Trials at Dutch champions Ajax, discussions with Arsenal’s serial Premier League winner, Arsene Wenger, and now battling the likes of Neymar on the international stage… there have been some intriguing stories on Semi Ajayi’s journey to The Hawthorns. The Albion centre-back has been a model of consistency and excellence in Slaven Bilić’s back-line since arriving in the summer. A sparkling student, he decided to set aside his academic achievements to focus on a career in football and, like his defensive partner Kyle Bartley, has arrived at the Club via a circuitous route around the various levels of English football. He’s now an established Nigerian international and is flourishing with the Baggies.
What do you think should be on your football bucket list?
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. A third one? Win the African Nations. All three would be excellent.
So if those are the targets by the time you finish playing, how did it all start?
I was born in Croydon but just after my brother 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.
Charlton Athletic were the one’s to provide you with your start in football…?
Yes, going to Charlton at 16 was a big moment for me because it would mean leaving school and my academic career. But my parents left the decision to me. I had really good grades and football definitely represented a bigger risk. But that was what I wanted to do and they stood by my decision. My mum (Dayo) was born in the UK but moved back to Nigeria where she met my Dad (Biyi)… yes, mum and dad did a lot for me and my brother Fikayo who was just as keen on football. Between us, dad would be taking us to football six days a week.
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.
Going back to your time at Charlton…
So yes, Charlton was really good for me. I had been going there since I was nine. But we were in half-term and I think mum just wanted me and Fikayo out of the house so we went off to one of those football camps they were running. It was nothing too serious but I think I got recommended from that. My dad came to get me one day and didn’t tell me where I was going just that I would need my boots. I didn’t know it but he was taking me for a trial and I did well enough to get into their development school and then their Academy. We had a really good team and the focus of their Academy was about the development of the person, not just the footballer. They felt good human beings would make better footballers and they had a great record then for producing a lot of players; a lot had come through during the previous 10 or 15 years. I got a great football education at Charlton but the one thing that I couldn’t see was a pathway to the first team.
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.
Yours and Kyle Bartley’s stories are very similar, wouldn’t you agree?
Yeah… I just missed him at Arsenal by a few weeks apparently. And it’s strange but we’ve got a really good understanding and have had from the start. We seem to know each other’s thoughts even though we’re not familiar with each other. Kyle left Arsenal just as I joined and the lads who knew him started telling me how much my game reminded them of ‘Barts.’ I didn’t know who he was; we hadn’t met. But they were always telling me that we both had the same attributes. It’s strange how we have ended up together and I do think we have built a good partnership, a good understanding. As I say, we seem to know each other’s thoughts on the pitch and that’s a really positive thing.
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…
You helped your country get a really good result against Brazil too…?
That was a great confidence boost for me, to be able to measure myself against players of that quality and come out with with a 1-1 draw. It’s a good feeling to be at that level and it was a very good performance and very good result for us. The only disappointment was not getting Neymar’s shirt. But I don’t think he was in a very good mood after the game. I asked at the end but it was already taken – I think the other lads in the team must spend the entire game asking him which is something I would never do. But I got Coutinho’s so I’m happy enough with that.
The Nigerians love their football and they are becoming more aware of me now that I am playing a lot more consistently with the national team. They know about Albion of course but they love the Premier League – all the Premier League players are worshipped out there.
Was it extra special to blunt the nation which produced your favourite player?
Ronaldinho? Yes, there was nobody like him at the time. He did things no other player was trying; definitely my first football hero.
What happened after Arsenal?
What I needed most of all, I felt, was first-team football and I left to go in search of a club where I might be able to get it. I had trials all over that summer… Sunderland, Ipswich, Cardiff and Ajax…
Ajax… that must have been an interesting experience in your development?
It was fantastic. They’ve got that famous philosophy of playing of course, developing talented young players. But they have the system whereby the ‘B’ team play in the second division to get that competitive football. It was a really good experience and I really enjoyed it. They have non-position specific training where it doesn’t matter what position you may consider yourself, you are expected to be able to play in any other part of the team. So one day you might be a central defender playing as a winger and the next the full-back might be playing centre-forward. They demand that you develop the technical skills to be able to handle the ball in any part of the pitch. It is, like they say, total football and is why they produce such well-rounded footballers. When they get to the first team then their positions are set but by then all the players understand and can cope with each other’s roles.
But the summer trials ended up in South Wales at Cardiff…
I went to Cardiff under Russell Slade where I thought I was going to play but he said afterwards that I was a development project… it annoyed me a bit because I was looking for the one thing I needed, first-team football, and I thought I was going to get it there. So I went out on loan to AFC Wimbledon – where I broke my nose and got concussed in my third game. I don’t remember a thing about it to this day and that’s despite seeing the video play back. I don’t know how it happened.
But Rotherham was the first place I found a home in football. At other places I always felt I was playing for my parent club and not the team I was in. But at Rotherham I really settled down and became a main part of the team and at last I got that regular first-team football I knew I needed. When I first got in there, I think they thought I had played a lot more than I had… I was held up as someone who had already played 100 times but I had only made 20, 30 appearances at that point. But it was great. I got a place just by the ground, the people took me to their heart and made me feel at home and of course we got involved in a promotion season which was massive. We kind of knew what we were doing and hit our form just before Christmas and we flew up the table thinking we could even get top two. In the end we finished fourth and made the Play-Offs but we got past Scunthorpe and then Shrewsbury in the final after extra-time and the feeling… it’s one of the best I can imagine. It was like the whole town turned out for us when we got back and it’s great to see how much a football team can bring to people. Seeing that huge amount of joy being experienced by a community was unforgettable.
It was a tough season for Rotherham last year and especially so when you came up against your current employers…?
The strange thing is I felt in both the games it was a pretty harsh scoreline on us. I think in the first match, we had as many goal- scoring opportunities but Albion were just so much more clinical. It seemed every time they shot at goal it went in. And of course we got relegated at The Hawthorns at the back end of the season although again, I felt we played well. But we just couldn’t match that finishing in front of goal. I think Albion were already in the Play-Offs by then but what impressed me that day was the stadium. I hadn’t played at The Hawthorns before, I’d just seen it on TV. But to be honest whenever we went away that season, because Rotherham were not a big draw, most of the stadiums were not very full but The Hawthorns was… it showed me how well supported the Club were.
When did you know you would be back in front of those fans?
When I got back from international duty that summer my agent got in touch to tell me about the clubs who had been in contact with him wanting to sign me. Albion was the name that leapt out straightaway for me. That was June and by July the negotiations were underway but I think the first attempts fell through and I thought the deal was dead. I was pretty devastated to be honest. Thankfully it all got done in the end. I needed to stay in the Championship at the very least, especially with my international career – it would be hard to play for Nigeria as a League One player.
It’s proving to be the right decision judging by your performances this term…?
Yes, it’s going well. The Championship is… it’s so difficult to read what’s going to happen next. Teams will have these runs when they get three wins in a row in a burst of form and then you look three games later and they have been beaten each time. It happens the other way around too. It’s almost as if it’s all about at what point you face these teams. I don’t think we’ve had any amazing spells yet but we’ve not had any bad ones either. We’ve just put together some good form for the majority of the season and that has put us in a position which we would have all accepted back at the start. That’s been our theme all along really – not to get too high with the highs or too low with the lows.
Are we seeing you in your best position – or are you secretly a midfielder? That’s what the Rotherham fans have said…
I feel most comfortable at centre-half. Always have done. I’m more than happy to step into midfield if asked but I’ve never thought of myself as a midfield player.
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.
Thanks Semi. I think we can speak on behalf of the fans by saying it was a pleasure to speak to you…
It’s pleasing to hear they appreciate me as a human. That’s really nice to hear and massive credit to my mum and dad. They instilled all these values in me. They now live in Kent but come to see me play a couple of times a month.
One last thing… can you help us out with your full name, and what does it mean?
Sure. Phonetically, it’s “o-loo” then “Wah” and “Shemmy” and “logo.” And it means: ‘The Lord has glorified me.’
• Culled from wba.co.uk/news, the official website of West Bromwich Albion.