Nottingham Forest striker Taiwo Awoniyi opens up on a life overcoming the odds as he recalls going to bed without food as a child and taking advice from Jurgen Klopp

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An away fixture at Arsenal is one of the most difficult challenges in English football but as has become his habit, Nottingham Forest striker Taiwo Awoniyi simply took it in his stride.

Awoniyi is off the mark for the season thanks to his goal as a substitute in the 2-1 defeat at Emirates Stadium last Saturday and though Forest left with nothing, their second-half performance will give them plenty of optimism for Friday’s meeting with Sheffield United at the City Ground.

Awoniyi’s calmness derives from the obstacles he has overcome to arrive at this point, which means he treats sporting pressure as a privilege. Awoniyi is the first player from Kwara state, in the west of Nigeria, to make it to the Premier League. 

He joined Liverpool aged 18 but was not granted a work permit, so he had seven different loan spells in three countries before he signed for Forest last summer, for £17.5million, from Union Berlin.

From the day he started kicking a ball, Awoniyi has fought ferocious odds. ‘There is pressure in football but for many African players, growing up is difficult,’ he tells Mail Sport. ‘In some cases they have seen the other side of life and that helps.

Nottingham Forest striker Taiwo Awoniyi has spoken candidly on overcoming the odds

Nottingham Forest striker Taiwo Awoniyi has spoken candidly on overcoming the odds

The frontman scored his first goal of the season in Forest's 2-1 defeat by Arsenal last week

The frontman scored his first goal of the season in Forest’s 2-1 defeat by Arsenal last week

‘I’ve been in a situation as a child where I had to go to bed without food. Where I had to walk an hour just to get to a training ground.

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‘My dad is a retired officer and his earnings were not enough to cater for the whole family so growing up was really tough. Sometimes you are the one who has to find means for yourself.

‘Of course your mum and dad want to do everything they can for you but growing up, you see limits of what they can do. The best you can do is try to help as much as you can.

‘This is what really inspired me to be who I am today. It gave me the courage to think if I can go through all this, I can go through anything, even the worst parts of life.

‘Everyone wants to have a better life and I have adapted to many situations. Wherever I needed to go, I went. If it was Germany, Holland or the UK, that’s fine.

‘I’ve gone through different stages of difficulty and it helps me on the pitch. I’ve had to work things out for myself. It’s helpful to have been through those experiences.’ 

Awoniyi has recalled going to bed without food as a child and travelling miles for training

Awoniyi has recalled going to bed without food as a child and travelling miles for training

He joined Liverpool aged 18 but was not granted a work permit and later moved to Union Berlin

He joined Liverpool aged 18 but was not granted a work permit and later moved to Union Berlin

Awoniyi’s first season at Forest was interrupted by a three-month injury absence but he still made a valuable contribution with 10 league goals. His tally included winners against West Ham, Liverpool, Southampton and Arsenal, which helped secure the points to keep Steve Cooper’s team in the league.

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The strike against Liverpool on October 22 last year felt particularly significant. Awoniyi realised a childhood dream when he signed for the Reds in 2015, but at first he was unable to secure a work permit because he was not part of the senior Nigeria squad.

Though Awoniyi performed well on loan in Holland, Belgium and Germany, it was not enough to make the breakthrough at Anfield, where Jurgen Klopp was in charge of one of Europe’s strongest squads.

It was a conversation with Klopp, however, that persuaded Awoniyi to accept a permanent move to Union Berlin in 2021, after another impressive loan stint.

‘It was my first pre-season training camp with Liverpool when the offer from Union came in,’ recalls Awoniyi. ‘Jurgen Klopp told me, “I think it’s good for you, Taiwo, because if a club is really pushing for you then it shows how much they believe in you”.

‘Those words really stuck with me. He is someone I really respect a lot. When I was out on loan he would always keep in touch with me.

Jurgen Klopp advised Awoniyi to move to the Bundesliga and kept in regular touch with him

Jurgen Klopp advised Awoniyi to move to the Bundesliga and kept in regular touch with him

This year, Awoniyi will be keen for Forest to use their 'family instinct' in their push for progress

This year, Awoniyi will be keen for Forest to use their ‘family instinct’ in their push for progress

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‘And after I scored the winner against Liverpool, he said, “Hey Taiwo, well played”. So many people from Liverpool texted me after the game saying, “We are happy for you, we are proud of your journey”. It was a great feeling.’ 

After signing 30 players last season, Forest have been quieter in the market this summer and this may be another demanding campaign for Cooper’s men.

Yet Awoniyi sees clear parallels with Union. Traditionally in the shadow of Hertha in Germany’s capital, Union have been one of the best stories in German football in recent years. Awoniyi’s 15 league goals helped the club finish fifth in 2021-22 before they went one better last season and qualified for the Champions League.

Nobody would bet on Forest emulating that effort but Union’s achievements have shown Awoniyi what is possible. ‘It was part of the reason why I came to Forest,’ he explains. ‘Sitting with the manager and the owners, I saw the same thing as when I joined Union. I look at the fans and realise it’s exactly what happened with Union. Forest probably have even more supporters and both sets are as loud as ever.

‘There is a family instinct at Forest as there is at Union. So it’s part of the same process.

‘It shows that as long as you have the right set-up and the right plan, you can do anything in football.’

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