More often than not, players’ career fortunes pirouette on the altar of time and chance. Taiwo Awoniyi can attest to that. Had Awoniyi paid for his university exams on the day he was supposed to, in Ilorin, north-central Nigeria, playing in the Premier League for Nottingham Forest, where his decisive goals saved them from relegation last season, might never have happened.
“My dad actually borrowed the money to pay for my exams,” he says. “I went to the person that was supposed to help register me for the exam in the morning and he was not around. I went there again in the evening and they told me he still wasn’t around. “It was on my way back from that trip that I got a call from the Imperial Soccer Academy [in Nigeria’s Ogun State], that they wanted me. I went back to my dad and said: ‘I do want to keep on going to school. But my passion is football, so let me use this money to get myself down to the academy.’ I think that was the turning point for me.”
Awoniyi (right) has been flying Nigerian flag high in Premier League
Awoniyi had been with the Unicorn Football Academy in Ilorin since he was “six or seven” and played for Nigeria as a 14-year-old at the Copa Coca-Cola Cup, a tournament for African teams, in London in 2011. A call-up to the Golden Eaglets, Nigeria’s Under-17 side, that won the 2013 World Cup in the UAE, earned the opportunity he had dreamed of – a five-year contract with Liverpool in 2015. But he never played for the club.
“We discovered that we needed a work permit and to get a permit I needed to play for Nigeria’s first team,” he says. “When I signed, my Nigeria teammate Kelechi Iheanacho got the work permit under the special talent scheme [to join Manchester City]. It was after him that they closed the special talent scheme.
“The only option I had was to keep on going on loan, with the hope that if I do well on loan and I play for the national team, I’ll be able to get the work permit and come back [to Liverpool]. I kept on going on loan. And the national team call-ups still didn’t come, so I didn’t have any other option than to keep on striving.”
In six years, Awoniyi went on loan to six clubs in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium: FSV Frankfurt, NEC Nijmegen, Royal Excel Mouscron (twice), Gent, Mainz and Union Berlin. Then Union bought him from Liverpool for £6.5m in July 2021, before his move to Forest in 2022.
“It was really a hard and tough situation,” he says of the early years on loan, recalling how his family and Seyi Olofinjana, the former Wolves and Stoke midfielder who founded Imperial Soccer Academy, helped him through it.
“I didn’t really play a lot of games [at Frankfurt] … the team was relegated. I then went to Holland [Nijmegen] and that was another strange experience … we also got relegated … I said to myself, about the third year, if I go down again or I don’t make anything happen, I have to think about my football career.
“It was at Mouscron that I really discovered myself, that I saw myself as the player I wanted to be … I scored a goal in my first match and  goals with Mouscron that season.”
Taiwo Awoniyi shone at Mouscron
Liverpool gave him a second five-year contract but his journeyman status continued, at Gent and Mainz, via Mouscron again, until he found a real home at Union.
“I remember my first conversation with the coach. He said: ‘Taiwo, I’ve seen you. I think I can make you who you want to be as a player. But it is your decision to come.’ It was just an amazing club. It is what a football club should be, in terms of the people, the administrators, everything, especially the fans.”
Awoniyi’s form made him a cult hero, with his final goal for Union earning them a Europa League spot for the first time. “We needed to win. I remember that in the first half I had a penalty and I scored. We were then in the 88th or 89th minute … I was checking the time and I said: ‘No, these people have come a long way for us not to win …’
https://efb9095dae39658896226d0b4cb40cdb.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.html “It’s taken them to where they want to be and where they should be as a club. And from there, they’re now playing in the Champions League. These people deserve even more than that … But they’ve always known that one day I will leave for the Premier League.”
Forest signed Awoniyi after ending a 23-year absence from England’s top division and he knew helping them stay up would constitute a successful season. Years of relegation battles had fortified him for the challenge.
“I was never in doubt that the team would stay up, because I know how much they wanted the club to be where they wanted it to be. I was not really afraid at all. I just said: ‘OK, this is what I want. This is my dream to be in the Premier League and I have a club that is really, really ready to give me the opportunity.’ “So I said I would go for it. When I had the [initial] meeting with the owners and the coach, I was so impressed with the plan and the structure.”
Awoniyi in pre-season training with Liverpool
Awoniyi says his objective was to “exhibit everything that is in you” and that came to the fore in Forest’s penultimate game, when his goal against Arsenal – the club he supports – secured their top‑flight status.
Forest fans have taken Awoniyi to their hearts and voted him this season’s player of the month for August after he scored three goals in his first three games. The feelings are mutual.
“Looking at the difficulty that we found ourselves in last season, they were still behind us, pushing everyone to keep on fighting … They never gave up on us and that gave us more power to push forward.”
The champions Manchester City host Forest on Saturday and Awoniyi expects to face Manuel Akanji, the most difficult defender he has faced. He will relish the challenge.
“I played against him in the Bundesliga and I know how tough he is. I’ve always believed [success in football] will happen. I’ve always worked hard, I’ve always hoped for it, prayed for it and I’ve always done everything that will make me achieve what I want.”
By Osasu Obayiuwana From The Guardian