Junior international and 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup winner with the Golden Eaglets, Taiwo Awoniyi, reflects on his constant loan moves away from Anfield since he was snapped up in 2015 by Liverpool from Imperial Soccer Academy in this conversation with MORAKINYO ABODUNRIN.
Very few Nigerian youngsters can bear challenges with an uncanny equanimity as much as Taiwo Awoniyi, the 2013 FIFA -U17 World Cup winner currently on loan at German Bundesliga side Mainz 05.
Though Mainz 05 is his fifth club as a loanee since he was plucked by the English Premier League side Liverpool from Imperial Soccer Academy in 2015, Awoniyi said his route to greater things in European football would be well oiled if he can persevere despite being away from Anfield, the home ground of his parent club in England.
“Well, I like to be honest,” the 22-year-old Awoniyi began in a conversation with The Nation. “To be on loan (to other clubs) is really challenging for a player because you have to sacrifice a lot and I meaning, you really have to do a lot.”
It is over four years now that Taiwo was snapped up by Liverpool for a reported fee of about £400,000 but was immediately loaned out to FSV Frankfurt in the 2. Bundesliga to gain useful experience. But upon FSV Frankfurt relegation, Liverpool then sent him on a season-long loan to Dutch Eredivisie side, NEC Nijmegen where he unfortunately suffered his second consecutive relegation. The following season, he was further farmed away to Royal Excel Mouscron on a season-long loan. He made a scoring debut on his 20th birthday (12th August 2017) in the Belgian Jupiler League match against KSC Lokeren. Awoniyi indeed blossomed at Royal Excel Mouscron and was remarkably named in the Belgian First Division A Team of the Week for five successive times. Altogether, he tallied an impressive run of 29 matches with nine goals while at Royal Excel Mouscron.
Impressed with his rising profile even as a loanee in Belgium, Liverpool then gave him a long-time deal before sending away yet on loan first to Belgian club, KAA Gent in the summer of 2018 and then back to Mouscron in the January 2019 Transfer window.
“ I won’t say I’m disappointed being placed on loan to several clubs by Liverpool,” the amiable Awoniyi who joined Mainz 05 on a season-long loan in August 2019 stated matter-of-factly. “Being on loan have really helped me to be who I am today and I’ve really developed myself better than who I was in the past years .
“ Frankly, it is really challenging to be honest. I had better chances of leaving Liverpool last summer because a lot of clubs really wanted to buy me but Liverpool said ‘we are not selling him’ and that shows the kind of interest they have in me.
“I think they are still hoping I can still get a work permit but I have to keep on working hard at what I’m doing.
“I have to keep enjoying the game and developing myself for the future. ,” he said.
Awoniyi has developed a great deal over the years and no longer the baby-faced teenager that once represented the country at the U-15 and U-17 levels.
He is no macho in outlook especially looking at him on television fuelling comparison with notable former Nigerian internationals like Daniel ‘Da Bull’ Amokachi and Yakubu ‘Yakubull’ Aiyegbeni who equally had the typical ‘Hollywood hunk.’
“I was really small during my days in the national U-17 team,” admitted Awoniyi who scored some of the goals that helped the Flying Eagles to win the U-20 Africa Cup of Nations in 2015. “ I could also remember that when I got to Europe, it was difficult for me to compete with the guys because they looked so strong than me.
“The coach (at FSV Frankfurt) in Germany gave me some rigorous exercise so that I can be stronger and for me to be able to use my body well on the field of play.
“This was what really helped me to be who I am today physically.”
Though a great admirer of Argentine Lionel Messi, the Barcelona forward who was recently crowned the World Best Player for a record fifth time, Awoniyi said it was from the rival Cristiano Ronaldo that he has taken his own puritanical devotion to the game.
“Of course, they (Messi and Ronaldo) are both great players to be respected,” he said in apt reference to the never-ending debate about the greatest player on planet earth currently.
“ Thanks to someone like Ronaldo, I think he makes the game more competitive for Messi and that’s one thing I believe everyone should respect him for.
“But Messi is my favourite because he does things with easy and makes football looks so easy. He’s for sure the best.
“ Ronaldo is an example of hard work and talent and he is an example that one can achieve whatever you determine to be.”
One aspect of Ronaldo’s life style that Awoniyi has taken in his stride is the Portuguese’s devotion to physicality and fitness as he shares secret of his current mannish appearance:
“I’m just trying to work more on my upper body and do more on strengthening my legs and I just laughed it off when people compare my appearance with Amokachi and Aiyegbeni.
“These (Amokachi and Aiyegbeni) are players that did very well playing for the country during their days and I watched some of their play but I’m not as big as they were.
“Honestly, I just want to be the best I can be for myself; and for my family and hopefully the future will be better,” noted Awoniyi as he speaks about the national U-23 campaign for a ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics amongst sundry issues. Excerpts…
Can you reflect on the victory in Senegal with the Olympic Eagles in 2015 and what is the chance of the current team at the next tournament in Egypt?
I was part of last Olympic national U-23 team that won the AFCON in Senegal. It was one of my best moments. I could remember it was amazing for the team in Senegal where we won the gold medal even though I was injured. I am glad we won at the end and the victory was sweet. That’s just the truth about football when you win, everyone is your friend. That’s football. But I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t make the team to the Olympic Games in Brazil. I think it was not my time then or it was not yet my opportunity to play at the Olympic Games.
What do you think about the quality of players in the current team? I will there is so much quality in this team (Olympic Eagles) and I think we can go far with the kind of players that have been in the team. The coach (Imama Amakapabo) is really working so well because even when we come together even for some days, everyone can see the difference in the team. I think the coaches are really doing a great work in the team and I believe everything is possible in football. I believe the team will do well by God’s grace at the U-23 AFCON in Egypt.
How much of weight do you carry and what specific area of your body are you working on?
I think it just 84kg. It just looks as if I am big. I am not that big. When people see me they say you look bigger on TV but when we see you, you are not as big as we think you are. I think I just work on my upper body to be a bit stronger than before.
What about swimming and how much time do you devote to swimming and the gym. How much time do you devote to all these?
When I was in Belgium I go to gym after training section and sometimes even on my off day I try to gym but don’t know how to swim. I am not a great swimmer. I try swimming sometimes but I am not that good at it.
What is your boot size, Taiwo?
It’s 44 for my boot size
Nike or adidas which do you prefer?
It’s Nike. I chose Nike because I have been using it for a long time. They have been sponsoring me so I’m so comfortable with the boot
Looking at your contemporaries in the current Olympic Eagles team, which player excites you the most?
I will say the team captain ( Azubuike Okechukwu) because when you see him playing even as a player if you are there you will still want to fight the way he fights because he shows courage, commitment and he shows a lot of things for the team. He is always there at the midfield from the blast of the whistle to the last minute. He’s an exceptional talent and a good handler of the ball.
You have played in Germany, Holland and Belgium, where did you get more physical training?
The first time was in Germany where I pick all the training from so when I went to Holland we have a section that we have to work out every afternoon on Wednesday and this is when it’s started. So, when I got to Belgium I kept on doing it just to be stronger than before.