Taiwo Awoniyi has reached the Premier League via the scenic route.
Liverpool supporters will be reminded this weekend that it was a Nottingham Forest striker who scored the winning goal against them to mark the first televised Premier League game on Sky Sports, 30 years ago.
Three decades on from Teddy Sheringham’s trademark finish, Awoniyi will hope to announce himself in front of the Sky cameras as West Ham visit the City Ground on Super Sundayafter his six-year spell at Liverpool left him with a sense of unfinished business in England.
Back in 2015, he joined the Merseyside club for a fee of around £400,000 after impressing at the U20 World Cup in New Zealand for Nigeria. Then, aged just 17, he was immediately loaned out to German team FSV Frankfurt – the first of seven loans before he made a move to Union Berlin permanently only last summer.
The forward has only just been granted a UK work permit, so his year-long loan moves prior to joining the Union were out of necessity more than design. Onyyi may have wondered whether his Premier League dream was over.
African football journalist Usher Komugisha tells Sky Sports: “A lot has been done to protect homegrown players in England. Six years ago, it wasn’t very easy for an African player to obtain a UK work permit and this is still the case.
“There have been a lot of conversations at the FA to protect the Premier League and specifically English players. We’ve seen in the last four years, in fact ever since England won the U20 and U17 World Cups in 2017, a lot of English players have gone on to make England a strong contender for the World Cup.
“To do that, you need to tighten up some of the rules on foreign players allowed into the country. Now, you have to be playing for one of the top 75 nations in the FIFA world rankings, and you need to have played at least 50 percent of games for that country over a set period of time.
“This provides a limit, and it was the case when Awoniyi first joined Liverpool. It was unfortunate for him as everything was going really well at the time.”
Forest’s decision to make the 24-year-old striker their club-record signing earlier this summer marked the latest chapter in a whirlwind journey for the boy from Ilorin, the city in western Nigeria.
Awoniyi, a devout Christian, would sew his own boots as a child and arrive to training at the Kwara Football Academy early with mending tools. His resilience is a story re-told by many African players.
“Sadio Mane had the same boots for years,” Komugisha reveals. “Sometimes, you would see his toes through his shoes. He ran away from home, borrowed some money and went to the city of Dakar to try his luck at football even though his parents wanted him to go to school.
“It was the same for Odion Ighalo, who came from one of the biggest slums in Nigeria – Ajegunle (a densely-populated suburb in Lagos). There, you have people selling sachets of water where if they can raise £1 across two days , they are able to feed their families.
“This is the sort of background that gives the likes of Awoniyi his fighting spirit.”
There have been several sliding-door moments.
In July 2009, Jose Mourinho visited Kwara State as a guest of the ex-Governor Bukola Saraki, who had just created Kwara Football Academy.
Taiwo is a player who we really believe in and we look forward to him going on to fulfill his potential and become a top Premier League striker with Nottingham Forest.
In 2010, he would star at a football tournament in London, winning the MVP award as well as the Golden Boot. It has felt a matter of when, and not if, he would be given his chance to shine on a higher stage.
“Nigeria have done an incredible job at youth tournaments throughout the years,” says Komugisha.
“They are five-time winners of the U17 World Cup and in 2013 he was part of the team that won in the UAE. He was in the same team as Kelechi Iheanacho, but he was actually playing second fiddle until Isaac Success got injured.
“This allowed him to get into the core of the team and he helped them win the tournament. He was subsequently part of the U20 team in New Zealand two years later. They disappointed as a team but he was in the conversation then as part of the new generation to take over from the senior group.”
Having struggled during loan spells at FSV Frankfurt, NEC Nijmegen, Mainz, Mouscron (twice) and Gent, Jurgen Klopp played a role in convincing Awoniyi that a permanent move from Liverpool to Union Berlin would play to his strengths.
Fifteen goals in 31 Bundesliga appearances last term opened the door for another crack at the Premier League.
Steve Cooper and Forest have signaled their intent this window as they look to make their return to the Premier League following a 23-year absence not a temporary one.
Awoniyi has put pen to paper on a five-year contract following his £17.5m move from the Bundesliga’s Union Berlin – and Forest have gone on to complete 12 new signings in total. This number is set to rise in the near future.
Emmanuel Dennis, who has been linked with a move to the Premier League newcomers, came from the same Kwara Football Academy as Awoniyi so a reunion could well be in store to further aid his period of adaptation in new surroundings.
Not that Komugisha feels the player will need much adjusting, nor feels the pressure of his club-record fee.
She continues: “When you look at Nigerian footballers, indeed African footballers, they know how to deal with unfortunate circumstances.
“That’s not to make it sound like those from other places in the world don’t, but to give you a bit of context, Nigeria is a country of 220 million people. By the time you make it to any national team, you must be pretty good.
“You must’ve gone through incredible sacrifices and circumstances to make it to the national team. Taiwo grew up on the streets of Ilorin trying to make sure he could make it to the big stage.
“Nigeria had big players across different generations that have wowed the world. We’ve had the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, John Obi Mikel – these were all inspirations to Taiwo.
“Whenever they were faced with a big challenge, they all looked for solutions in the same way Taiwo has. He acknowledged he couldn’t play for Liverpool, but he looked at alternatives to keep the dream alive.
“His goal was always at some point to come back to the Premier League. You can use Mohamed Salah as the perfect example. He played for Chelsea, things didn’t really work out for him, he went to Fiorentina and then Roma before coming to Liverpool.
“Now, he is literally ruling the Premier League.”
Cooper opted to play a two-man forward line last weekend in the 2-0 defeat to Newcastle with Brennan Johnson playing close to Sam Surridge.
It was noticeable how isolated former Forest man Michail Antonio was during West Ham’s 2-0 reverse against Manchester City as the lone striker, so it will be interesting to see if Cooper retains the same shape in a bid to outscore the opposition.
Awoniyi was introduced from the bench after 63 minutes at St James’ Park, so what system best suits the striker?
“I feel Taiwo could make Nottingham Forest one of the big surprises of the Premier League season,” Komugisha ends. “I feel his circumstances of the past few years have prepared him for this moment.
“He works well in a two-man attack but he can also adjust to whatever he is presented with. He will try his best to fit into the club’s philosophy but also it depends on the opposition Forest are facing.
“There have been reports that Forest are about to sign Emmanuel Dennis, his compatriot, from Watford. If they have that duo up front, Forest fans should be very excited. It would be raining goals!”
What will Awoniyi bring to Forest?
European football journalist Andy Brassell to Sky Sports News:
“I think it is a statement of intent. Awoniyi has been terrific for Union Berlin in the last couple of seasons and particularly last season.
“He’s their top goalscorer of all time in the top flight. You look at his strength and the variety of goals he scores, and he was the man who made sure they qualified for the Europa League at the end of the season.
“He’s someone who can create his own shot and pick up the pieces. What really impressed me about him is his really creative strike partner did a lot for him – Max Kruse. He moved on and went back to Wolfsburg in January, and Awoniyi took center stage and is happy to really take responsibility for the attack.
“I think he’ll be absolutely terrific for Nottingham Forest.”
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