In a long read interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme for last month's Carabao Cup tie with Manchester United, Alex Iwobi talks about discovering the power of his voice, the factors motivating him to improve every day, where Carlo Ancelotti’s team need to get better, and a hair-raising experience on international duty back in November...
It was when he would shop for groceries around the time he exited his teenage years that Alex Iwobi realised the power of his burgeoning profile.
Iwobi, by his own admission, still had some growing up to do back then.
His former platform of choice was photo-sharing site Snapchat.
“I’d do something on there, then go in Tesco or Sainsbury’s and someone would say, ‘I just tried that challenge you did on your Snap’,” says Iwobi.
“I was like, ‘Woah’. I didn’t feel people actually looked at my Snapchat and used it in what they were doing every day.
“I was around 20 and it was then I realised I had a small influence on other people’s lives.”
He recently used both accounts to highlight the plight of innocent civilians being murdered in his birthland of Nigeria.
Protestors have been killed demanding the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a unit of the African country’s police force allegedly guilty of human rights violations.
Iwobi posted an image from one demonstration of a Nigerian flag, its green and white obscured by human blood.
Additionally, the 24-year-old is playing his football in black boots embroidered with the words, End Police Brutality.
“It is awful to see what is happening in Nigeria,” says Iwobi.
“It is so sad. People are protesting for their rights and being killed.
“I am in a position where I am able to influence a lot of people and I will always use my voice to speak out about what is right.
“Odion Ighalo and other Nigerian players have spoken out and we want our voices to be heard.
“It is important we use our platforms to make people aware of what is happening.
“I also feel I have to let people know with my feet.
“I was able to get customised black boots, so people all over the world can see I am supporting the cause.”
The Premier League’s global audience, reasons Iwobi, is why players must continue taking a knee as a statement against racial injustice.
Les Ferdinand, the former Newcastle United striker, said in September last year he felt the impact had been “diluted” in the period since the gesture’s introduction before matches in June.
Iwobi, though, sides with England captain Harry Kane, who reflected the majority opinion when declaring: “When children are watching the game for the first time and seeing us all take a knee and asking their parents, Why? … It’s a great chance to explain”.
Iwobi contends: “Taking a knee will forever have value.
“It shows everyone around the world, we are behind the movement for change.
“By us doing that before every match, in front of millions of viewers, the conversation continues, which is vital.”
Iwobi is a terrific interviewee. His open, unguarded manner is mirrored on the field, where he is at his best playing off-the-cuff.
He gets more enjoyment from having a ball at his feet than anything else.
Iwobi started training with Arsenal aged six and officially joined when he was nine.
He provides a rebuttal to those who accuse Premier League academies of producing monochrome footballers.
It is easy, though, to fall into the trap of mistaking a free-spirited performer for someone without fire in his belly.
Listening to Iwobi explain what motivates him when he goes to work in the morning, then, is enlightening.
“Every day I try to prove to myself I should be here, that I should be playing for Everton,” starts Iwobi.
“That I should be in the starting XI. That I should be representing my country.
“I always have that motivation.
“Especially because of what my family went through for me to get where I am.
“It gives me that hunger to improve myself and I work every day to try to do that.
“I had a lot of downs growing up. Moments when I was told I wasn’t good enough, times when I was almost released by Arsenal.
“I want to fight for not just me but the hundreds of thousands of Evertonians and the people who follow and support me.
“I feel I owe it to them to give 100 per cent every day.
“And I always want to do well for my family.
“Everything I do is for them.”
Iwobi ended a 17-year connection with Arsenal when he moved to Everton in August last year.
And he is applying the same persistence today which helped him overcome concerns over his speed and physicality to play 149 games for the north London club.
His beginning to this season was delayed by a strained left hamstring – “I came back from the break buzzing and felt so sharp, so that was very frustrating” – but Iwobi got going with a goal and an assist on his first start, in September's Carabao Cup win at Fleetwood Town.
He came off the bench in the opening half against Brighton & Hove Albion 10 days later to contribute, perhaps, his finest performance for the Club to that point.
Subsequently handed a Premier League start at Southampton, though, he lasted only 45 minutes before being replaced at half-time by Carlo Ancelotti.
“The manager doesn’t say anything, he just takes me off, but you know he’s doing it because he thinks it’s right for the team,” says Iwobi.
“It is frustrating because no player wants to be taken off at half-time, and you always feel, if you stay on, you can offer more.
“It is a bad feeling but it is part of the game and you can’t beat yourself up about it.
“I just take it as, ‘Well, maybe I didn’t play well in that 45 minutes, I have to prove myself again in training or the next time my chance comes.
“You have to be on it all the time.
“It gives me the hunger to go again. You think, ‘I don’t want that feeling again’.”
There is a trace of wonder in Iwobi’s unmistakable Cockney tone as he reflects on settling so quickly at his new club and in a new city.
“I was really comfortable here straightaway, I just can’t get the Scouse accent yet,” he laughs.
Iwobi played in some excellent Arsenal teams, Premier League runners-up in his first season and never outside the top six.
He reached three cup finals with the Gunners and played 26 games in European competition, including a Europa League final when he scored in a loss to Chelsea.
This Everton squad, he reckons, is a match for any of those he was a member of at Emirates Stadium.
Proving as much is the challenge. Captain Seamus Coleman spoke to his teammates following a poor spell in November.
The focus was on eradicating slips such as the ones at Southampton and Newcastle United which halted Everton’s prolific start.
“I think we are good enough to compete in Europe,” says Iwobi.
“This Everton side is as good as the Arsenal teams I was in, 100 per cent.
“We have talented, international players, in the team and on the bench.
“The chemistry in the dressing room is great.
“Seamus grabbed us together and said we could do better.
“We always discuss our potential and what we should be achieving.
“It is good to get every player’s idea on what they believe we can improve.
“We know we can give a lot more in games like those at Southampton and Newcastle – we see the quality in training every day.
“It needs to consistently come out on the pitch and all of us know we can improve and offer more.”
Back briefly to Iwobi’s social media pages.
A couple of months ago, he wrote: “When some things go wrong, take a moment to be thankful for the many things that are going right.”
The message, explains Iwobi, was a reflection of his attempt to make sense of this year nobody could have envisaged.
“With what is going on with coronavirus and people losing their lives, so many negative things are happening, you have to be grateful for what you have,” says Iwobi.
“I am forever grateful for the position I am in.
“I remember when my mum and dad were working so hard just for me to have football boots.
“Now, I am able to take care of my family.
“There are little things you have to be grateful for, even though we are in a pandemic and such a difficult time.”
The things going right for Iwobi on the pitch aren’t happening by chance.
His unexpected recent conversion to wing-back – beginning with November's win at Fulham – was preceded by manager Ancelotti subtly refining Iwobi’s defensive smarts.
“He told me where to be when we don’t have the ball to prevent the full-back on my side of the pitch bombing on and getting in crosses,” says Iwobi.
“I need to be in certain positions to help us be more solid.”
Given the perception of him as a player in his element when freestyling, and his stated enjoyment of expressing himself, it will surprise some to discover Iwobi rather likes the other side of the game.
He owns the discipline and selflessness to do the ugly stuff.
Learning precisely how to carry it out from a deeper position, he says, is a work in progress.
Iwobi religiously analyses sections of every match with a football analyst from his management company.
He follows the same routine with Simone Montanaro, Everton’s Video/Tactical Analyst.
“Simone has been helping me a lot, we’ve spoken about what I need to work on,” says Iwobi.
“Things like needing to come across to cover when the ball is on the other side of the pitch, to always have the right body shape and get in position quicker.
“I want to be tactically sound defensively and instinctively know the right positions to be in.
“Simone breaks down things for me but it’s valuable having an extra voice, someone who can go into detail every week.
“At any club, there are times when the focus is on helping other players with aspects of their games, because in that moment, it is more important for the team.
“If you want to improve, you have to take responsibility for yourself, analyse your performances and be honest about what you can do better.
“Yes, I want to be an expressive player but it is not an issue matching that with your responsibilities.”
When the ball arrived at Iwobi’s instep in the opening half against Fulham, he heard a voice – he’s not sure whose – barking from Everton’s dugout.
“‘Alex, go, go, go’,” it implored. He did as he was told. A picture of balance and agility, Iwobi glided beyond a trio of befuddled opponents, before sliding the ball to James Rodriguez.
Two passes later, Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored Everton’s second goal.
“My first thought is always to go forward, whether it’s a pass or dribble,” says Iwobi.
“You rely on instinct in those situations.
“The manager and his staff want me to be positive, to be producing crosses and shots.
“I surprised people in training with how fast I can run with the ball.
“When I did it a couple of times, they obviously thought, ‘Maybe he can collect the ball deeper and run at his man’.
“I think everyone was a bit shocked I could do that.
“The one at Fulham, I just started carrying the ball and, all of a sudden, I was past three players and had created space for my teammates.”
Iwobi’s reputation for versatility previously rested on an ability to occupy any role directly behind a main striker.
When operating in those advanced areas, he concedes, his goals and assists numbers need fortifying.
“I pay attention to my stats and I need to add those things and it starts in training,” says Iwobi.
“I’ve been working hard on my finishing and crossing.
“I’ve been creating chances and, hopefully, I will start getting in more scoring positions.”
There is a personal wish to have a big say in Everton winning honours, too.
Iwobi was on the bench when Arsenal won the FA Cup against Chelsea in 2017. He came on in the following year’s League Cup final with Arsenal trailing Manchester City 3-0.
They were in an identical pickle when Iwobi was introduced in that 2019 Europa League final. The forward scored but his team lost 4-1, as Chelsea exacted cup revenge.
“I want to win trophies with Everton and be heavily involved in that achievement,” says Iwobi, who shared Evertonians’ glee over the capture of James, despite the Colombian claiming the freehold on one of Ancelotti’s attacking berths.
“We are very ambitious and trying to make this a special season and it is exciting when you add talent to the team.
“It is not easy to win a spot, so it makes me work extra hard.
“I know if I don’t play well, others will get ahead of me.
“Training has been full-on and everyone is doing their best to prove they should be starting.
“That is a healthy situation.”
Iwobi has played more than 40 games for Nigeria and grown familiar with the country’s feverish football public.
He expected a reaction, then, when his team coughed up a 4-0 lead – Iwobi scoring twice – to draw 4-4 with Sierra Leone in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match in Benin City in November.
Nigeria are all but assured of their place in the 2022 finals but that didn’t spare them the wrath of the natives.
“I can’t even tell you what happened in the game, I don’t know, it was mad,” says Iwobi.
“There was a lot of heated discussion in the changing room.
“The Nigerian Football President came in and said a few words.
“He was hurt, like all of us.
“Trying to go back to the hotel, people were throwing stones at our bus.
“One cracked a window and hit a player. It was crazy.
“They are proper passionate.
“I see where they were coming from, the result was hurtful.
“But we were almost physically hurt because of it!”
Iwobi confesses Nigeria’s international footballers are – for the most part – treated like kings in their homeland.
He accepts the other side of that deal, then – and is grateful to represent people who care so deeply.
There is one caveat, though, and he’s laughing as he says it.
“Of course I like the passion and we want the fans to show it,” begins Iwobi.
“Just don’t hurt us, please!
“Only Lord knows how they’d react if we could win a tournament.
“It is what everyone dreams of and, hopefully, we can make it a reality.”
Fulfil his ambitions for Club and country and Alex Iwobi will have something wonderful to shout about to his army of social media followers.