There have been few Premier League debuts more dramatic than Ademola Lookman’s first few minutes in an Everton shirt. With Ronald Koeman’s side seeing out the closing stages of a comprehensive victory against Manchester City, the £7.5 million signing from Charlton entered the action for his first taste of top-flight football.
As the ball was played down the right wing, Lookman raced into the penalty box, anticipating the chance that presented itself when John Stones’s clearance ricocheted off Seamas Coleman. He took a touch, steadied himself, and fired a low drive through the legs of Claudio Bravo, bringing a rapturous Goodison Park crowd to its feet.
That was four months ago but Lookman doesn’t intend to dwell on the incredible rush of his arrival in the Premier League. That evening he celebrated with family, then it was straight back to work on the training ground to ensure he feels that euphoria again. “It was an amazing feeling to score against Manchester City. I can’t really describe it. But I need to kick on from that - I want to have 100 more moments like that in my career,” he told The Independent.
Lookman is currently in South Korea representing England at the Under-20 World Cup. Sitting in the lobby at the team hotel in Jeonju, he spoke of his pride at pulling on the Three Lions shirt and the privilege of spending time in a part of the world so different from the London district of Peckham in which he grew up. Following a 3-0 win against Argentina in the opening game and a 1-1 draw with Guinea, Lookman is confident that England can go all the way at this tournament. He intends to soak up as much as possible from the experience to take into next season with Everton.
It has been a whirlwind three years for a player whose route into professional football was far more circuitous than an ordinary academy graduate. The 19-year-old was playing for Sunday league side Waterloo FC in 2014 and it wasn't until a trial match between Charlton Under-16s and a south London XI, organised by the FA, that he finally caught the eye of a league club. So impressive was his performance in that game that he quickly signed terms to join up with Jason Euell's development squad at Sparrows Lane, making his first-team debut 18 months later and finishing the campaign with the Championship Apprentice of the Season award both for his efforts on the pitch and dedication to his studies.
Lookman, who achieved three A*s and five As at GCSE, is proud of his remarkable rise and hopes to be seen as a role model for other boys whose dreams of making it into the professional game are fading. He has fond memories of honing his skills on London’s five-a-side pitches and believes he has benefitted from taking a path that allowed him to be more expressive with his ability. "I still miss the cages," he says of those late evening kickabouts. “The type of player that I am, a ‘flairy’ player, I feel like not being in an academy I was able to express myself more, and I still do that all the time. It’s the norm to me.”
He proved that point in his first start at the Under-20 World Cup. In the opening stages of England’s draw against Guinea, he fashioned two chances for Chelsea forward Dominic Solanke and displayed quick feet to evade the attention of the Guinea defenders before firing a powerful shot narrowly past the post. Lookman is joined by four other Everton players in Korea, including striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, and is delighted to be playing for a club manager who has put his faith in young players this season.
Koeman reinforced his message of hard work and concentration when he offered a few words of advice before the tournament. It is a recurring theme throughout the conversation. No matter how far he has already come, commanding the highest transfer fee of any player from League One, Lookman insists his journey is only just beginning. There are elements to his game he intends to develop and he knows there is a time and place to show off the tricks he first learned as a teenager.
“I can still express myself, but in the right areas obviously. Possession is most important, because when you have the ball you’re in control. There are things that I can still improve on. I want to kick on next season and hopefully establish myself in the first team. I’m already looking forward to pre-season training. You have to set goals for yourself and be confident in your ability, and I am confident. We’ll see the results next season.”
His instinctive flair will never escape him, though, and you can tell the sort of player he aims to become from his list of idols. Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard are two Premier League colleagues he looks up to, but it is Barcelona superstar Neymar who sets the greatest the example to Lookman. The Brazilian’s skills bring joy to a young player who also owns a unique talent: “I haven’t had the chance to see him yet but hopefully I’ll be able to next season.”
Neymar is only 25, but when Lookman was playing for Waterloo FC at the start of 2014, he was starring for Barcelona and preparing for a World Cup in his homeland. He developed his talent by playing futsal in Brazil, and on England’s five-a-side pitches, in a variation of the game that is growing exponentially compared to traditional Sunday league, the FA will hope find a new generation of player. The type of player, like Lookman, with something special - who can receive the ball in tight spaces, move it forwards at speed, and possesses a competitive edge from constantly being pitted against older, bigger opponents.
“It’s helped me learn to fight for every opportunity,” says Lookman. It has also helped him learn to be adaptable. “I can play across the front, not so much as a striker, but as a left midfielder, as a No.10, and on the right. I’m comfortable with both feet. Sometimes I like to switch sides to give myself a new challenge, a new opponent to face.”
That willingness to seek out challenges and impose himself in matches has impressed Under-20s manager Paul Simpson, who has been dazzled by Lookman’s ability since his first call-up to the squad for a training camp in France in March. “He’s got so much ability,” Simpson told the Independent. “It’s incredible how someone like him has slipped through the net for so many years then suddenly pops up playing for Charlton and then joins Everton very quickly. People don’t realise but there are some unbelievably talented footballers in England.”
Lookman will hope to justify his manager’s praise on Friday when England face the host nation in what is effectively a play-off for top spot in Group A. He pauses to reflect on how he got to where he is now. “It’s been great. But I can do more, I can do better. That’s what I’m trying to do. I think if you have belief in anything you do - that drive will see you through.”
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