When the final whistle blew in Nice on June 27 and a humiliated England were sent packing by Euro 2016 underdogs Iceland, many players would have sunk back into their comfy sofas and thought: “Thank God that’s not me.”
Not West Ham’s Michail Antonio. He sat there stewing with frustration.
“I honestly feel that I would have made a difference in France,” he says, looking FFT dead in the eye. “I turned down a call-up to Jamaica because I believe I have the ability to play for England, but Roy Hodgson wasn’t willing to take a risk on me.”
They’re bold words from a player who made his Premier League debut only last season at the age of 25. Rejected by the system as a teenager and forced to work his way up the English football pyramid from non-league, the wideman has developed a desire that many of England’s academy-bred graduates don’t seem to have.
“England need players who are hungry – not guys who think they should be there because of who they are and what they have done previously,” he explains. “Players should be picked on form, not reputation.”
Taking his chance
And, boy, was Antonio in form heading into the summer. After a slow start to his West Ham career following a £7 million deadline-day move from Nottingham Forest in September last year, he broke into the Hammers’ first team around Christmas and cemented his place with a string of eye-catching displays, albeit some of them out of position at right-back.
From mid-December, the only match he didn’t start was in the FA Cup (he came off the bench).
“I always believed I was a Premier League player, but in the first few months when I wasn’t getting a game I started to doubt whether I was good enough,” Antonio admits.
“Everyone kept on telling me: ‘Wait for your opportunity and make sure that you take it’ – and that’s what I did. I went from struggling to get into the first team to being one of the first names on the team-sheet.”
He finished the campaign with nine goals in 32 games, including the winner against arch rivals Spurs. Antonio was happy with his stats, but not entirely satisfied.
Had he played further up the pitch in his natural position, the versatile attacker insists we would’ve seen even more defence-shredding play. Having already scored two Premier League goals this season, headers against Bournemouth and Manchester City, it’s hard to argue with him.
“Playing at right-back has helped me understand how a defender thinks,” he muses, “but I’m a winger and my style of play is different to the way a lot of people play.
“Academy wingers always pick up the ball and then cut inside or lay it off. No one runs at players like I do, or gets to the back stick and overpowers a defender.”
Last season was just the beginning for Antonio. “We’ve moved into a 60,000-seater stadium and I’m absolutely buzzing,” he says. “I’ve played at Wembley, and there’s nothing like playing in front of a huge crowd.
“You’ve got to have the self-belief that you can do it, no matter what. Now I’m here, no one’s telling me I’m not good enough.”
This interview originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!
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