How Sheffield Wednesday set Michail Antonio on his way to becoming West Ham's top Premier League goalscorer
By his own admission, Michail Antonio was at something of a crossroads in his career when he rocked up to Sheffield Wednesday’s Middlewood Road training ground for the first time in February 2012.
The then 21-year-old was still very much in the category of ‘youngster’ but was failing to make much of an impact at Reading and had over the previous couple of seasons spent time on loan at Cheltenham Town, at League One Southampton and at Colchester United.
An emergency loan to Wednesday until the end of the season changed the direction of his life and a decade on Antonio has become West Ham United’s foremost Premier League goalscorer overtaking another former Owl, Paolo Di Canio, in the process.
He still harbours a passion for Wednesday and ahead of their do-or-die shootout with Derby County on the last day of last season posted a message of support on social media.
Though he had battled through a tough time at Reading, confidence was an attribute he was never short of.
“It wasn’t that difficult for me to settle in,” Antonio told swfc.co.uk. “I had been out on loan quite a bit so I was used to it. On my first day I came in wearing a snow-printed onesie! I didn’t know anyone, I came in my onesie to break the ice.
“I’m the kind of person where I will go up and introduce myself and over time I’ll get to meet and know people, and that’s how you start building a relationship.
“My debut was against Sheffield United at Hillsborough. It was an amazing game, the atmosphere was unbelievable. It’s nice to be thrown into the deep end because obviously from there it makes things easier. I still remember Chris O’Grady scoring the goal.”
The Wednesday changing room he walked into was embroiled in a famous cross-city battle to get out of League One and was packed full of characters including the likes of Chris Sedgwick, David Prutton, Gary Madine and of course manager Gary Megson.
The O’Grady derby proved to be, incredibly, Megson’s last game. Wednesday were promoted at the end of the 2010/11 season and having scored five goals in 14 loanee outings for the club, Antonio had a decision to make.
Reading wanted to keep hold of him and there were offers from elsewhere, but the youngster was settled up north and after that string of previous loan spells felt the need to set roots at an ambitious club. Wednesday’s fourth bid was accepted by the Royals and he signed permanently August 2012.
Speaking to The Star, Prutton laughed at the memory of what a young Antonio was like.
“Michail came in and was great, but you can see really he has matured since because although he was fantastic for us and made such an impact, he had a real cocky edge to him,” he said.
“He knew how good he was and he played with that swagger. It wasn't a bad thing as long as he was performing and he did very, very well.
“He was on fire that season and at times it became about setting things up around him. You could see he had such massive potential and he was never going to fall short in terms of confidence.
“Off the pitch he bought into what we had as well, which was a really great group of lads. I’m not surprised he’s gone on to achieve what he has.”
His first full season with the club saw him race to the top of the scoring charts with nine goals, though injury curtailed his progress.
The Championship was proving to be an exciting place for him and his pace and direct style of play, operating from the right wing, saw him earn plaudits from across the league.
“I had played a couple of games in the Championship with Reading, but at Wednesday I found my feet as a Championship player moving forwards,” he later said.
“To be honest, at the time I didn’t feel like I needed to leave Sheffield Wednesday to get to the Premier League. I was there for two and a half years, I got nine goals and eleven assists in the first year and six goals and eleven assists in the second year, and I picked up a few injuries in the second year as well.
“I just needed to be more consistent, there were games where I’d be like a nine out of 10, and other games where I’d be a four. It was just getting the consistency and that’s how you become a Premier League player.”
Nottingham Forest proved to be his next destination, earning Wednesday a payday of around £1.5m.
A 14-goal first season with the Reds took him to the next level – literally – when West Ham took him for £7m at the start of the following season.
Three call-ups to the England squad have followed, though he was never capped, and at 31 he has now pledged his allegiance to Jamaica for whom he is expected to make his international debut in the following months.
Now 48 Premier League goals on and passed Di Canio, Antonio is looking ahead, but recognises the Owls’ place in what has been a unique journey.
“I liked being in Sheffield,” he said. “It was a nice, calm, chilled city. I was there with my missus and my kid and I enjoyed it. My son almost had a Yorkshire accent, but he’s lost it now!
“It was a great experience being at Sheffield Wednesday, I enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a great club that I hold dear to my heart and I still look at the table, and I watch them whenever they are on TV.
“I went from getting nine goals a season to getting 15 goals in one year and getting a move to West Ham. I haven’t looked back since.”