“It’s always been my dream to play in the Premier League,” Taiwo Awoniyi announced after joining Nottingham Forest as their record signing. It took the Nigerian a mere seven years from signing for Liverpool to finally make his mark but his ambitions to make it in England started even further back.
In between his arrival in England to the present day, he has ticked off seven loans and two permanent moves. The Nigerian striker became Nottingham Forest’s first signing of the summer when the club spent £17.5m on Awoniyi, as a sign of their intentions, to mark their return to the top flight.
Liverpool snapped up the then teenage Awoniyi for £400,000 after he impressed in the Under-20 World Cup in 2015 but he was unable to obtain a work permit, forcing him to enjoy a nomadic life, taking in loans spells in Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, before joining Union Berlin permanently. There were infrequent stops with Liverpool, taking part in pre-seasons but it never led to a competitive outing. Awoniyi always speaks glowingly of his times on the books at Anfield despite never pulling on the Red shirt in anger, a sign of his positive attitude.
He used last summer with Jürgen Klopp and the Liverpool first team to analyse Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and, in particular, Roberto Firmino to educate himself. It was instilled in him during Liverpool’s pre-season camp in Austria last summer that to reach the top a player needs to be dedicated and work hard every day.
Not all of Awoniyi’s loans were fruitful, he had to learn the hard way, cutting short a spell with Gent after failing to score in 16 league games. He was generally limited to time off the bench in a side that did not suit in style but it was acknowledged as another learning curve. His faith in God has always been very important to the striker, ensuring he continues to trust in the process to get him to where he is today.
There were a plethora of reasons Forest targeted the 25-year-old as their first-choice No 9; he has speed, stamina to press – like Steve Cooper intends to play – and he scored 15 goals in 31 league matches for Union Berlin last season thanks to his smart movement in and around the area. The striker works incredibly hard off the ball and Forest are realistic enough to know they will spend most of the season without it. He is one of 15 signings to have already arrived at the City Ground since Forest beat Huddersfield in the Championship playoff final and provides a focal point in a team trying to gel.
Forest had to beat off plenty of competition, including from Premier League rivals, to sign Awoniyi. He was taken to Athens with his agent to talk to Cooper about the role envisaged for him in this new-look Forest. The discussions were enough to persuade Awoniyi that Nottingham would be the perfect place to finally make his Premier League impact.
Awoniyi is one of four players to join Forest from the Bundesliga this summer. The club saw greater value in Germany where they could recruit ideal candidates for cheaper than in England and Bundesliga clubs needed money this summer. Moussa Niakhaté and Orel Mangala also impressed in Forest’s first win of the season against West Ham. The trio are aged between 24 and 26, making them ripe for improvement and they could form the spine of the team for years to come. Omar Richards, meanwhile, joined form Bayern Munich but he is currently injured with a fractured leg.
Admittedly, Awoniyi may not have imagined his first goal in the Premier League, the winner against West Ham, would be from a clearance bouncing in off his knee but his chest-thumping celebration showed he did not care. “I’m really happy with the goal because it took me a long journey to get back to the Premier League,” he told BBC. “That’s why I’m very, very proud of myself, and of course I am grateful to God about it.” Awoniyi is from humble beginnings in Nigeria and has always had an incredible work ethic wherever he has played, focused on getting the chance to prove himself as a Premier League striker.
As a child he had to sew his own boots to play. Those days are long behind him, but he never forgets where he came from or the ambitions he wants to achieve. He finally has the opportunity of stability to prove himself in the Premier League with a five-year contract at the City Ground thanks to years of hard graft in Nigeria and Europe. Awoniyi can now make England his long-term home and the Premier League his hunting ground.