Monday, August 3
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Semi Ajayi: I enjoy Nigerian food a lot

How did football start for you?

I was born in Croydon but just after my brother-Fikayo- was born, when I was two, we moved to Thamesmead where I grew up.

I suppose it was a bit of a rough area and my mum and dad really made sure me and my brother worked hard at school and studies and didn’t have chance to get into any trouble.

Football, though, was a big part of my life – and my brother’s – and as we grew older it became a big part of dad’s life too! He would have to run us everywhere to play games.

But at the same time my grades were good and mum and dad remained very keen on my education and that got me and my brother into grammar school.

What were your favourite subjects?

I enjoyed my studies and I was good at languages, science, mathematics, business studies… that sort of thing. I studied French and Spanish but leaving school at 16 to take up a football scholarship, I didn’t get the chance to continue. But that’s something I would like to pick up in the future.

What happened to your brother, Fikayo?

He was a good prospect too but when he was 16 he suffered a broken leg which really set him back. He missed the chance of a scholarship and I think when he came back he found himself that year behind everyone else.

But he has done well – he got a scholarship in America and he now works for a business management company in New York.

He follows my career through the TV games… but he was over for the Fulham game so he got to see me score my first goal. We were able to spend some time together that weekend which was good.

So what was the next step?

I was doing well enough to be picked by Nigeria for the Under-21 Toulon tournament – mum and dad hit the road again and spent 10 hours driving down to the south of France to watch me – and from that I must have been scouted because the offer came to go to Arsenal.

I couldn’t see a way through at Charlton at the time and the quality of the Arsenal academy – the coaches, the facilities – made that impossible to turn down.

In fact, I got close to the first team. At one stage I was first understudy behind Mertsacker and Koscielny but they then bought Gabriel Paulista in the January.

Arsene Wenger was very honest with me in that he said he wanted me to stay and develop but he couldn’t offer me first-team football at that point.

Was your allegiance always with Nigeria or was England ever an option?

The decision was made a long time ago. I decided to play for the Under-20s when I was 19 and the goal was always to play for the first team.

As a youngster, we would go there every two years to visit my mum and dad’s families… it was nice to meet my grandparents and all my cousins.

It’s a really nice country; mum’s family is in Lagos. She makes Nigerian food at home but it’s different when you go out there and get the real thing. The ingredients are that bit fresher I think. It’s lovely food; I really enjoy it.

What about when it comes to relaxing? What else do you like to do?

I’m basketball mad. Always have been. It was that or football growing up. I’m a big fan of the 76ers. The Philadelphia 76ers.

Their’s was the first basketball top I got, a present for Christmas one year. Absolutely loved basketball; still do. I’ve been to the States a few times but I’ve gone always out of season and I’ve never seen an NBA game.

Have you heard of Allen Iverson? He was my big hero. I loved the way he played. He was quite a small guy in a land of giants but he never let that deter him.

He played with such spirit; a never- say-die attitude. What else? “My music is R&B and hip-hop and “Game of Thrones” is the best box-set ever”.

Okay, the last season was a little disappointing but that shouldn’t detract from the rest of the series. Absolutely brilliant.

What are your targets in the coming days?

Hmmm… well, I would say play in the Premier League consistently and that’s obviously something I would like to do here with Albion.

That would be in there. And definitely play in the World Cup. Win the African Cup of Nations. All three would be excellent.

SEMI AJAYI PROFILE

Versatile Nigeria international Semi Ajayi joined WBA off the back of an eye-catching season at Rotherham United.

The 25-year-old, who can play as a central defender or defensive midfielder, won a series of accolades for an impressive campaign with the Millers – including Away Player of the Season and Goal of the Season.

Semi appeared in all 46 of Rotherham’s league games during the 2018/19 challenge and netted seven times, earning recognition from the EFL in March as he was named Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month.

It followed a successful season the year beforehand, making 35 appearances as the South Yorkshire side secured promotion to the second tier via the League One Play-Offs.

Semi started his career at Charlton Athletic, earning his first professional contract in January 2012 after progressing through the ranks at The Valley.

He spent a month on loan at then-National League team Dartford while with The Addicks but, despite not yet playing for Charlton’s first-team, he was recruited by Arsenal’s Academy in September 2013.

In a couple of years at The Emirates he featured for the senior side in friendly matches and was an unused substitute during a number of Premier League fixtures.

Semi went on loan to Cardiff towards the end of the 2014/15 campaign and was then signed permanently from the Gunners that summer.

Temporary spells at AFC Wimbledon and Crewe Alexandra were on the agenda at the Bluebirds and, after a third loan away from the South Wales at Rotherham, United secured his services permanently in the summer of 2017.

Ajayi, who was born in London to Nigerian parents, was given his senior Super Eagles debut in September 2018 – coming on in the second half of a 3-0 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying win against Seychelles.

He has since gone on to make six appearances for Nigeria.