‘Life was tough growing up,” Ademola Lookman says simply as he remembers his childhood in Peckham. “There were some nights when I didn’t have … how can I say this? I didn’t have the best of food. I also didn’t have certain things when I was younger. It was a real struggle for my mum and she had to take care of all of us. She did the best she could and she made sure there was food on the table and that I had clothes to wear. Everything I could ask of my mum, she gave me. I was happy but, as you get older, you realise how difficult it must have been for her.”
The 23-year-old Lookman is one of the most interesting and talented young footballers in England. He was ignored by all London’s professional clubs until the age of 16 as he followed an unusual journey through football. Early in 2018, having played for Charlton before moving to Everton and the Premier League, Lookman’s “stubbornness” was questioned by Sam Allardyce when he insisted on joining RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga rather than being loaned to Derby County in the Championship.
Lookman scored memorable goals on his debuts for Everton and Leipzig but he is now back in London and on loan from the German club to Fulham. He has illuminated Premier League games this season, amid the difficulties Fulham have faced, while also suffering from a botched attempt at a Panenka penalty which devastated him briefly. But his calm resilience was forged during those testing times in Peckham.
“Most definitely,” Lookman says. “A lot of it was to do with being the only boy as well. I was willing to step up and do something for my family. I wanted to make my mum and my sisters proud. That was definitely one of my objectives – and it still is today. Both of my parents are Nigerian and my two older sisters were also born in Nigeria. So I was the only one out of us to be born here. My dad and my one sister were in Nigeria and so my mum was bringing up me and my other sister all on her own. She was working all kinds of jobs – cleaning jobs and anything she could take. She was always looking for work.”
Football offered an escape and Lookman savoured the pleasure it gave him. “I liked playing football because I was good at it but also because I was having a lot of fun with my friends. Football gave me a new sense of energy and enthusiasm. It was freedom too. We would play in different places around south-east London and beating teams in certain areas was a big thing. I grew up around Peckham and Camberwell and there were so many estates there.
“Everybody knows the talent that comes out of south-east London. Growing up, a lot of my friends were just as talented as me. To this day I question why we didn’t all make it. As I got older my love for football grew stronger and stronger. I thought that maybe I could make it.”
Lookman was not spotted by any of the London academies and so he played Sunday league football for a park team in Lambeth called Waterloo FC. He also avoided the dangers facing so many boys on the London streets. “Of course there’s pressure from lots of areas. But, even as a kid, you need to make the decisions that don’t put you or your family at risk. I was able to differentiate right from wrong and hanging around with the wrong crowd and going around with the right people was key for me. I took school very seriously and for my GCSEs I got five As, four Bs and one C. It definitely helped focus me.”
Was he worried that his dream of playing professionally seemed to recede with every passing year? “I was only concerned when I turned 16 because in school you start to apply for college. It really hit me then – this may be the route I need to go down. That was when I thought: ‘I need a breakthrough.’ And that’s when God came through and I got my opportunity.”
Lookman was selected to play for London Counties in a friendly against Charlton’s academy team in 2013. “I started that game on the bench but someone got injured and they put me on. We lost the game 1-0 but Charlton liked what they saw and they invited me back.”
A less measured account is that Lookman dazzled that afternoon and Charlton were incredulous he had not been snapped up by any other club. “I felt like a door opened that day,” he concedes in his quiet way. “But I didn’t feel that until the moment when, after the game, they said they were going to offer me a scholarship. My mum was shocked as she thought that I was definitely going to college. The offer from Charlton was just out of the blue. Those were happy years for me at Charlton. Nothing but progress from the under-18s to the under-23s to the first team.”
Karl Robinson was his manager at Charlton and, believing in Lookman’s potential, he took the teenager to watch Dele Alli play for Spurs in the Champions League at Wembley. Alli had played for Robinson at MK Dons and had also blossomed late in junior football. “I think [Robinson] saw a lot of similarities in our situations so he wanted me to see Dele at the highest level and show what was possible. I had a lot of chats with Karl Robinson and he gave me so much confidence. He taught me to always believe in myself.”
Did he feel he would play Champions League football one day when he watched Alli? “Yes, most definitely. I had watched those games on TV but to be there in person made it very real.”
In January 2017, Everton bought Lookman for £11m after, as he recalls, “Steve Walsh, their director of football at the time, came to watch me a few times and he really liked what he saw. I spoke to him and to Ronald Koeman [then Everton’s manager] and they gave me the confidence that this was the right club to join.”
Lookman started with a bang. He came off the bench against Manchester City and scored in Everton’s 4-0 victory. “It was a crazy day. The next day I was meant to play for the under-23s but because I scored they said they wanted me to train just with the first team. My family were there so it was a very big day for them. But they went back to London and, just like anybody away from their family, I was lonely sometimes. But I understood that you need to sacrifice some things for football.”
Six months later Lookman and three of his clubmates, including Dominic Calvert-Lewin, were part of the England squad which won the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea. That victory still resonates for Lookman and it intensified his hunger to succeed. When he felt he was not getting enough first-team opportunities at Everton he chose to move to Leipzig on loan in January 2018 – so resisting Allardyce’s urging, as his new manager, that he accept a seemingly guaranteed place in Derby’s team.
“Everton wanted me to play my football in England. But I had different ideas. I wanted to go to Germany to embrace a new challenge with a top side in Leipzig and learn a different style of football. A lot had to do with the platform Leipzig have and the football they were playing.
“Ralph Rangnick [Leipzig’s director of football] had been to watch a few of my games at Charlton. He’d known of me for a long time. So I spoke to him and to Ralph Hasenhüttl [then Leipzig’s manager] and they were confident I would do well in the Bundesliga. I had that same belief.”
It did not take long for Lookman to match that conviction. He rose from the bench on his debut and jinked his way through the Borussia Mönchengladbach defence to score a sublime late winner. He stresses that Hasenhüttl “helped me a lot. I remember there was a time where he told me I needed to be more selfish. I looked at my game and I was like: ‘Yes, he’s right.’”
Lookman was still only 21 when Leipzig turned the loan into a permanent transfer on a five-year deal in the summer of 2019. He did not play regularly last season and so a new loan deal to Fulham in September 2020 offered the chance of much more consistent football in the Premier League. “Scott Parker [the Fulham manager] spoke to me a lot and I liked what he wanted from me and where he saw me in this team.”
Lookman has played 21 games for Fulham, scoring three goals, and his loan has been a clear success with outstanding performances against Spurs and Leicester. “I’m always thinking of being better and where the team is. But the highlight for me would probably be Leicester away. We won 2-1 and that mattered more than anything.”
Lookman’s lowest moment came in November when, with Fulham having just conceded an injury-time goal to trail 1-0 against West Ham, he stepped up to take a penalty. It was to be the last kick of the game but, rather than smacking the ball into the net, Lookman attempted a Panenka penalty. Instead of chipping the ball over Lukasz Fabianski, he scooped it weakly into the goalkeeper’s arms.
“When that incident happened I couldn’t even describe the devastation,” Lookman says. “I can only try to atone for that error. That was a key thing which people told me after that moment happened – it is about how I come back and use it to turn it into something positive.”
Did he hear the predictable rumblings against him on social media? “I was aware of it but I didn’t pay any mind to it.”
Lookman has responded impressively and last Sunday he helped Fulham beat Everton 2-0 away. The club are third from bottom, and six points behind Newcastle who are just outside the relegation zone. But on Saturday night, at home, they have a chance to narrow the gap when they play Sheffield United.
Can Fulham avoid relegation? “Most definitely,” Lookman says. “We all believe it’s about us sticking to the task and working hard every day. We can do it and my focus is to help keep the team in the Premier League.”
As much as he has loved his time at Leipzig does he feel, remembering his Peckham days, that he has returned home? “Yes, kind of,” Lookman says as his face lights up. “But so much is to do with football. Playing football, wherever I am, makes me feel at home.”