Michail Antonio has fought his whole career to prove people wrong and that fire inside has made him ‘better’ at West Ham – now he’s gunning for Mark Noble’s assist record
- Being doubted throughout his career is nothing new for Michail Antonio
- He still remembers AFC Wimbledon not paying £7 to register him as a player
- Listen to the latest episode of Mail Sport’s podcast ‘It’s All Coming Up!’
Michail Antonio is, by his own admission, a fighter. He always has been. It got him into a few scrapes in his younger days but, more than anything, it got him to where he is now and it kept him there.
It kept him battling his way up from non-League, tussling for his chance, it got him to the Premier League and it’s kept him at West Ham for the past nine years.
Antonio sits in a Portakabin at West Ham’s Rush Green training ground and hears a list of some of the strikers with whom he has competed in the last near-decade: Simone Zaza, Jonathan Calleri, Marko Arnautovic, Javier Hernandez, Jordan Hugill, Lucas Perez, Sebastien Haller, Albian Ajeti, Danny Ings… and still Antonio is the main man.
‘I wouldn’t say main man,’ says Antonio with that trademark, infectious laugh. ‘There has been only one transfer window where I haven’t been linked away.
‘Every single year I have had to prove myself again. Every single year either a different manager has come in or the manager I had the year before was looking to bring someone in.
Michail Antonio has become the main man in West Ham’s attack despite their yearly spending
David Moyes (right) trusts Antonio and the player believes his fighting spirit has been a factor
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‘I’m not the prettiest footballer but I know who I am and I understand that. But when I step on the field I know what I bring and I know what I can do. And at the end of the day, every manager sees the positives I can bring to the team and ends up starting to use me.’
David Moyes continues to use him.
Antonio started the Europa Conference League final as West Ham lifted their first major trophy in more than 40 years. He has started every Premier League game this season and could again on Sunday when West Ham face Aston Villa.
Yet for all the times he’s faced doubts or transfer rumours that he’s outstayed his welcome at West Ham, he’s kept going, kept fighting.
‘The knock-backs I got at Tooting & Mitcham… I went to Brentford and scored a goal and got an assist in the other game, they told me I’m a good player but they were going to keep an eye on me.
‘I went to QPR for six weeks. I won every single fitness test, and in the game they told me was the one to decide if they signed me I scored one and assisted one and they said, “You didn’t put enough crosses in”.
‘I went to AFC Wimbledon but they refused to pay £7 for my registration fee. So I went back to Tooting & Mitcham, signed a contract, and within seven games I’d signed for Reading.
‘Being here at West Ham has made me fight. It has made me a better player and it’s why I have been here for so long.’
You hear the fighter when he reels off his achievements for West Ham. Leading scorer in the Premier League. One of the last to score at the Boleyn Ground, first at the new ground, four goals in a rout at Norwich.
‘I’ve got a list,’ he says. ‘The only thing I am going for right now is to beat Mark Noble in the most assists. I’ve got 13 or 14 to go… then I’ll be happy with everything!’
He wants to reach 100 goals for West Ham, too.
You hear the fighter even behind the jokes, the laughs, the sometimes ridiculous goal celebrations.
Antonio believes it’s important to show people the real you. It’s what he loved about Ian Wright, one of his idols.
His infectious laugh at the training ground has translated into positive form out on the pitch
Antonio is into the final year of his contract but he is unconcerned with what the future holds
‘People easily judge you, put in you in a basket as a ‘footballer’, and don’t really know anything about you. I want you to know me. I want to be judged on me, not off other people.’
October marks Black History Month and, for Antonio, there is one person who paved the way for black footballers more than any other. He, too, is a West Ham legend.
‘Clyde Best laid the ground for every black player in the Premier League today,’ says Antonio. ‘For me to be at West Ham, too, doing what he did.
‘For him to have to handle the racism. I don’t think I could. Maybe if I’d grown up in those times I might have been more resilient but, right now, I would probably have been fighting people.
‘He stood his ground and kept level-headed. People were calling him an animal. The fact he stayed calm and did his job so well showed that we can do it and gave us the opportunity.’
Antonio believes the opportunities are there for black players, though not managers. ‘We’re taking the right steps towards it but we can’t stop.’
Premier League players will take the knee again this weekend to show unity against racism. They only do it for certain fixtures these days.
Players have taken a knee this weekend in a show of unity against racism. Pictured: Brentford
‘I think it became stale after Covid,’ says Antonio. ‘Doing it every week during Covid, I think it was good. The following season I think it should have died down a bit because it does become more impactful when it’s not every week. We’re not trying to change adults, we’re trying to educate children. So, when kids see it, they ask why they are doing that. Then they get the reasoning behind it.’
The fighter in Antonio was there in his younger days, too, but in a different way. When he was 14, he was held back from scrapping with a lad at his school in Wandsworth after his friends framed him for stealing a bike.
Antonio puts it down to his older brother John that he didn’t join a local gang. ‘If he wasn’t so switched on, my life could easily have been very different,’ says Antonio.
The 33-year-old grew up in a tight-knit family in Earlsfield in south-west London. His dad constantly told him to get a real job. His mum always believed in his dream, as did John, who bought Antonio his first pair of ‘proper’ boots.
Antonio’s West Ham contract is up at the end of the season. There’s an option to extend it. ‘I’m going to concentrate on my football right now, and whatever happens, happens.’
In the meantime, he’ll just do what he does best – fight.
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