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'It's a dream' - How ex-Liverpool striker Awoniyi went from studying Firmino to taking on Lewandowski

14:00 SAST 2021/12/15
Taiwo Awoniyi Union Berlin 2021-22
The 24-year-old Nigerian has netted 14 goals since moving to Union Berlin in the summer, and is now eyeing an AFCON reunion with Mohamed Salah

Finally, Taiwo Awoniyi has found a place to call home.

And aren’t Union Berlin happy about that? The Nigerian striker is flying following his summer move from Liverpool.

Only Robert Lewandowski, Patrik Schick and Erling Haaland have more Bundesliga goals this season, and Awoniyi’s total of 14 in all competitions is already his best-ever return in a single campaign.

“Yeah, it’s going well,” the 24-year-old tells GOAL with a smile. “It’s nice to look at the top scorers' list and see the names I’m up there with. Hopefully, it can continue!”

At 24, Awoniyi has already seen more than most in football. His has been a nomadic existence, his experience built through seven separate loan moves across Europe during the last six years.

Liverpool signed him in 2015, but he never played so much as a friendly match for the club. Unable to secure a UK work permit, he was sent to Frankfurt and Nijmegen, to Mouscron and Gent and Mainz. 

It is in Berlin, though, that he has settled. His loan at Union last season was disrupted by injury, but when the opportunity to move there permanently came up in July, he had no hesitation. 

Union paid £6.5 million ($8.6m) to sign him, comfortably the most expensive transfer in their history, but it has paid off.

They sit sixth in the Bundesliga at present, just three points off the Champions League places and having secured their status as the capital’s top dogs with a 2-0 derby win over Hertha Berlin last month. 

Awoniyi, naturally, scored the first goal that night.

“The club suits me,” he says. “For me, it is a family club. They are always with each other, with the fans, with the directors. It is something amazing. 

“The ground, the atmosphere with the fans, I just think it suits my personality. I’m this kind of guy, I love to be where I feel welcome. I don’t like to feel like a stranger!”

Awoniyi knew he would be leaving Liverpool permanently this summer. He had wanted to do so last year, in fact, only for the coronavirus pandemic to scupper his plans.

“I said to my family last season, ‘This is my last loan.' So, it was up to Liverpool to either keep me or let me go," he explains. 

“I knew the chance of playing [for Liverpool] was quite slim. I didn’t know what would happen, but I was not going out on loan again!”

Before he left, he at least got to find out what it’s like to work under Jurgen Klopp and to play with the likes of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.

He spent the first week of pre-season with Liverpool at their training camp in Austria, and is glad he did. It gave him the chance to see, first-hand, just how good this Reds squad is.

“It was great,” he says. “You learn every day, on the pitch and outside it. For me, the unity is what is key at Liverpool. How the players organise themselves, it’s something really great.

“You don’t find anyone in the team who doesn’t work! That’s the thing for me. I’ve been to many clubs, seen many players, but the difference is that mentality and that atmosphere. Every day is work day! 

“That is the thing I took with me. To be on that kind of level, you have to be there, ready, every single day. This is what all the [Liverpool] boys show, even the boys that are coming from the academy. It’s totally different to every place I’ve ever been to. 

“Some places, you see one group doing one thing, another doing something else. At Liverpool, you just see one group moving on the same rhythm.”

Klopp had greeted Awoniyi with a smile and a bear hug on the first day of training.

“He said ‘What took you so long?!’” he smiles. “To be honest, I have always been thinking about working with him. 

“Even when I was at FSV Frankfurt [2015] and he had not signed for Liverpool yet, my team-mates there would always say that they wanted to play under him. 

“I was wondering why, really curious as to what he would be like. Then, when he signed for Liverpool, I was thinking 'Wow! Maybe one day I will have my opportunity to meet him.'

“And the first time I met him, I realised everything they said about him was true; the smile, the passion, everything he brings to the game.

"Most important for me, though, is the way he manages people. I think that is what people love about him.”

Awoniyi says Mane, in particular, looked after him, and that he had good conversations with Salah. 

As a young African footballer, those two are obvious role models, but from a centre-forward’s perspective, it is the other member of the Reds’ famous front three that brings the widest smile.

“I’ve always said I loved to watch Roberto Firmino,” Awoniyi says. “The difference with him is that he makes it so easy for his other forwards. 

“For players and people who really watch football, they know that not every striker can do what Firmino does as a centre-forward. Sometimes, you don’t find him in the centre-forward position, he comes into midfield, and not every striker can do this.

“For me, I always said it’s important to watch him and understand what he does.”

Firmino is not the only striker Awoniyi has studied. When GOAL visited him at Mouscron back in 2018, he had spent the morning watching clips of Romelu Lukaku’s first-time finishes and Dirk Kuyt’s movement attacking the back post. 

Lewandowski’s name came up that day, too, and Awoniyi smiles as he recalls their meeting at the Alte Forestei stadium earlier this season.

“I looked at him and said ‘This is one of the greatest strikers in the world,'" he says. “I’ve always watched him, always loved what he’s doing.

“After we played them at home, our left-back Tymo [Puchacz] and winger Pawel [Wszolek] were talking to him, so I made sure that I went over! 

“I asked for his jersey. He was very nice, he told me that a lot of people already asked for it, but Tymo said ‘Don’t worry Taiwo, I will get it for you!' And he did, so it takes pride of place now.

“To be on the top scorers' list with him is just a dream. It gives me the courage to keep on playing, fighting for the club, and at the end we will see what comes of it.”

Awoniyi is bullish when asked about Union’s prospects in the Bundesliga this season.

“For me, when I see us as a team, when I see the work the coaches are doing, I say for sure that this is a team that needs to be in the top six of the Bundesliga,” he says. 

“Many people will not believe it, because they see us as ‘Little Union Berlin’, but I see us every day and I don’t see us doing less than the top six. That’s my belief, and that’s where I see us as a club.”

As for himself, the plan is simple; keep on going.

He made his senior Nigeria debut in October, and believes has an outside chance of making their squad for January’s Africa Cup of Nations. Were he to get there, he could come up against Salah’s Egypt in the group stage.

“That would be special, for sure!” he grins. “It’s every player’s dream to wear that green and white jersey. Your family could not be more proud. 

“But Nigeria’s talent is crazy, to be honest, so it all depends on the coaches.”

All he can do, he says, is to keep scoring, keep improving. He has not set a goals target, but it’s only December and he has 14 already; the platform is there to make a huge contribution.

He has already circled one fixture in the calendar. Bayern away in March.

“Maybe next time, Lewandowski asks me for my shirt!” he smiles.