Name: Chuba Akpom
Previous clubs: Arsenal, Brentford (loan), Coventry City (loan), Nottingham Forest (loan), Hull City (loan), Brighton and Hove Albion (loan).
Current club: Sint-Truidense V.V.
Interview conducted by Mitchell Game of @walow_pbfl
Chuba Akpom has been at Arsenal since the age of 6, but as is often the case at bigger English clubs, it is incredibly hard to break into the first-team. Arsene Wenger does like to give youth a chance in the cup competitions but the majority of Chuba’s appearances have come on loan at other clubs. At the end of January he moved from Arsenal once again, but despite having offers in England, the striker decided to take a bit of a leap into the unknown.
“I just wanted a new environment. Obviously the team (STVV) has been doing well. I was speaking to one of their coaches and he told me some good things about the club, so I thought I'd go and get regular football.”
Not many English players have made the move to Belgium (Gary Martin who we featured previously, one of a few). For Chuba though it was just important to get back playing at a team that was challenging for something, and a bit of research into the league helped him out.
“I think the main thing was just to play regularly for a team who is fighting for something, you know? Fighting to play in Playoff 1.
I knew about the teams who'd played in Europe like Anderlecht in the past. I knew that some top players had come from the Belgian league. I had to do a bit of research on the league and how they play and stuff. It's a good league. I'd say it's underestimated. Obviously not as big as the Premier League but there are good players here.”
It has also involved a change in the style of play for the 22-year-old to get used to. The Championship is a notoriously tough league, where you won’t be given much time on the ball, and players like Akpom have to adjust to stronger challenges, from more traditional English defences. However in Belgium he has seen more of a focus on the tactics as well as the physical aspect.
“I've played in the Championship and I'd probably say that the Championship is one of the most intense leagues in Europe. Here, the teams are very organised and are physically good. It's a tough league and is definitely underestimated.”
You can tell by the quality. These top teams have maybe those few players who have that quality on the ball and tactically they're organised, meaning we have to be that more organised when we play these top teams.”
One big difference from the football he is used to is STVV’s synthetic pitch. Something that you would only affiliate with training or 5-a-side mostly in England.
“It's not something that I'm used to. It's taking me a while to adapt to in training. The pitch is harder than grass so some people may be worried about getting injured on there, but so far I haven't had any problems.
It's not scientifically proven if a synthetic pitch injures players, so I'm not too sure. All I can say is that it's definitely harder, so physically it'll be harder on the body. For STVV it benefits us because not a lot of teams play on synthetic, so when teams come to our ground, they're not used to it, whereas we train on it so we're more used to it.”
The former England youth international scored his first goal for Sint Truidense last week against Belgian giants Anderlecht giving his side a big 3 points and keeping them in the hunt for a play-off place. Chuba has settled in quickly and the first goal always helps.
“Yeah I feel like I've settled. Obviously the transition from a big club like Arsenal to Sint-Truiden, things are different. I'm just getting used to everything. The surroundings, my teammates. I think the best thing for that is to just be playing and gaining an understanding. It's nice because the celebration was good because it showed the team unity. That we're all playing for each other because we all want to get into Playoff 1.”
Chuba Akpom deserves a lot of credit for jumping into a new adventure abroad. A lot of players will just move somewhere that feels comfortable, staying in the same house, and with that you perhaps don’t learn as much as stepping into the unknown. Outside of the football, the Canning Town born forward is experiencing a new culture, broadening his horizons and expanding his contacts in the game. This could be crucial further down his career, and who knows what opportunities it can lead to. Hopefully strong performances in Belgium will not go unnoticed back home as well. Akpom has enjoyed a successful youth international career with his last spell with England for the Under 21’s ending with 3 goals in 5 games.
“There's a difference in the way that clubs do things. A small example is that we have to take our boots ourselves to games, which I think is a culture thing, because I think all clubs do it. In England it's not like this. I think it's good for me in helping me adapt as there's obviously a different language and different way of doing things. It can only be good for me. I've come out of my comfort zone because I know this can make me a better player and better person. As long as I'm doing what I love, which is playing football, I have no problems!”
“These were my first two matches in four months so I'm just gradually getting back into it. I still feel I can give more than I've actually given so far. I'm just hoping as the games keep coming I'll get more confidence, more match fit and everything will just click. I just want everyone to see what I can do.”
In Chuba Akpom’s 16 years at Arsenal he’s only ever had one manager in Arsene Wenger. Loan moves also give him the chance to learn under different guidance and in the Sint-Truidnese coach, Akpom is being managed by Jonas De Roeck, someone 30 years younger than Wenger.
“Arsene Wenger is one of the best managers in the world who's calm and humble. He is very intelligent with the way he approaches things. Overall he is a calming influence. Now with Jonas De Roeck, you can tell he is very passionate. Everything is intense. He wants his players to always give 100% like he does. You can tell he spends a lot of time behind closed doors doing tactical things. He has a direct approach. Both are different in the way they do things.”
It's a former Arsenal player who Akpom cites as having had one of the biggest influences on his game.
“Since I was young I was in and out of training with the first team at 16-17 and he saw something special in me. He would always try and help me in training or in the matches. He was always speaking to me, telling me I've always got that quality and that I should keep going. It's something I will never forget giving me that motivation. When a top player like Rosicky is telling me he believes in me, it certainly going to give you a lot of confidence.”
Even if Akpom does go on to have a prolific spell in Belgium, there’s no guarantees he will get a chance back at Arsenal. You only have to look at the many, many players Chelsea have out on loan. The striker is realistic to know in his time at Arsenal, not everyone gets a fair shot, but all he can do is get his head down, and continue to work hard.
“I would've liked to have been involved a lot more at Arsenal. Like any player, I was just eager to play. That's me, I'm always eager to play. I'm passionate but I didn't get that game time. What can I say? I've always stayed confident, optimistic, patient and eager to play, which is happening now.”
“In England there's world class talent coming through academies. I feel if the players played they'd take their chances and wouldn't feel out of place. For a manager, looking to win the Premier League, a lot of them go for experience that have done it before, not trying to risk with any player from the academy. It's tough for players like us coming through.”
Managers these days are only ever a few bad results away from the sack. Instead of giving youth a chance; which fans all love to see I hasten to add, managers will rather spend millions on someone else to come in who is more experienced. Plenty of young players will have gone unnoticed who may have even saved a few jobs along the way. Would Marcus Rashford have ever got a chance if it wasn’t for the severe injury list Manchester United had two years ago. Rumours were he was close to joining Crewe Alexandra on loan.
“I think a manager has to realise that a young kid is going to try harder and be hungrier. He'll always give 100% and they'll be more grateful.”
A huge thanks to Chuba Akpom and Sint-Truidense for giving us their time for this.