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Interviews

In-depth: Emmanuel Onariase

28 May 2021

As featured in our programme, we spoke to central defender Emmanuel Onariase about his debut season with the Iron, career to date and what drives him.

Manny, you’ve already been on what looks like a rollercoaster ride in your career so far at 24-years-old. Take us through your early movements in football.

I started playing in primary school, just for the school team. In Year 7 at my secondary school, Sir Thomas the Apostle, I had a great PE teacher. I joined the school football team and played for the South London district team. From there, I got scouted by West Ham. They came to watch a couple of games and I went on trial with them, but was told that I wasn’t good enough, so I went back to my district team. I stayed there before getting a second trial with West Ham and I ended up signing for them after being at Millwall for a bit in-between. My football journey started from there, signing for West Ham when I was 12 and I was there until I was 19, signing my first professional contract there at 18.

Is it right you were a midfielder at first when you initially went to West Ham?

Not sure how you knew that *laughs* but yes, I started as a midfielder at West Ham at the age of 12 and changed to centre-back at Under-15s officially.

What changed between your two trials at West Ham as you went from not being good enough to suddenly be worth a contract?

I think I developed. I was a midfielder and they had Freddy Moncur and he was quite technical, and I wasn’t technical. I was just big, strong and fast. Midfielders back then were very cultured, spreading passes with the outside of their foot and in training sessions I wasn’t really that good compared to the rest of the players. When I went back there, I played a trial game against Crystal Palace and I scored two goals.

That always helps!

Yeah, exactly. So, I scored two against Palace and one against Norwich the week after. I got in, even though I wasn’t technical. Playing those two games gave me more of a chance to show what I could do rather than training. That was the difference.

How did you end up pushed back a position then?

At Under-14s, we had a manager - Mark Ellis - and he was very technical and wanted technical midfielders and I just wasn’t. Even though I’d been in the system for a couple of years, I still wasn’t technical enough. Because I was big, it was just a natural one.

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You look like a centre-half, sort of thing?

Exactly! “Manny, you look like a centre-half, you’re a big lad”. I went into that position and it enabled me to play up a year with the older boys because I was bigger and I handled it physically, so I stayed in that position. I played up with the youth team as well, which was a good experience.

You made it onto the first team bench, as you said, with one of those coming against Arsenal. How was that for an experience?

It was amazing. Back then, I feel it was harder for younger players to break into the first teams at that level than it is now. Players do get opportunities now. There were a few injuries, so to be told I was in the first team squad was amazing. One week, I was playing for the Under-18s and the next week I was on the bench at the Emirates, travelling and staying in the hotel. It was surreal.

Did you train with the first team often?

Before that, I only got called up once or twice a week, when they needed me, but after I was on the bench, it got to a stage where Sam Allardyce said I was with them from now until the end of the season.

What’s Big Sam like to work under?

He’s a very good manager, but he’s very big on character. I remember one training session with Dan Potts, the left-back, who is now at Luton. He said to him that he wanted him to get the ball and knock it down the line. The first time he got the ball, he shaped to put it down the line, but as the winger had closed him down, he’s chopped inside. Sam Allardyce blew his whistle, stopped the sessions and started screaming at him for a minute, but then turned around at the coaches and winked at them. From then on, he looked at Dan for the rest of the session and it was just to test his character. He was a young player in the first team, and he wanted to see how he’d react to it. It was eye-opening just being in the dressing room with them. He’s all about grit and hard work.

Let’s take a little breather from talking about football, because during your West Ham days you were obviously still at school and college. You’re quite well-educated, aren’t you?

I can only speak for myself, but I really enjoyed my time at school. I enjoyed education and learning new things. I did my GCSEs (achieving A* in maths and five As in his exams) and I’d started my A-Levels as well but had to stop because I signed professionally. I was Head Boy at school with a few prefects.

What did you study at AS Level?

I did maths, biology and physics. It is difficult. I was clever, but I wouldn’t say that I am now. I’ve probably forgotten the majority of it. Back then, I just loved finding out new things. I ended up dropping biology because I was missing so many lessons due to football, but I loved maths and physics. Maths is all calculations-based and I loved that there’s a definite answer, so you’re either right or wrong. English is all perception and how the examiner interprets your writing. That’s what I loved about maths - the formulae to work out a definitive answer. Physics was just mind blowing. It’s literally explaining to you how the world functions and physics is the explanation of maths. Those two intertwined really nicely and I loved it.

It’s quite interesting that you clearly have a love for physics, and you touched on how science explains how the world functions, but you’re also a religious man too. Science and religion have often clashed, so how do you view things there?

The whole explanation about how the Earth was formed - the Big Bang - I still feel there was a greater being who put it in place and let it develop. When we see how intricate a watch is, for example, we don’t think it came into existence by itself. You think, something made it. For me, it’s too simple to think the Earth just sprung into existence. For the Big Bang to happen, the atoms had to collide at the precise micro-second for it to be able to sustain life on Earth. It’s too magnificent for it to be random and that’s what I believe.

Being so intelligent and getting fantastic grades and clearly being so enthusiastic about those fields, did you have a career path in mind if football wasn’t meant to be?

That’s a good question - I think for me, it was anything to do with maths. I couldn’t really say what I wanted to be because football was in my head, but I wanted to go down a mathematics pathway if not.

It sounds like university and further education would’ve been a big possibility for you?

That would have been the plan. Even on the side of football now, I’ve been contemplating doing a degree. A few of our players are doing it, but with my whole career, especially in the last three or four years, it has just been so unstable in terms of moving. I’ve moved every six months, so I just want to stabilise myself and then focus on doing something like that on the side.

You’ve read my mind there, because I was going to come onto stability. How do you deal with that as a person and as a footballer?

It’s so hard but it gets to a point where you need to be comfortable with change. In our lives, we try and be in control of everything - we want to be in control of our finances, for example - but you have to understand that things can’t always be in your control. You need to be comfortable with the unknown and whatever is next for me, I need to prepared and ready for it, rather than plan exactly what is going to happen. That’s the hardest thing - you can only control the controllables.

Quite a popular former manager used to say that quite often!

It’s true, and when you can be comfortable with the unknown, you deal with whatever comes next.

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How hard for a young player is it to throw yourself up and down the country every six months? You’ve literally gone south-north-south-north with your moves.

It has been hard, but I’ve enjoyed it and my missus has been very supportive with all of it. She’s been travelling and I always used to make jokes to her saying “if you were in my position, I wouldn’t do this for you”. *laughs* I don’t think she liked that, but it’s crazy. She works at a school and she used to work all day at a school in London and then drive to Cheltenham on a Tuesday night to watch my 7.45pm game, drive back and then be up at 6am in the morning for school, along with all the planning that goes with the job. Me, personally, I’ve had a good support system with my family. Up until moving, I’d only lived in London my whole life. Up north, people are friendlier. In London, it’s busy and people just go about their own business, but you can walk down the street in the north and people say “good morning” to you. It’s completely different and even at Cheltenham, they have the races and just seeing how the place reacts to that event was incredible.

Back to football then, you started in the Premier League, then Championship and so on to the National League. Did you feel you had to take one step back to progress forward?

Exactly that. I wish I could have realised a lot of things then that I’ve realised now. I wanted to play first team football and I needed to understand that as a centre-back, it is a vital position in the core of the team and a lot of teams want a player with experience. You might be good enough, but without experience, the manager doesn’t know if he can trust you. Going out on loan to Cheltenham from Brentford was about that, building the trust. What I should have done was go back out on loan to a similar team and build on that trust and experience rather than jumping to the next step too soon. I wanted to show I was good enough for the next level, but never built up enough trust, so that’s why I kept having to go down a step to show what I’ve got. At Dagenham, I played 60-or-so games, built that trust, and now I’m in League Two looking to build that trust at this level.

It must be hard as a young player to think you have to do that - especially when you look at the two extremes of being a Premier League player to being in the National League?

Mentally, it’s hard. As a young player in an academy, you’re in a bubble, as bad as it sounds. You think you’re going through the academy to get into the first team, play week-in, week-out and be a professional. But the reality of it is that realistically only one player makes it. At my age, only Declan Rice is still there playing. Josh Cullen was there too, but he’s now moved on. At lot of players have talent, but don’t always break through. Once I left West Ham, I was into the real world and things I was taking for granted, I now needed to work hard for it. I used to live at West Ham digs and I’d wake up and there was a van there waiting to take us to training. We got there, our kit was ready and lunch was there. After training, we’d get taken back and our room had been cleaned. Everything was done. When I left West Ham, I had to do these things for myself and it was just the reality. The lower you go, the more you have to do for yourself, but it’s been a blessing for me. I’ve been as low as Dagenham, who don’t even serve food. Leaving West Ham has given me the basic life skills that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. There’s a positive in every situation and I now appreciate everything that I have. I appreciate having hot lunches made for me here and the chef making nice food.

You don’t know real life in the Premier League until you’re chucked off the bandwagon and at that age, being released, you are just dumped, aren’t you?

Literally, life is just football, you don’t think about anything else. Players are released into the real world and don’t realise how tough it is. After that, you then realise that, on the pitch, you’re playing for three points and your livelihoods. If you don’t perform week-in, week-out, your manager gets sacked. They’ve got to put food on the table for their families. If you don’t play well, you haven’t got another contract and if another club doesn’t sign me, you’re out. 

That Cheltenham loan, the first time, was the first time you’ve played professional football and got a run of games. How fondly do you look back at that spell?

It was the best experience I could have possibly gone through in football. They were rock bottom of the league when me and a few other lads signed for them in January. Will Boyle was my centre-half partner and joined at the same time. I learnt so much about that whole fight. We were literally scrapping for our lives. Every single Saturday was a cup final for us and it meant so much to the players and the fans. It meant everything to us and so much more than to a team in the middle or at the top of the table. It was eye-opening from being comfortable at Brentford - win or lose in the B team, train with the first team to then be fighting for our lives every week. When I signed for Cheltenham on loan, I was 100 per cent committed, the same for every club I’ve gone to. Once I signed there, I forgot about Brentford, I was 100 per cent committed. I felt like a Cheltenham player and my mentality was if we got relegated, I was going to be a National League player, so it was affecting me as well. I bought into that and we ended up surviving relegation with two games to go and it was the most beneficial spell in my career to teach me about the fight needed.

You touched on what it means to fans at this level and this is in no disrespect to fans who watch and support Premier League teams every week, but supporters at this level are different aren’t they? It appears to mean more.

Passionate; 100 per cent. The fans at lower clubs are so passionate and you can see and feel the emotions that it means so much to them. When you go out, you are playing for your club and you’re playing for them as well.

This season, by your own admission, didn’t start how you’d have wanted it to joining a new club and soon after having a hernia problem. How would you assess it at this stage now?

It’s been a positive season for me on the whole. Things have improved and are going well for the better. When I first signed and the whole hernia situation happened, I felt so bad. How I saw it in my head was imagine buying a toy and it is then broken in the first few days (of pre-season). You really want to play with this toy but you’ve got to spend a long time repairing it and you can’t feel the enjoyment of the toy until it is fixed. I had just signed and I felt bad for the club and for myself and my career it was heart-breaking to not start the season. I thought I was going to be out for longer, so big credit to the medical team for that. From there, it’s been upwards for me and for the team as well. It’s been very enjoyable - everyone has taken to me and been very welcoming. The togetherness and team spirit in the group is very good.

You said that shop analogy and I had my former retail head on there…. return or exchange!

*laughs* It’s true though, because you want to hit the ground running and you want to make the best first impression and I couldn’t do that.

Since meeting you, and it’s been very evident in this interview so far, it’s clear you’re a positive person, find the best in every situation and always come out with quotes. “Pressure is a privilege” is one that sticks in my mind. Where does this originate from?

It’s definitely my upbringing. In my life, nothing has been given to me. Everything I’ve had or have now, I’ve had to work hard for. Some people are blessed in life - and I’ll never knock them down - they’ve been given stuff and had better opportunities than others. I feel like I’ve had to struggle, work hard, hustle and bustle for everything I’ve got. I feel like I’m more appreciative of everything. When I was younger, and still, I’ve always been obsessed with quotes. I’ve always been motivated and it comes from my mum and my dad, but mainly my dad. He always instilled into me that there is always more to be done. There’s always someone better and that feeling of wanting to do more has always given me that drive and push. I used to miss a lot of school being in an academy, so I used to spend hours in the library trying to catch up. I used to ask myself why I was celebrating on my birthday? If I take the day off to celebrate and there’s someone out there working hard to be better than me. 

That’s quite deep for a young lad at school isn’t it?

I do look back now and think “wow, he was a motivated kid”! It is deep. It’s the same thought as going to a party that my friends are going to, or taking a day off, there is someone out there working hard to be a better player than me or to get better grades than me. That’s just the mindset that I’ve used and adapted. I need to work, I need to do more. When I starting thinking that I’m doing okay, that’s when you get complacent. That’s stuck with me all my life. My dad was big on maths, that’s why it’s come down to me. If I got 80 per cent and I got the highest in my class and I got an A, he would ask why I didn’t get 90 per cent, which ones did you get wrong and how can you improve for next time. That’s just been instilled in me from a young age and it’s been a rolling effect.

With that in mind, and saying you’ve struggled and had to work hard for everything you’ve got, what was your background like growing up?

I grew up in South London and we weren’t well-off. My mum and dad both worked hard and I have three older brothers. They gave us the basic necessities and put a roof over our heads and after that it was about us going out and working hard to create a better life for ourselves.

We’ve touched on religion a little bit earlier on. Sir Thomas the Apostle is a Catholic school, so I guess that side of things has also been instilled into you?

My family are religious, yes. When I was younger, my dad always brought me to a church environment and I’ve always believed in God. Honestly, now, I just did it then to tick boxes. It’s what my dad wanted me to do, so I did it. When I moved away from home, I stopped going to church as much, but it got to a stage just before lockdown when I started to search for answers. I started a journey where I searched for a greater being and built a relationship with God truly rather than just doing it because my dad told me to. In life you go through so many experiences and there are times where you feel high and low. I don’t want to put my religion on anyone else, so I only speak personally, but I started to realise that God is the only one who gives me inner peace. In football, you can be top of the world or at the bottom, but reading the Bible is where I found my inner peace and put me on the journey of being really religious.

What clicked and how do you go about going on the journey?

My friend passed away, who I call my brother really. It set me off and after that, I started this journey to discover. I started reading and connecting with others. I’m in a group chat called Ballers in God which includes players from all levels in the same faith as me, so we can understand and relate to each other better. It’s a space to share our weaknesses and there’s strength and comfort in that. Outside, in the real world, we have a mask on and say everything in life is great, but in this closed group, you take off your mask and open up. Just that unity going together has strengthened me.

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There have been a number of photos of you praying as you walk out at the start of a match and I know you like those pictures. Are you able to share with us exactly what you’re doing at that moment?

The prayer is a personal one, but in context it is one of appreciation. We take waking up every morning for granted, but we wake up every morning, have a family, have a roof over our heads and it’s just about saying thank you. Thank you for giving me life, thank you for another game. Anything could happen.

Just to wrap things up with a thought on being at this club. You’ve talked about thriving stability for various reasons. Do you think this is the place to finally have that?

For me, you excel the best where you feel loved, appreciated and where you feel comfortable and stable and for me, I’ve got all of those factors. I’m so happy here. I’ve got another year on my contract and I have that stability and I’m at a club where I’m appreciated and where people want me. It means so much and it’s a blessing. I can’t ask for more or complain, because I’m so happy. Playing in front of the fans would put the icing on the cake.


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