As nicknames go, Chuba Akpom has a pretty good one.
“Alexis Sanchez calls me Titi,” he tells the Arsenal Magazine with a laugh. “Thierry Henry is my idol so for someone like Alexis to call me Titi is a bit... wow – I’ll take that! Henry was the striker when I was growing up, and I used to wear number 14 just because of him. I was in the Arsenal academy, seeing him do all these great things for the club and I thought, ‘I want to be like him’.
“My favourite moment of his was that goal at Real Madrid [in 2006] because he showed his strength, his pace and his finishing. The fact that it was away from home made it even more special. I loved him for his celebrations as well, he just looked cool when he was doing it and the fans were going crazy. I’ve got one in mind for when I get off the mark for Arsenal – I’m just waiting for it to happen now.”
"I remember kicking a few balls at the TV and I used to break a lot of picture frames because I used them as targets. I used to chip it in, it would smash and then I’d hide it quickly before my mum came home!"
That would mark the next major milestone in Akpom’s remarkable rise. The striker joined the club as a seven year old and progressed through every age group before making his first-team debut in September 2013. Despite his smooth progression, his trip to the top has not always been easy.
Growing up in Newham, east London, the 19 year old was always fully focused on football – but in such an uncompromising environment, he saw many of his peers go off the rails. With teenage temptations around every corner, it could be hard to remain disciplined at times but Chuba believes his tough upbringing has shaped him in a positive way.
“You have to stand up for yourself and you have to think about yourself and not get dragged into what your friends are doing,” he says. “It is quite difficult because when you see your mates doing stuff you’re always thinking, ‘Should I join in?’ But you’ve just got to stay on the right path.
“My parents said I used to kick stuff around the house when I was three or four and I also used to go to the park with my dad. I had a lot of energy and I was just running around everywhere – I probably drove my parents mad! I remember kicking a few balls at the TV and I used to break a lot of picture frames because I used them as targets. I used to chip it in, it would smash and then I’d hide it quickly before my mum came home!
“I played on the streets more than I played in the park. There was a little block around the corner from my house and everyone used to play there, we used to do goal-to-goal, big matches and there could be like 30 people just running around and chasing the ball.
“If you look at the way that I play now, you can probably tell where I get my rawness from, that explosiveness and bravery. All these little skills and stuff that you see has got a lot to do with when I used to play with my friends in the street. I’m a really competitive person and I think that comes from when I used to play in the streets because we just wanted to win. There are a lot of positives from playing on the street.”
“When I joined Arsenal I was seven, and I used to play for my school and then they would drop me at training. I wasn’t actually allowed to play for my school but my teachers would sneak me on. I’d quickly get changed and then train with the club. I remember one time there was a cup game that went to penalties. They dropped me at training afterwards and I was knackered but still trained! It was basically a double session.
“St. Bon’s is probably one of the top schools in the area, so everyone wants to go there. We always had a good football team, athletics team and basketball team. There were a lot of good coaches but I think the main reason for its success is that everyone loved football so much and there was a massive passion for it.”
Akpom attended St. Bonaventure’s School in Forest Gate, a school with a healthy production line in footballers that counts the likes of Chris Hughton and Jermain Defoe among its former alumni. In fact, such was Chuba’s prowess in front of goal that he ended up breaking the latter’s school goals record.
“That’s what the teachers told me,” he says with a grin. “I can’t remember exactly how many I scored. I wasn’t aiming for it but I remember coming in one day and being told that I’d done it – I was buzzing because I knew that he had scored a lot. At the time I was scoring four or five goals a game.
“I still go back there now, to do talks and meet the kids. There are some who look up to me now so I have to conduct myself right and show them that only hard work can get you here. When I talk to all the young kids, I just tell them to keep working hard and not to let anyone tell them that they can’t do something.”
Akpom is living proof of where hard work and the right attitude can take you. He has always been ahead of the curve and after starring for the under-18s, the under-19s and then the under-21s, he has finally been rewarded with a place in the first team squad. “When you are in the under-18s and reserves, all everyone talks about is making those steps down the corridor to the first-team dressing room,” he says. “They say it is the hardest thing you can do and I used to dream about making that move.
“One day I came in and went in to the reserve changing room, and the reserve kit man told me to look for Vic Akers. I found Vic and he told me that there was a space in the first team for me. I went there and just thought, ‘Wow, I’ve done it’. I sat next to Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin, and everyone was saying ‘well done’.
“To do it is a good accomplishment, but it is just the beginning of my journey.” The next step is arguably the biggest yet for Chuba; to go from the fringes of the first team to a central component. But he is determined to take his chance, and is taking any opportunity he can to give himself that extra edge.
“I speak to Tomas Rosicky a lot, he is a legend and he is always giving me advice and telling me what to do more of,” he says. “The one thing he always tells me is to always be moving, so you make a movement and if you don’t get the ball you then make another move to ensure you are available.
“He also encourages me to mix my game up: to take a few touches here, then the next time to take one touch and then spin away. He knows what he is talking about, he’s world class so it’s great to learn from these types of players.
“When I look around and see the likes of him and Mesut Ozil, well these are people you play on Fifa with, that you watch on TV, so for me to be in the changing room with them... it’s amazing. It really feels like I have come a long way.
“Going from the 21s to the first team is a huge step up. There’s much more responsibility. In the reserves, you can make a mistake sometimes and get away with it. But if you do that when you’re with the first team, you get punished and you know about it. Your team-mates tell you and it’s not a nice thing. There’s no hiding place, so it’s a massive step up.
“It is also weird off the pitch too. I’m in a period where everyone is starting to notice me when I go out and I can hear them say, ‘Is that Chuba?’ I have never really had that before. I know I have to conduct myself properly because everyone is watching me, so that is a big thing. Fame is good but it comes with responsibility.”
Life is good for Chuba, and it got even better in February when he signed a new long- term contract with the club. Arsène Wenger made no secret of his desire to keep the striker and was delighted when he committed his future. “Akpom is a very promising striker,” the manager said. “All the attributes are there – he is strong, has power, is good technically, is a good finisher and is very ambitious. I believe he has a great future.”
“That’s one of the best managers in the world saying that about me,” Chuba says. “It’s great for him to have high hopes for me like that and he obviously knows what he’s talking about, so now it’s in my hands to work hard and live up to what he’s said.
“I think I’ve improved a lot this season, especially mentally. But there’s still a lot more improving I can do so I’ll carry on working hard and listening to the right people. I feel happy and proud of myself, but I want to do more, I am not just satisfied with this.”
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