Ademola Lookman playing for Charlton Athletic against Derby

Ademola Lookman: From Sunday League to an AFCON final

On an April Friday afternoon in 2014, with Charlton Athletic’s academy season coming to an end, they were facing their annual game against the London FA in the final match of the Addicks’ campaign.

It was a chance for talented players across the London Boroughs to test themselves against Charlton’s under-16 side, and within 20 minutes one player had already caught the eye.

That was Ademola Lookman.

The young forward had never played for an academy before.

Instead, he spent most of his teenage years at Waterloo F.C.

But even without the elite-level coaching that his opponents were exposed to on a daily basis, Lookman was the main man that Charlton’s academy director Steve Avory was focused on.

Avory said: “I had no knowledge of him at all, but suddenly this forward player was taking everyone’s attention, not just mine.

“You will see something as a wow factor, and Ademola’s wow factor was his ability to not just beat one player but beat multiple players and he was a constant threat.”

After he shone in that fixture, the Wandsworth local was offered a trial.

He was then quickly offered a scholarship, which signified the start of his life as an academy footballer.

But as he arrived, surrounded by coaches and prestigious talents, the then-16-year-old kept the innate traits that he developed playing Sunday League.

It was just about slightly defining him.

Avory said: “I firmly believe young players should come into an elite centre of excellence, such as an academy, to train and play with similar ability.

“What I would say about Ademola and many players within the London area is they play football in places like cages, where they go in and organise a game against each other.

“Ademola was doing a lot of that, along with organised within football at Waterloo. When you sign a player from that background, they obviously have talent, but they are lacking in tactical knowledge.

“I think Ademola had a lot to learn in the tactical side of the game when it came to being in and out of possession, but we never wanted to knock that wonderful natural ability he had on the ball out of him.”

It wasn’t just on the pitch where Lookman was talented.

He was incredibly intelligent and within six weeks of joining Charlton, he had met their head of education, Joe Francis.

Francis is in charge of ensuring that academy players are partaking in educational programmes away from football so they can maximise their academic potential.

Similarly to Avory, it didn’t take long for Francis to notice the ability that Lookman possessed but instead of it with a ball, it was in the classroom.

He said: “What impressed me about him was his coolness, he was a very bright young man and had a very natural academic ability.

“He came from a fine family and when I started to work with him it became evident very quickly that it was possible that he could achieve the highest possible grades in his education.

“He was a joy to teach, he had a work ethic and he was a fantastic student.

“It was a culture that was handed down to him by his family to work hard and embrace learning opportunities.”

Throughout that stage in his life, Lookman took everything in his stride and was focused on being able to produce the best possible work in whatever scenario and in the end he would reap the reward.

In terms of his education, he was the only one in his year group to take an extended diploma, and on the pitch was impressive alongside the likes of Ezri Konsa and Joe Gomez, who play for Aston Villa and Liverpool respectively.

Francis said: “We have produced year-on-year some of the game’s best players, and I would say that Ademola is definitely in the top five, he was the most exciting player I have ever worked with.

“What was unique about Ademola was he wasn’t that big on dwelling or analysing, he was so organic and I think that is why he was so different in our environment.

“He hadn’t been burdened by being in the academy system too long, so he was quite fresh and in terms of his learning and organic.”

When he was playing, he would never over-analyse a performance, with his first thought always about the next game.

That process began in the under-16s and then up to when he started playing senior football, and much like that game against Charlton’s academy at Sparrows Lane, it didn’t take long for Lookman to shine.

Across his first two seasons in the professional game, he scored 10 league goals in 45 games for Charlton and became the Football League Apprentice of the Year, an award that has also been won by Jude Bellingham.

As he burst onto the scene, and with Charlton getting relegated to League One, it didn’t take long for Premier League clubs to start pouncing on this electric talent.

He had a host of clubs battling for him and waved away Chelsea and Tottenham to move to a new city and sign for Everton in a move that cost £11 million.

But after again announcing himself positively, striking against Manchester City four minutes into his debut, the Nigerian struggled to reach the potential expected of him due to a lack of playing time and constant managerial changes.

It was a habitat that didn’t bring the best out of Lookman, and he moved to RB Leipzig after 36 league games and zero goals after his strike against the Citizens.

But his time in Germany was also split between spells at Fulham and Leicester on loan, with the Nigerian then moving to Italy, where he looks to have eventually found an environment where he can excel at Atalanta.

Avory said: “You could see how dedicated he was to improving and how much he loved the game. He has a strong mentality.

“You may not see that because he doesn’t have an extroverted nature, he is confident without being arrogant but he has a strong will.

“He has always wanted to play, he wouldn’t want to sit on a bench for weeks on end picking up his money.

“He wants to play in an environment where he can feel appreciated and if he doesn’t feel that way he will look at possibilities to play elsewhere.”

Along with multiple transfers, Lookman also switched national teams.

After winning the under-20s World Cup with England at youth level, he eventually opted to play for Nigeria after multiple attempts from The Super Eagles.

Francis said: “I am a bit gutted he didn’t turn out for England but that was a choice he made with his family.”

Lookman has collected 19 caps for the Super Eagles, including in the African Cup of Nations final against Ivory Coast, where they lost 2-1 to the hosts.

He was one of the stars of the tournament, playing alongside Victor Osimhen and Alex Iwobi, and Francis believes the agonising defeat won’t affect him.

He said: “He will approach every game with a new set of targets he will always look forward to, and that is part of his bravery.

“He would just dust himself down and look forward, that is his best quality, regardless of what happened the week before.”

Lookman’s journey has been far from ordinary but the one constant is his desire to play football whatever the level.

Image credit: Charltonkyle, licenced under Creative Commons

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