Taiwo Awoniyi has had a remarkable journey in the game. But his journey has only just begun. FTF spoke with Awoniyi’s former coach, Atiba Bankole.
Only six players remain from the disjointed Liverpool squad Jurgen Klopp inherited over half a decade ago. Joe Gomez, James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi and Taiwo Awoniyi.
On paper, the 23 year old Nigerian forward should be one of the most experienced players in the Reds’ dressing room. Paradoxically however, Awoniyi is yet to feature for his parent club in any capacity.
It’s an anomaly which has occurred through no fault of his own. An elusive work-permit is to blame. It has meant Awoniyi has been forced to work his way up in the shadows of his employers.
But after 7 different loan-spells, there are signs his time may have come.
Awoniyi’s recent performances (5 goals and 2 assists in his last 8 games) in the Bundesliga are catching the eye of many.
As a result the elusive work-permit looks attainable. And the dream of pulling on the red shirt at Anfield more tangible than ever.
Awoniyi’s story begins a little over 7,000 kilometres away from Liverpool in the industrial city of Ilorin, Nigeria.
Born into a tight-knit family, it was here that a young Taiwo first developed his love for the game.
‘He wasn’t born with a silver spoon so to say,’ Atiba Bankole of the Imperial Soccer Academy in Nigeria recalls of his former protege to First Time Finish.
Awoniyi’s parents were hard-working individuals. They helped instil an insatiable work ethic in their children.
However, at times the family were unable to afford the expensive football boots Taiwo needed to play. They would do their best, but there were moments, Awoniyi was forced to get creative.
When others would discard their boots because of the wear and tear, he would sew them together again.
‘You have to give a lot of credit to his parents. They did a fantastic job of bringing him up and instilling the values that he’s now bringing to the fore in his everyday life,’ Atiba says.
Awoniyi would track miles every day just to get to training to play at grassroots level showing his will and commitment to the sport.
“I remember my dad bought me a football shoe and when it tore, I was forced to look for an alternative myself by going in search of a waste shoe being thrown away. I found one with Nike logo, I removed the logo and join it with the shoe, all my friend at United Academy were amazed at how I was able to create it then.”Premium Times Nigeria, Taiwo Awoniyi
It was in Ilorin’s grassroots scene where the Imperial Soccer Academy first discovered Awoniyi’s talents.
The institution was founded by former Premier League and Nigerian international Seyi Olofinjana in partnership with Atiba Bankole and is situated a little over 200 kilometres from Ilorin in Nigeria’s capital, Lagos.
The duo tracked the long distance to watch a young Taiwo in action after recommendations from a scout.
‘We travelled and watched him play. One of the things we noticed about him was his height, he was really tall for his age,’ Atiba Bankole recalls. ‘His mental attitude also stood out. Taiwo played like his life depended on it. He had that never say die attitude and he was working really hard, so we thought, why not?’
Of course, convincing Taiwo’s parents for their son to move to Lagos at just 13 years of age, 200 kilometres away from the family home was a bit of a challenge at first.
‘We had to make sure we were able to provide for his education and wellbeing, and we would not take him without his parents signing off on it.’
The Imperial Soccer Academy
‘For us it’s not just about producing footballer players,’ Atiba explains. ‘Our ethos is making better people through football and using it as a vehicle to achieve success.’
‘If you just prepare a player for football, you set him up to fail in other areas of life. So, we made sure, the kids have every support they need in terms of their education, socially and psychologically.’
As well as providing all the necessary tools to develop from a footballing aspect, the Imperial Soccer Academy also made sure that their players learnt a trade or remained in education.
The academy’s impressive facilities coupled with their strong focus on education, provided a convincing argument for Taiwo Awoniyi’s parents.
Their son was able to continue his education, and at the same time Taiwo would be able to concentrate on football without the challenges he had to face in Ilorin.
A helping hand
‘My partner, Seyi Olofinjana and I tried as much as we could to provide everything for the kids. From football boots, training materials, jerseys, we gave the kids everything they needed. They didn’t need to pay a fee or anything.’
Like all the others Taiwo Awoniyi was a major beneficiary of the Imperial Soccer Academy’s support.
‘When Taiwo came to us, it was such a big relief for him no longer having to worry about having boots or to trek to training.’
‘The training ground was just a few hundred metres down the road. He didn’t have to bother about fetching water to clean his kits and all of those things.’
Through Seyi and Atiba, Taiwo had the best resources for his development and he took full advantage of his fortunes.
‘The time he would have had to spent doing other things at home, he could now use to concentrate on the things he had to master in football and in his education.’
Awoniyi placed a special focus on one area in particular.
‘He was very thin. He didn’t have a lot of muscle mass. And once we told him the things he had to work on, he didn’t waste any time.
‘ After that he spent a lot of time in the gym. As soon as he got back from school he would go there. Sometimes you had to drag him away from it because he was so determined!’ Atiba chuckles.
Taiwo’s hard work in the gym paid off. The Nigerian youngster would be called up to represent his country at the U17 World Cup.
With a strong squad that included Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfried Ndidi and Isaac Success, Nigeria emerged victorious from the finals.
Taiwo Awoniyi helped in Nigeria’s victory with 4 goals.
That caught the attention of clubs across Europe. And it gave Atiba and Seyi a welcome problem.
‘Initially we didn’t want him going to a big club,’ Atiba recalls. ‘Because we know as a young player at a big club you’re going to be judged against other established players in the team and that makes things harder. So, we were looking at smaller clubs for him in Belgium and Scandinavia.’
However, the academy received an unprecedented offer which would irrevocably change the course of Taiwo’s career.
‘Then Liverpool came,’ Atiba remembers. ‘And we knew that was the best club for him.’
‘Liverpool scouted him even prior to the U17 World Cup. When we went to speak to them, they gave us a presentation of how they followed him, what their plans were, and you could not resist that.’
The English giants’ offer was impressive.
‘One of the things they showed us was how Taiwo was going to fit into the Liverpool team in about five years,’ Atiba remembers.
‘They showed us a pattern of what they were hoping his development was going to look like and how they would assimilate him into the first team. It all made sense.’
The two parties were on the same page.
‘They wanted exactly what we wanted, for Taiwo to develop and to be the best he can be and so the Liverpool offer was the best for him and his career.’
A match made in heaven
Liverpool’s timeframe of five years to get Awoniyi into the first team might have been skewed somewhat. However, based on the trajectory of Taiwo’s career it is entirely feasible that he will be strutting his stuff in the crimson red colours of Liverpool at Anfield next season.
Awoniyi’s brawny stature thanks to the hours he worked out in the gym and his relatively tall height might not resemble any attacker in Jurgen Klopp’s current set-up (aside from the imminently departing Divock Origi) but that might be the Nigerian’s biggest advantage.
In Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson Liverpool have two of the best crossers in the Premier League. However, those crosses are hardly being utilised. The side is crying out for a player of the Nigerian’s ilk. Taiwo Awoniyi is currently in the top ten best forwards for headers scored per 90 in Europe’s top five leagues (Wyscout).
The Nigerian suits the Reds’ style of play in other areas too. No forward in the Bundesliga has a higher successful pressure percentage (38.5% via Fbref) than Taiwo Awoniyi highlighting the Nigerian’s tireless work ethic. It’s a trait every player must have in Klopp’s all-out geggenpress.
‘The one thing that always stood out about Taiwo is his hard-work,’ Atiba agrees.
‘He always played for the team, even if he doesn’t score, he was ready to carry the team on his shoulders. His mental attitude was excellent, and he’s always been a team player.’
The right support
Taiwo Awoniyi has taken a meandering path to the Bundesliga. Things weren’t always smooth. There were times when the dream of representing his parent club seemed inconceivable. But through every step of the way the Nigerian has remained resilient and determined.
He’s heeded the advice of others too. Especially, Atiba Bankole and Seyi Olofinjana who are still keeping a close eye on his development.
‘One of the biggest fights we had to overcome was to make him understand that as a striker he will be judged on goals,’ Atiba says.
‘In the last few years that’s beginning to sink in for him. In previous loan spells sometimes Taiwo put the team above himself.’
‘But now we’ve been encouraging him to get in the box more, to take more shots and adapt his game. I think we are beginning to see the results and he’s maturing more.’
Not only that as a result Taiwo’s performances levels have increased. The Nigerian’s excellent footballing intelligence is coming to the fore. His astute movement to make space for his teammates and to provide an outlet for Union has caught the eye.
It’s also supplemented by his increased presence in the box. Awoniyi’s 4.43 touches in the box per 90 (via Wyscout) is better than players like Marcus Rashford and Dominic Calvert Lewin in Europe’s top five leagues. Considering Union Berlin are in the bottom five Bundesliga teams in terms of passes into the final third, Awoniyi’s record is all the more impressive. It means his team rely on him as an outlet. The Nigerian has become an important backbone of Union Berlin’s success who currently sit 5th in the Bundesliga table.
‘All his best attributes are coming out more as his confidence grows,’ Atiba says.
‘He’s had some struggles in the past, especially at Gent where he didn’t feel the confidence of the coach but now he’s feeling the love.’
‘Taiwo is a confidence player. He needs to be trusted. It doesn’t mean he will slack off if he doesn’t feel the love, but when he feels that trust he will give you 110%,’ Atiba explains.
‘His ability to keep getting better and better and adapt his game will keep him in good stead.’
Atiba is right. The Nigerian has shown he can adapt to new environments at a relatively fast speed. From his loan spell in Belgium at Mouscron to the experience in the Bundesliga last season at Mainz and now having settled in the German top flight. The Nigerian’s ability to learn and grow as a player is the type of trait managers look for in players and is a signifier of unique talent.
Taiwo Awoniyi’s work ethic transcends football. In the midst of his career the Nigerian has also completed a degree in Business and Marketing Management last year.
‘He’s a really humble guy,’ Atiba says.
Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp is notorious for scouting players with the right background and mentality off the field. His team have earned the sobriquet ‘mentality monsters’ as a result.
And the German is believed to be an admirer of the Nigerian forward. Klopp undoubtedly played an influence in Taiwo joining his former club, Mainz, last season, as well as facilitating the move to Union Berlin.
‘The ultimate decision was with Taiwo. He wanted to prove himself in Germany again,’ Atiba informs. ‘But he did get the nudge from Liverpool that Germany would be the best place for his development.’
Having been given a second chance in Germany. Taiwo Awoniyi is eager to take his chance.
‘His goal is to make the next step, he really, really wants to play for Liverpool, and he told us in the beginning of the season that he wants to be among the highest goal-scorers in the Bundesliga.’
It’s a goal, Atiba believes his protege can reach.
‘If he stays fit and continues to get the opportunities I think he can do it.’
The time is now
Scoring goals is Awoniyi’s best chance to catch the attention of both Liverpool and the Nigerian national team. The two’s recognition will be intertwined with his future.
The one obstacle in Awoniyi’s way has always been the long elusive work-permit. However, with the Nigerian firing in the goals in the Bundesliga, it is only a matter of time until the long awaited call-up to Nigeria’s national team is received.
And with the important international cap under his belt, as well as the changing rules in the aftermath of Brexit, Taiwo Awoniyi may finally be able to get the work-permit he needs to begin his journey at Anfield.
‘I absolutely believe he has a future at Liverpool,’ Atiba says. ‘The relationship with Liverpool is great, we still speak with them.
‘We hope it is the same for Nigeria too. There’s no way the national team can ignore what he is doing right now.’
Reaching the top
Atiba Bankole believes this is only the beginning for Taiwo.
‘He can go to the very top of the game.’
‘Taiwo has a very strong mentality and nothing fazes him. No matter how hard the challenge might seem.’
Whether Taiwo’s talents will be Liverpool’s gain only time will tell and might not simply hinge on Awoniyi himself.
One thing is for certain if Awoniyi continues his development in the same trajectory, the sky is the limit for the Nigerian forward.