Michail Antonio’s meteoric rise from non-league rewarded with England call-up

By on August 29, 2016

Jamie Vardy is no longer the only member of the England national team camp to have risen from non-league football, being joined by Tooting & Mitcham academy graduate Michail Antonio in Sam Allardyce’s England squad.

Allardyce named the first squad of his England tenure ahead of the upcoming international break and Antonio’s stellar form for West Ham United earned him his first international call-up. Unlike Vardy, though, Antonio’s journey from the bottom of the English football pyramid has been far from straightforward.

The twenty-six-year-old has played for eight different clubs in three tiers of the league pyramid since signing for his first professional team in 2008. Antonio is now playing in front of a 50,000-plus crowd at West Ham’s new Olympic Stadium, but he remembers the days when he would play in front of twenty-five or so people at Tooting & Mitcham’s Imperial Fields. The stadium is only thirteen miles away from Upton Park but the trip is over an hour by car in London traffic and a journey that has been a decade in the making for Antonio.

When he was fourteen, Antonio had the option to join Tottenham Hotspur’s academy team but his mother refused to sacrifice his academics in order to make the two hour round trip across London for training.

Instead, he took the long way towards the top, staying with the local Tooting & Mitcham youths before breaking into the first team as a seventeen-year-old in 2007.

“There would be about 200 fans on average — if that,” Antonio said of his time in non-league, per the Daily Mail. “You’ve got a fence on the right side of the field, you have got a stand on this side, two stands either end. It was one of the bobbliest pitch you could play on. And for someone like me, who runs with the ball, it would be bouncing everywhere. But it is my roots and I loved every minute there.”

Having scored thirty-three goals in forty-five games as a teenager, Antonio was signed by Championship side Reading in 2008 but promptly returned to Tooting & Mitcham on loan. He worked his way up the football pyramid through a series of loans from 2009 to 2012, from TM United to Cheltenham Town in League Two, Southampton and Colchester United in League One, and finally Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship. He scored five goals in fourteen games on loan for The Owls at the end of the 2011/2012 season before signing a permanent deal with the club that summer.

The following season was his breakout year, making forty-two appearances in all competitions and having a direct hand in eighteen goals. But Antonio’s form hit a plateau in his second full year at Hillsborough Stadium and he made the switch to Nottingham Forest in the summer of 2014.

He won the Player of the Year award in his first season at Forest, scoring fourteen times and making twelve assists in forty-eight appearances from the wing. He then earned a dream move to West Ham for £7 million at the beginning of last season and scored nine goals in his first year at the club.

Jamaica came calling for an international call-up last Spring but Antonio has always had his sights set on England.

“I’m overwhelmed,” he said, per The Guardian. “I got slightly emotional when I found out. I’ve always dreamt of playing for England as a kid, so now for it to happen after I’ve worked my way from non-league to where I am now, I am just so happy. I don’t even know what to say – words can’t explain how happy I am. I just give my all every time I go on the field. All I can do is go out there, on the international stage, and show there is a reason why the gaffer has called me up.”

He added, per the Mirror: “I just give my all every time I go on the field, so for me to called-up by England, I don’t know what to say! All I can do is go out there on the international stage and show there is a reason why the gaffer has called me up.

“I turned down an approach from Jamaica in March and for this to happen so quickly, I’m buzzing! I just want to keep my feet on the floor. In my first season in the Premier League, even though I had good stats, the England manager would have had to take a risk on me.

Said Allardyce: “This is another lad with a great journey – it’s a fantastic journey that he’s been on, from non-league to now an international call-up. He scored nine goals in his first season and he’s a terrific athlete, a good crosser, and a goal-scorer.

“I’m looking forward to him coming, and looking forward to meeting everybody. Hopefully, we will have a good few days’ preparation and get to know each other on the basis of trying to go and win in Slovakia.”

Antonio will be playing at the highest echelons of the international game over the next few weeks but has a (nearly) unique perspective of everything below — only rivaled, perhaps, by that of Vardy.

Homepag photo credit: Egghead06 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

About Alex Morgan

Alex Morgan, founder of Football Every Day, lives and breaths football from the West Coast of the United States in California. Aside from founding Football Every Day in January of 2013, Alex has also launched his own journalism career and hopes to help others do the same with FBED. He covers the San Jose Earthquakes as a beat reporter for QuakesTalk.com and his work has also been featured in the BBC's Match of the Day Magazine.