The 26-year-old has enjoyed an unorthodox route to the top, having begun his senior career with Tooting & Mitcham United aged 17 and eventually landing a move to Reading in 2008.
Antonio only played his first Premier League game for West Ham in November 2015, but despite often being fielded as a right-back, he has netted more Premier League goals than any other Hammers player since then (17).
This week he was called up for England again as he looks to win his first cap – but despite his late rise, Antonio says he never once gave up hope of turning pro.
“If someone said to me, ‘What are you going to be?’ I would say to them: ‘I’m going to be a pro’,” Antonio says in Non-League to Premier League, the latest offering from FourFourTwo Films.
“Through the junior leagues there were players I thought I was better than, and they were getting trials. I was like, ‘How am I not getting these?’ There were players I went to school with like Craig Eastmond, Matthew Briggs, and I felt like I was as good as these guys.
“I always believed in it, though, and I said it with authority: ‘I am going to be a pro’... and if I don’t, then I’m going to be a PE teacher! [laughs]
“But I kept saying it. I got to 17 and thought, ‘It could be a bit late, but if it happens, it happens. I’m going to keep pushing, doing what I’m doing.’ Six games in for Tooting & Mitcham I signed for Reading.”
Rising at Reading
Antonio is one of many current top-flight stars who have played in English football’s lower reaches, but it’s fair to say he has achieved more than most since hitting the big time.
The Wandsworth-born star has nine Premier League goals and counting in another fine campaign for the east London club, but insists he will always remain humble thanks to a career path that forced him to work extra hard.
“Once I got through the door at Reading, that’s when I put my work in,” the 26-year-old tells FFT. “I went out early to do my finishing, my crossing, because technically I wasn’t the best coming from non-league.
“I worked doubly hard in shape and formation, because you don’t learn that stuff in Non-League, and I’m not a person who’s embarrassed to ask questions if they don’t know stuff. I will go to someone and say, ‘No, I don’t understand that, can you explain it to me?’
“Sometimes people go ‘aargh’ at that, but I want to get it for myself. They’re not living my career, and I want to make sure I understand before I start something.
“The difference is technique in every single league. Non-League to League Two; League Two to League One, to Championship, to Premier League. There can be players as strong as one another in the Premier League and League Two; players as quick as each other, or can jump as high. But it’s the technique that’s the difference.
“I feel like because I’ve done this stuff, I cherish every moment of being a footballer. Being a lifeguard is so boring, I hated every single minute of it! Now I’m getting paid to do a job I love, and would do for free.”
Watch the latest instalment of FourFourTwo Films, Non-League to Premier League, on FourFourTwo’s YouTube now! Just hit play on the video below to see the documentary, featuring interviews with Michail, Andre Gray, George Boyd and many more
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