven goals in nine games before going back to Reading. Subsequent loan deals followed for Antonio over the years, before he eventually joined Nottingham Forest and, most recently, West Ham United, where he has become a household name with a string of fine performances.
It would be easy for a player earning millions a year to forget his humble origins but that is not the case for Antonio; he frequently visits Tooting and Mitcham to take part in community work and help the youngsters at the club in his spare time, aiding kids who must surely be inspired by the meteoric rise of Antonio, a real local hero.
By Santokie Nagulendran. Follow @San_Toki_