The below interview first appeared in January’s Everton magazine! To buy or download singles issues, click here. To subscribe, click here.
Three years ago, Ademola Lookman was playing his football on uneven pitches in south London. Inside that time, he has condensed the life of your average young footballer into 36 months: Academy to Under-21s, to professional debut - culminating in a major transfer to one of England’s leading football clubs.
This is a young man in a hurry.
But as Everton’s new signing prepares to embark on the latest chapter of his astonishing journey, the 19-year-old forward can take confidence from the manner in which he has embraced everything that has come his way. From the tough surrounds of the London Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, to the at times overwhelming environment of a professional football academy and then, ultimately, the first-team dressing room of a Championship club, Lookman has impressed those who have worked with him with his temperament, ability and potential.
His rise to a four-and-a-half-year deal with the Blues can be traced back to April 2014. Charlton’s Under-16s were approaching the end of their season but, such is the nature of academy football, they had a spare week with no game. It was decided the youngsters would play a friendly against London FA, a side constructed of players from various Sunday league clubs in the local area, at the Addicks’ Sparrow Lane training ground.
Steve Avory, Charlton’s academy manager, took a stroll from his office to watch the game. But it wasn’t until the introduction of a fleet-footed 16-year-old that Avory’s interest was peaked. He spent the rest of the game mesmerized, as his full-back was twisted inside and out. At the final whistle, he made a beeline and introduced himself to Ademola Lookman, a forward who had come from amateur side Waterloo FC.
“After the game, Steve spoke to me and asked me to come down for a trial,” recalls Lookman, who joined Charlton days later. It was the first time he had ever set foot in a professional football club. In this game, there are always those who escape the net – Lookman is a prime example. Trials at Crystal Palace and Brighton had come to little. The travel involved to the latter was ruled out because of his dedication to his family – ‘they needed me at that time,” he explains politely but firmly. Here was a boy born and raised in Southwark, who had found a love of football, but who had not been found by one of London’s many professional clubs. He instead linked up with Waterloo FC, a youth club set up to combat the lack of sport provision for young people in the Lambeth area.
“I would be out playing football with my mates or people I lived close to in the cages and the streets,” explains Lookman. “I would also play at school and funnily enough it’s through school that I joined Waterloo. I played football in PE and my primary school teacher set up the club and said I should come along. He would take football at lunchtime at school and I would be the first one there. So he knew how enthusiastic I was about football and introduced me to Waterloo.
“From the age of 11 to 16, I progressed with them. By the last year at Waterloo, I was playing an age up. The years before, we were just winning things every season. Our team was amazing but as it’s turned out, I am the only one playing professionally. But I have good memories of Waterloo.”
Initially Lookman found the transition to the professional ranks hard going. “It was difficult because I had been at Waterloo for nearly five years, playing with my friends. They are the people I had grown up with, been to school with, so not seeing them every day was a something I had to get my head around. But once I started to get into a routine, I loved it.”
It was not just on the pitch that Lookman was making noise. Off it, the likes of Avory and his colleagues at Charlton soon realised what an intelligent, enthusiastic and inquisitive young man they had found. Having gained three A*s and five As in his GCSEs while at St Thomas the Apostle College in Peckham, Lookman signed scholarship forms and continued his education at Orpington College, an institution linked to Charlton’s academy. There he completed his Level 3 BTEC in sport, the equivalent of two A Levels.
While excelling in his studies, Lookman dazzled on the pitch. During his opening season with the Addicks, he bagged 17 goals in 28 games for the Under-18s, helping them win both regional and national titles. The following season saw him begin the 2015/16 campaign with the Under-18s, scoring 10 goals in his first five games before swiftly stepping up to an Under-21 side coached by Charlton favourite Jason Euell.
Suddenly the first team came calling, and he was handed a place on the bench for a November 2015 trip to MK Dons and never looked back.
“Karel Fraeye was the manager of Charlton at the time and he was really good with me,” Lookman recalls. “He gave me my opportunity and I made my debut against MK Dons in a league game. It was nerve-wracking! I remember warming up and getting the call to put my shin pads on. I thought to myself ‘oh wow – this is happening. I’m coming on’. But once I stepped onto the pitch, had a few touches of the ball, the nerves fell away.
“I came on after 65 minutes but we lost the game 1-0. I was really upset because we lost. I know it was my debut but I was upset. But that’s football, though, isn’t it?”
“Karel was great with me. He never wanted me to worry about making mistakes or things like that. He just wanted to me to go out and play my game, and that gave me a lot of confidence.’
Lookman remained part of Charlton’s first team, going on to score his first professional goal after just two minutes of a league game at Brighton. With the Seagulls looking to mount an early attack, the Addicks regained possession and when Reza Ghoochannejhad played the ball out wide to Lookman on the left, he jinked past Bruno and fired high into the net past David Stockdale.
Sadly, Charlton would see a 2-0 lead overturned and would head back to the Valley after a 3-2 defeat. Things would go bad to worse, as the Addicks suffered relegation. Lookman, however, had made a name for himself and was recognised at the end of the season by the Football League, being named as their Championship Apprentice of the Year. “That was a proud moment for me, going up to Manchester to receive the award, especially because I had my family around to see me go up and collect it,’ he says. ‘It was a special feeling.”
Throughout this meteoric rise, Lookman never lost sight of where he had come from, who had helped him along the way. Charlton’s Avory recalls a moment last season that captures the character of the young forward. “My abiding memory will be when we took an Under-18s side to Leeds,” he recounts. “Just before the coach left the training ground, Ademola – who was in the first team by then – ran onto the coach and wished everybody all the best. It was typical of the young man.”
His former Charlton teammate Johnnie Jackson, vastly experienced with more than 400 appearances to his name, also recognised the determined personality he possesses, something Lookman is eager to show here at Everton. “I captained Charlton for part of a game. We played MK Dons in the FA Cup back in December and Johnnie was taken off. As he walked off he gave me the armband. I am a good leader. I hope to be a captain at some stage of my career. I look at myself as a good role model to many people.
“Playing in League One taught me that football is sometimes not nice! You have some really no-nonsense defenders in that league. But it has made me tougher as a person and as a player as well. If you can block that out and concentrate on your game then you will be ok. There are a lot of things that happen during games but you have to be able to deal with them. I definitely feel stronger as a player.”
Now, the next chapter of his story will be written here at Everton. Those uneven pitches back home turning out for Waterloo FC now fond memories, Lookman can look forward to running out at Goodison Park. He has already sampled what that will be like when introduced ahead of the FA Cup tie against Leicester City.
“I still feel like I’m dreaming,’ he says. ‘It’s amazing to think only three years ago I was playing on uneven pitches in parks. Everton is a huge club. I watched lots of games growing up and the atmosphere at Goodison was something that always caught my eye. I know about the great history Everton has - and, of course, the big rivalry that exists with Liverpool.
“I can’t wait to get started here. I want to establish myself in the team, but I also want achieve things and help the Club win trophies.”