Iwobi: I Always Believed I'd Succeed At Everton

This interview featured in the Official Matchday Programme for the recent 1-0 victory over West Ham United, where Alex Iwobi discussed overcoming obstacles to play the best football of his career at Everton, thriving under manager Frank Lampard and his coaching staff, the confidence Evertonians are giving him, and what he wants to achieve with the Blues…

Alex Iwobi’s Everton journey to date is one of the most extraordinary in recent history.

It takes a certain type of individual to be a success in L4.

Quality alone is not enough. Neither is plain commitment.

Sell-out Goodison crowds and away allocations up and down the country expect both. While an obvious privilege, the Royal Blue jersey can be a heavy one to wear.

Certain generations naturally make comparisons to trophy-laden eras of yesteryear and, even those who
haven’t experienced that success first-hand have been regaled the stories of Club legends and periods of dominance.

The bar set by Evertonians is high. It’s non-negotiable – and rightly so.

Iwobi, who signed from Arsenal three years ago last month, joined the Blues aged 23, having made 149 appearances for the Gunners and winning the FA Cup and reaching the Europa League final along the way.  

But, in truth, the first two-and-a-bit years on Merseyside were filled with more downs than ups. There were mitigating circumstances, of course. Not least four different permanent managers and the differing preferences in terms of systems and positions - more on that later - that come with those changes.

Now, however, Iwobi has firmly established himself as one of the most important players in the squad and, despite his characteristically modest reflections, a clear fan favourite.

But was there ever a moment where he thought things wouldn't work out at Everton?

"No," Iwobi explains, without hesitation. "I never had the mindset that it wasn't going to work here.

"I had the mindset that I'd turn it around and when the opportunity came with the new manager, I used it as a new chapter of my life and said to myself, 'Forget the past. What's happened has happened... Now let's go again'.

"What I realised here is fans appreciate 100 per cent, as long as you show that you can do everything because there's a reason you're here at Everton - because you have ability."

Alex Iwobi
I had the mindset that I'd turn it around and when the opportunity came with the new manager, I used it as a new chapter of my life and said to myself, 'Forget the past. What's happened has happened... Now let's go again.

Overcoming adversity is a necessity for any footballer harbouring hopes of reaching the summit of the game and, having become accustomed to the cut-throat nature of professional football as a teenager, Iwobi is well-versed in dealing with testing periods.

After joining Arsenal while still in primary school, the now 26-year-old narrowly escaped being released by the North London club at 14 and again at 16 after being told he was not good enough.

"In football you're not always going to have highs," he says. "I've had plenty of lows before I even came to Everton and I've always been able to overcome them.

"I have a good support system around me - my family, my friends and people at Everton who are there to talk to you and help you through difficult situations. And, at the same time, every footballer is going through similar things. It's good having people to talk to.

"I like to remain positive as much as I can. I remember what made me, what got me to where I am.

"I use the difficult moments as motivation and drive to move forward - to prove people wrong, to make sure an obstacle doesn't get the better of me.

"If you don't go through losses, you won't learn. Going through those rough patches only made me stronger mentally."

One figure has been crucial to Iwobi's upturn in fortunes with the Toffees and unlocking what he describes as the best period of his career to date.

When Frank Lampard was confirmed as the Club's manager on 31 January, Iwobi was on his way back from a frustrating Africa Cup of Nations campaign with Nigeria, culminating in a bizarre red card in second-half stoppage-time during a 1-0 defeat to Tunisia as the Super Eagles bowed out of the competition at the Round of 16 stage.

"I feel like he probably didn't really know what to expect from me," admits Iwobi. "Especially if he was thinking about what he'd seen in the past with previous managers and off the back of the red card in AFCON.

"He was possibly a bit surprised at how I train - I always give 100 per cent in training and it's just getting that out in matches.

"He told me to play the way I train and he wanted me to go out and express myself. He gave me the confidence to do that.

"My first game - my first start - was against Leeds and he told me to do my stuff and to enjoy it. Ever since then it's been working out.

"I spoke to a few Chelsea players around the time he came in and they all told me that, because he was a player recently, he understands what everyone goes through as a player mentally.

"He keeps the environment positive and I've seen that for myself.

"Obviously, we were in a difficult time when he came in last season but he still managed to make sure everyone was up and focused on trying to win games, even when it was hard.

"The coaching staff, too. There's some massive experience between Joe Edwards, Ashley Cole, Paul Clement and Chris Jones. They're easy to talk to and they've made it feel like we're one big family, that every player in the squad is going to be needed and every player is involved.

"The manager and the staff have ideas that they're getting across and all of the players are buying into them. It's good and we're enjoying it. There's a lot more quality that has been brought in over the summer, so that's upped the standard as well.

"This season, it's similar in that the manager wants us all to stick together and give 100 per cent because when we do that, we know we have the ability to beat any team.

"Of course, we're still waiting on a first league win but there's good feeling and we feel like the performances are better - we're resilient at the back and it's just a matter of getting more goals, which will come."

Now a key cog in Lampard's side, Iwobi has been deployed in a range of positions, including on the wing and as a wing-back, before settling into a central midfield role – albeit in different capacities – this term.

“The benefits of Alex were very clear early in my days of getting here," said Lampard. "He’s versatile because of his qualities, and he’s also versatile because of his humility.

“Anything you ask of him, he does it, and he does it really well. He’s an intelligent footballer.

“When I considered moving him into central midfield, I asked him about the positions he’s played throughout his career. He literally named pretty much every position on the pitch! He’s done it all.

”He’s never said to me, ‘I need to settle into this position in the end’, which some modern players can.

"I think he’ll always be a player who can play at a high level in a number of roles.

“It’s not a surprise [how well he's playing]. When I came in there was almost a little bit of negativity around Alex from certain areas outside, people kind of boxed him off, but I understood straight away that the dressing room respected him and that’s a big deal.”

As a tonic to negativity, Iwobi and his friends have used music as a means of expressing their feelings – positive and otherwise – about their respective journeys since they were schoolchildren.

Iwobi, now settled in the north west, where he lives with two dogs – Luna, an all-white Husky and Snow, a Pomeranian Husky cross – regularly hosts loved ones, and it is there, in his small music studio, where they like to spend most of their downtime.

"I'm comfortable up here," he says. "It's very peaceful compared to down south.

"Obviously, the initial settling-in period was always going to be difficult, moving away from where I call home - away from my family and friends and where I grew up, but I always keep them close.

"I've got a few friends up with me now, being rascals in the house, as well as my dogs!

"I love having company. The people who have helped me to get me where I am, they are always with me on this journey.

"I've always listened to music and it's a way to switch off. I like to listen to all sorts. It depends what mood I'm in but it could be anything.

"As a kid going to school I'd listen to music on the bus and I'd go home and my family would always have music playing in the house. I like to stay at home, so I ended up building a small studio, which is nice.

"I'd say 80 per cent of the time we're in there chilling, even if we're not listening to music!

"I started going to a music studio when I was around 17 or 18 but even before that in the playground and after school we'd just be freestyling.

"I'm not good - it's just a bit of banter - but I still write now.

"We use it as a kind of therapy, talking about life and expressing ourselves through music.

"But first and foremost, I love football. I always have done since I started playing as a kid and it'll always be football first.

"Yes, there is pressure that comes with it but I wouldn't change anything about it."

Iwobi is an affable character, a popular figure at Finch Farm and his sense of self-awareness is underlined by his consistent community work and personal venture 'Project 17', which aims to "inspire young people to achieve their goals, unlock their full potential and be their truest selves".

Last month, less than 24 hours after the trip to Aston Villa, Iwobi was touching down in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to link up with the Ethnic Minority Sports Organisation Northern Ireland group (EMSONI) via Project 17.

EMSONI is a community-driven multi-sports organisation for the development of ethnic minority sports in the Belfast area, with the aim of diversifying the face of sports and integrating ethic minority and local communities together.

"My friends, my brothers, made me realise that I do have a voice and, somehow, people do like to listen to me and I can influence people," explains Iwobi. "With that in mind, we created Project 17 as a platform for me to give back to the communities, give back to people and spread messages through football.

"I like to go to places to see the effect it can have. The trip to Belfast was a good example of it. It was an amazing feeling.

"It's something I definitely want to continue."

Back home, it's the support of Evertonians that Iwobi is now thriving off.

"You almost feel unstoppable," he describes, when asked about the influence of the fans' support. "You feel that you can do anything on the pitch.

"The place I'm in right now, I like to play forward and create chances but even if one doesn't come off, the fans will support you and give you that belief to keep going and the confidence to keep experimenting.

"It's a nice place to be and every player craves it.

"I've had spells where I've had one or two good games but, in terms of doing it on a consistent basis, I think this is my best moment. I feel like it's the most confident I've been while I've been at Everton but there's still a lot I want to do.

"It's nice," he continues on his rising status. "But I just try to stay level-headed - it's important not to get too high or too low, you need to keep a balance.

"Before I came here I was told this is The People's Club and about how much the fans are engaged in the team. I found that. Every time you walk out of the tunnel, you see their passion.

"I'm not sure about being a fan favourite - there are lots of popular lads in our squad!"

It has been six years since Iwobi's first core memory of Goodison Park, the day he scored his first senior goal on his maiden Premier League start for Arsenal against Everton - just three days after being handed his first Champions League start against Barcelona at Camp Nou.

And, while the hairstyle and temperament may have changed, Iwobi insists he is just as much in love with the game as he was back then.

"I feel like I've matured and, of course, I'm playing more centrally now than I was back then," he says.

"I feel like my mindset has definitely changed from being more erratic when I was younger to now being more sensible and switched on. I think that's really the only change, though.

"I'm the same person who just wants to go out and play football and enjoy it."

Iwobi and Lampard have both been key contributors to Everton's current chapter and, while there are no guarantees in football, there are certainly causes for optimism.

A new football structure within the Club, eight new summer signings, an evolution of playing style under manager Lampard, daily progress being made on a new state-of-the-art Everton Stadium and, perhaps most importantly of all, a togetherness between fans, players and staff that has so often been key to unlocking Everton's full potential.

"It's crazy - the passion, the roar... It's almost like war," says Iwobi on the atmosphere generated for the biggest games on home soil. "It's like you're going to war - not just for yourself and the team, but you're representing so many Evertonians.

"It's those moments you live for.

"The way they were turning up in such big numbers even to the training ground before games was amazing. That has an impact on you. It was incredible, it felt like a movie.

"It gave us that belief. We felt like if they believe in us, why shouldn't we?

"That feeling has carried on into this season and there's a proper togetherness between us, which we enjoy.

"Looking forward, we want to push on. We know we have the quality to achieve much more.

"I have the ambition to achieve as much as I can for this club, it's a great club with so much history and we want to create more history."