NewsTaiwo Awoniyi interview: LFC connection, Forest at Anfield and more
You don’t have to look far to find a Liverpool connection at Nottingham Forest these days.
There’s Steve Cooper, the manager who guided the club back to the Premier League after a 23-year absence in 2022, and who spent five years as a coach in the Reds’ Academy.
There’s Neco Williams, who joined Liverpool at the age of six and left for Forest in 2022 having made 33 senior appearances.
There’s Divock Origi, of course. The ultimate Anfield cult hero. The man whose love of the big occasion helped produce some of the most memorable moments, and memorable nights, in Reds history. Origi left the club at the end of the 2021-22 season, but his name is still sung by supporters.
And then there’s Taiwo Awoniyi, who spent six years as a Liverpool player without ever having the honour of featuring in a senior game. A player whose story can serve as a lesson to any young footballer; never give up, keep working and your time can come.
“It’s been a long journey!” Awoniyi, who looks set to be denied involvement with Forest at Anfield this weekend due to injury, tells Liverpoolfc.com.
“Last season playing at Anfield [Forest lost 3-2 in April] was a dream come true. Of course I probably dreamed of playing there for Liverpool before I left, so playing there against them, it was a mixed feeling, I would say!”
Awoniyi arrived at Liverpool in August 2015 having impressed for Nigeria at the U20 World Cup in New Zealand, where he played alongside the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi.
Work permit issues meant he would spend the majority of the next six years away from Merseyside, however. He was loaned to FSV Frankfurt, NEC Nijmegen, Mouscron (twice), Gent, Mainz and, finally, to Union Berlin, whom he joined on a permanent basis in 2021.
After scoring 20 goals in 43 appearances there in the 2021-22 campaign, he then moved to Forest, fulfilling his dream of playing in the Premier League.
His 11 goals last season – including a winner against the Reds at the City Ground – helped to ensure Cooper’s side avoided relegation.
“For me, going through all those clubs and all those stages, it was all with the aim of one day being back in the Premier League,” Awoniyi says. “I think in the end it was worth it, but I can say it was a tough journey.
“Liverpool, I always say, is a family club. You develop as a person as well as a footballer, and I give so much credit to Liverpool for the way they looked after me, all the time I was away. I’m forever grateful for that.
“It was an important period, really good for me, and it was a big reason I was able to develop into the player and the person I have.”
Awoniyi speaks glowingly of his experiences with Jürgen Klopp. He remembers the pre-season of 2021, when he spent a few days training with Liverpool’s senior squad at their camp in Austria, and being struck by what he saw.
“I remember telling my family that for sure Liverpool was going to win the league,” he says. “And that year they went on to almost win everything.
“The training sessions, wow! I knew that this is the kind of training that you win something from! You don’t train like that and then at the end of the season you get nothing.
“For me as a player, that was the kind of environment I had always wanted. But in life sometimes you have to make tough decisions, and I knew for me that I needed to go and play every week.
“You look at the time, there was [Mohamed] Salah, [Sadio] Mane, [Roberto] Firmino and others. I knew the chances [to play] were very, very slim. I knew I needed to get to a place where I was playing every week. It was hard [to leave], but it was a decision I had to make.”
He believes the decision has paid off. He is enjoying the challenge of playing for Forest in the Premier League, and enjoying playing under Cooper.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve worked under,” says the 26-year-old. “The way he goes about things, the way he speaks to players, and the confidence he gives to the players.
“We had a lot of pressure last season, but you could see in his eyes that he always believed, he knew we were going to stay up. That’s what every player wants from their manager. He gives you the belief that you can really get to the peak of your career, if you are ready to work for him and go for it.”
Awoniyi adds: “I have learned so much in my time in England already, and improved so much.
“The Premier League is different from everywhere else. It is a league where you have to always be ready, physically, technically and mentally.
“You can’t have anxieties in the Premier League, you have to be there every week, 100 per cent, because there are so many strong teams, strong players. The level is so high. Every team is a big club, a team that can easily beat you. That is what sets it apart from the other leagues. The challenge every single week is huge.”