When Ademola Lookman has felt in need of reassurance – and there have been a few such occasions over the years – he calls up two men who know him better than almost anyone.
Des and Felix coached him from the ages of 11 to 16, during an extended tooth-cutting process playing Sunday league football for Waterloo FC, and beyond that he has counted both as “mentors” for as long as he can remember. If uncertainty began to take root during those teenage years they would put him straight immediately, keeping his focus trained on the dream that had always consumed him.
“I wanted to be playing in an academy and, as time went on, I was thinking: ‘Time’s catching up, when’s it going to happen?’” he says. “Sometimes I’d be like: ‘Maybe it won’t work out for me.’ And they’d quickly go: ‘What are you talking about? God’s given you this talent for a reason, don’t ever give up on it.’
“Them reminding me what I have is always refreshing. Even if there’s that second of doubt where you’re saying, ‘I’m not too sure’, they’re always like: ‘No, no, no, we didn’t start off [playing football] to doubt ourselves, we do it properly, we do it because we back ourselves no matter what the situation is.’”
It is a sentiment that comes to mind now because this is not the easiest of times. Lookman has just come inside from an hour and a half’s training with RB Leipzig and, make no mistake, he has looked the part out there. In an 11-a-side match crammed into two-thirds of a pitch and containing its fair share of hard knocks, he has scored a couple of sharp finishes and to the naked eye has responded well to Julian Nagelsmann’s constant demands for “intensität”. But on a match day, when it really matters, Lookman has had only 201 minutes all season. Leipzig, a point off the Bundesliga summit, are flying but on a personal level the move he sought for more than a year has yet to catch light.
“This time around it’s definitely different,” says Lookman, whose loan from Everton in the second half of 2017-18 brought five goals, a series of sparkling performances and a clamour for his return. “The first time it was like a leap of faith, but this time it’s more like ‘go’ time. The club has changed, the team is stronger – a lot stronger – and there’s a new coach, so it’s something I have to adapt to.”
It was, he says, a “no-brainer” to come back in July when the clubs finally agreed a fee. Last season it had been hard, initially, to get over the disappointment when Everton rejected two offers. “At the beginning it was,” he says. “But then thinking of that was hurting me. If I was thinking, ‘I wish I was there’ then I’d be like, ‘How’s that going to help my situation now?’” He knuckled down and received some reassurances from Marco Silva but a breakthrough never really came. Only three starts in the league ensued and he admits it was hard, at times, to wonder what was going wrong when those ahead of him were hardly firing on all cylinders.
That was another situation in which Des and Felix, who stopped him going “off-topic”, proved invaluable. Their advice appears to work because Lookman, for all the stop-start nature of his career to date, hardly seems low on confidence. He talks fondly and at length about Waterloo, a club set up two decades ago to provide a supportive and inclusive community for youngsters in disadvantaged parts of Lambeth and Southwark, but in the same breath as recalling the leaf-strewn, bobbly, sloped picture of his youth he is unhesitant in stating: “This is my stage now.”
The players who came through at Waterloo were “a bunch of brothers”, he remembers. “We were a top team. Dead serious. All should be playing at a top level; all 16 of us, including the subs, were good enough. Some of them are now in uni or working and some of them are playing football part-time.”
He was picked up by Charlton after a trial game in 2013, reaching the first team within a little over two years. Looking back he wonders whether his truncated format football education has held him back in some way. “Yes and no. There are some things I’d love to have learned. Tactically there are things I’m not too sure about and I’d definitely have learned that inside an academy. But there was never a time when I wasn’t getting coached. I was playing with my friends and that was cool.”
Much of Lookman’s conversation is lighthearted, peppered with little asides that underscore his confidence in things coming good. Nagelsmann, the prodigious 32-year-old coach, has told him “to play with freedom” and encouraged him to back his ability. “If I have to think about what I’m going to do I don’t do it well,” he says. “When I’m instinctive I do things off the cuff and it just comes naturally.”
There is some thinking to do, though, where his international future is concerned. A senior England call looks far off, even though he seemed primed for that when he shone in the Under-20 World Cup win two years ago, and Nigeria – his parents’ homeland – remains an option. The England setup keep in occasional contact but he knows he has “a serious decision” to make with the 2022 World Cup in mind. “I’ve not changed my mind [on wanting to represent England] but I’m open and it’s good to have different opportunities,” he says. In three years’ time he will be “not at my peak but good, very good” – that self-belief again – and it is something he wants to demonstrate in Qatar.
By then he will hope to have proved his worth at Leipzig. Life under Nagelsmann has meant adapting to a possession-based style that informed onlookers say is as complex as any they have seen. After a long pause he agrees he has never quite worked in conditions like these but the winter break is coming and the expectation is he will receive far more game time from January.
During those weeks off he will develop himself off the pitch too: when he is alone in his apartment he reads assiduously and enjoys watching speeches and lectures by people who inspire him, with Denzel Washington a current favourite.
“I just like to learn about different people,” he says. “Even if I watch something 10 times, every time I’ll learn something different, take it and use it.”
The relative quiet of Leipzig sits well with Lookman. Despite the frustration of the last five months he is certain he is in the right place, even if young English players have not always taken easily to a continental setting.
“Yeah, it’s happened,” he says. “But in my case it was successful first time, and this time it will be even more successful.”