Liverpool striker Taiwo Awoniyi, who is on loan at Bundesliga side, Union Berlin, talks about being left out of the Super Eagles, missing the Olympics, suffering concussion last June and more in this interview with JOHNNY EDWARD
You’ve been in fine form lately, scoring three goals in your last six games for Union Berlin. What has been the secret?
My secret has always been God. I worked harder this term to get into the team after a slow start. For me, it’s always about the team, always fighting, working, doing everything for the team. And for a striker, I believe once you put that first, the rest will come. My teammates have also played a big role in the way I’ve been playing. Everyone has been instrumental to my form here, from the first to the last person at the club.
Union are the seventh club you’re playing on loan since you joined Liverpool in 2015. How comfortable has it been switching clubs every season?
It’s not been easy switching clubs every season. I must admit here that it has been my biggest challenge since I arrived in Europe but that has also made me gain more experience as a footballer. Learning different football cultures is what I’ve learnt playing for several teams each year. These tough times made me stronger. I’d keep fighting for what I want and deserve but it’s been difficult. The reason I’m yet to play for Liverpool is that I don’t have a work permit. Liverpool saw a lot in me and they kept me for a reason. Going to Liverpool has been the best decision I have taken in my life.
Do you still believe you will play for Liverpool?
Of course, I do. Time and chance are key. The quality in Liverpool is great. Sadio Mané is Africa’s best. And the truth is, he just didn’t find himself in Liverpool suddenly, he went through processes. Roberto Firmino did just as Mohamed Salah. Salah also played on loan from Chelsea at Fiorentina and Roma. It is what it is. Some players may never have to go through all of these but many have to. I might be lucky and be the star guy in one game. Alexander Trent-Arnold is 20 and he’s doing well. When I was to go for pre-season last summer with them, I got injured and didn’t go. It’s about time and chance.
Union are currently fifth in the Bundesliga. Do you think they can qualify for European football for the second time in their history?
We can’t talk about that now as we are just halfway into the season. The goal at the club is to improve on last season’s finish. We finished 11th last term, so a top 10 finish will be a good one for us.
Victor Osimhen and Paul Onuachu are Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr’s preferred strikers in the last 18 months. Do you think you can break into the Eagles squad, having played for all the national age-grade teams?
We have abundant talents in that position. The names you mentioned deserve to be there at the moment. It’s the dream of every player to represent his country and I will love to play for the Super Eagles. I will keep working hard to achieve this. My time will come and I believe I will make a good impact. We have lots of strikers in Europe and I feel the best will be called up at all times. I’m getting closer to achieving that, having played from the U-17, U-20 and U23 teams. Hopefully, if I continue scoring and performing well, I may get a chance this year. Playing for the Eagles will help me get a work permit easily in England. Getting into the Eagles will be tough but I will fight to earn my place in the team. There was a period I felt I deserved an invitation but it never came. I’d be fulfilled to play in the Eagles. Sometimes you’d find an in-form player not getting a place in the team, but a player who’s not playing well will. It baffles me but it depends on what the coach wants. Currently, Nigeria has many talents, but I believe I deserve a call-up. With the way I played at Mouscron, a Liverpool director told me, ‘you deserve a call-up for the friendly in England.’ That was the Nigeria versus England friendly before the 2018 World Cup. I did well at that period but I never got a chance.
You were part of the U-23 team that failed to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. What went wrong with the team, despite the array of talents in the squad?
Unfortunately, we could not qualify for the Olympics despite the huge sacrifice and risk I took. That’s football. It was an event I wanted to be part of, having missed out on the previous one in Rio 2016, where I was named as an alternate player. We knew we let the country down no doubt because we had the talent to qualify. Our failure to beat South Africa cost us. That’s football. It was not down to coaching, we simply did not do what was necessary, which was to win when we needed to. The coach gave his best just as the players did. There was no excuse to tender. We felt bad missing out because we gave our very best to actualise our dreams.
Do you have any regrets missing Rio 2016 and the upcoming Games in Tokyo?
That’s my greatest football regrets. When I was placed on standby, I opted to leave camp immediately for Nigeria, before I moved to Holland. That affected me psychologically because I made a lot of sacrifices for the team. I believe there is more to it. I would have achieved a lot. I was in camp till the last day and what shocked me was that I was told I could only play if someone was injured. I’m happy they won bronze but I could have offered more to the team.
Last season, you suffered a concussion during Mainz’s league clash with Augsburg, when you collided with defender Felix Uduokhai. Can you recall the incident?
I went on to the pitch praying to score but I woke up at the hospital. I’m just lucky to be alive. God used the referee’s (Marco Fritz) quick reaction to save me. The doctor told me it was really strange. They said the way I was coming down, I should have gone down with my head. If I had gone down directly with my head, it would have been a different story. They said they were surprised because I had already passed out in the air, but I was lucky that the first thing that happened was my feet hitting the ground, then my shoulder also, before my head. If I had landed straight with my head it would have been a different story. The doctors told me I was talking on the pitch but I didn’t know I was talking. They said when they tried to wake me up I was telling them I’m okay and I still wanted to play. But I didn’t know I was saying that. I don’t remember that. When we got to the hospital, before I regained consciousness, they were lifting me up and that was when I realised I wasn’t on the pitch anymore.
Do you have any targets for 2021?
I hope to surpass my goal record in Europe in a season, stay fit and hopefully earn an invitation to the Eagles.
You married at the age of 20…
(Cuts in) It was a decision I took because I didn’t see myself getting married to another woman. She has been my friend since my secondary school days, so it was an easy choice for me. All I wanted and dreamt of, I found in her and ever since we tied the nuptial knots she has helped me stay focused more on the pitch. I worry less about home because she’s there to handle that.