Joe Aribo didn’t make his first debut until he was 20 … now he’s thriving under Steven Gerrard

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Joe Aribo is the Rangers and Nigeria’s 24-year-old central midfielder, a mainstay of Steven Gerrard’s Scottish title-winning squad and a central figure in his current and future countries.

And his story makes Aribo even more on top of that. An inspiration for dozens of young people who hope to find their way in the game.

Proof that the academy route isn’t the only one in football. Prove that if you believe you can achieve something, no matter how unlikely it may seem at times.

Joe Aribo has become a key cog in the Rangers’ Premiership-winning squad under Steven Gerrard

The midfielder has scored 17 goals in 88 games since arriving at Ibrox from Charlton in June 2019

The midfielder has scored 17 goals in 88 games since arriving at Ibrox from Charlton in June 2019

Londoner Aribo was approaching his teens and was part of Fulham’s Kicks community project when he first dreamed of becoming a professional.

“It was great to see Fulham, the team, go to the training ground firsthand,” Aribo said, reflecting. It was like, “Yeah, this is where I want to play.” Being close, seeing it but not really being in it, you want it more.

“I always had in mind that I wanted to reach a level where I can say that I am a professional footballer.”

Although Aribo was only 19 when he joined his first professional club, Charlton, and 20 when he made his first debut.

And before that, there were many points where Aribo feared such milestone moments would never be achieved.

Today, however, he rubs shoulders with players he saw growing up as teammate Jermain Defoe, who receives invaluable guidance from the likes of ‘father figure’ Gerrard and his number 2 Gary McAllister, and has helped Rangers end their long wait on the title and dominance of Celtic. of Scotland’s top division.

Avoid defeat in their last three games – starting with Sunday’s Old Firm derby – and they will also end the league game as Invincibles.

“I sincerely thank God,” said a grateful Aribo. ‘Without God I don’t know where I would be. Sometimes I just literally think “wow, look how far you’ve come” and there are still places you go. This is not the end. ‘

Although while still playing under-16 Sunday League football, a few years after his casual association with Fulham, he was concerned that this would be the end of his professional hopes.

Aribo first dreamed of playing professionally while on the Fulham's Kicks community project

Aribo first dreamed of playing professionally while on the Fulham’s Kicks community project

“This was the age when you have to go to an academy, otherwise the dream will fade,” he said.

When that season didn’t really come to anything “I thought I might stop playing football because I didn’t know where to go,” he said.

In lieu of an academy, it went to Kingston College, where one of his former Sunday League teammates suggested that they face non-league Staines Town, which had a link with the college.

‘I thought’ I have nothing to lose, so I just went there, ‘Aribo said.

He was successful, impressed by Staines’ youth line-up and caught the attention of first-team manager and former Wimbledon forward Marcus Gayle.

Following Gayle’s last game before leaving in December 2014, he and Aribo were part of a locker room conversation the youngster will never forget.

Marcus Gayle, Staines boss believed Aribo would make it - and Charlton's dream came true

Marcus Gayle, Staines boss believed Aribo would make it – and Charlton’s dream came true

“We lost the game 5-3, but I actually played so well and he said, for the whole team,” just promise me you’ll be a professional footballer. ” I said “yes, I am.”

“We joke about it these days, but when I got that in my head, I thought, ‘I made the promise and I need to back it up.’

But when things didn’t go according to plan and he struggled to get into the Staines team under Gayle’s successor, former Reading and Brentford striker Nicky Forster, it was again difficult for Aribo to see how he could do that.

‘At this point I even intended [South Bank] uni and I thought “why am I still playing football?” he said.

That season was coming to an end and I was basically saying to myself, “You have to start thinking about what you’re going to do next, because football isn’t going to work for you.”

‘I stopped going to college because I hated it too, so it was like’ nothing’s going with me ‘.

Aribo excelled under Lee Bowyer and credits him with putting out a nasty streak in his game

Enter Gayle again. Gayle, a friend and former Wimbledon teammate of Charlton Academy chief Jason Euell pulled the strings to get Aribo to trial, knowing that the talent he possessed deserved to be showcased at a higher level .

“If I hadn’t entered Charlton, I would have stopped playing football,” Aribo said. ‘I had something to work towards [the trial] all summer and I just gave it my all.

“I remember getting a call that Charlton was going to offer me something.

‘It was unreal, because this was my very first professional contract. It was a nice feeling because I arrived very late. My family was so happy for me. ‘

Russell Slade gave Aribo his Charlton debut, Karl Robinson introduced him to the league game, but it was under his successor Lee Bowyer that Aribo really flourished and helped the Addicks advance from League One in 2019 before joining Rangers.

“He really helped me and I learned so much under him because he was also a central midfielder,” Aribo said of Bowyer.

Aribo helped defeat Charlton Sunderland in the League One play-of-final before moving north

Aribo helped defeat Charlton Sunderland in the League One play-of-final before moving north

‘Above all, he taught me the nasty side of football. That it will never come to you just like that, you have to work for it. You have to vaccinate and work every day. ‘

Aribo has adapted impressively to every step he had to take, both for the club and for the country.

Better suited to playing higher than in the non-league, where the ball can spend more time in the air than central midfield, other adjustments were required from Aribo when he joined Charlton.

“I remember my first prep season coming home straight from practice and sleeping,” he smiled. ‘I couldn’t take it at first.

“I wasn’t good with time tracking either and had problems with Jason Euell before that and I had to learn quickly, the hard way, and improve my time tracking.”

At Rangers he sets higher demands from the fans, but also more admiration.

Aribo revealed that he couldn't hear himself thinking during his first encounter with the Old Firm derby

Aribo revealed that he couldn’t hear himself thinking during his first encounter with the Old Firm derby

‘I would say probably on the day I signed [was when he realised just how big Rangers are], ‘Said Aribo.

‘It was like a completely different ball game. I was initially staying in a hotel and quickly went into town to get a few things and people ask me for pictures, stop me and I think “wow this is my first day, I just signed.” That was overwhelming.

‘Another experience was my first Old Firm, another day that just showed me that this is huge. I couldn’t hear myself think.

‘You know it was so loud when you tried to talk to yourself in a game. The atmosphere was great. The opportunity really prevailed that day and it was so much for me to take in. ‘

This season’s title win, meanwhile, has given Aribo an appetite for more success.

“This year’s title is my first,” Aribo said. ‘I love this feeling and just want to have it in my career as much as possible.’

One of Aribo's two goals for Nigeria so far came in a 1--1 friendly against Brazil in 2019

One of Aribo’s two goals for Nigeria so far came in a 1–1 friendly against Brazil in 2019

Internationally, Aribo has an Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup to look forward to next year as the newest proud wearer of Nigeria’s esteemed number 10 jersey.

“Being summoned was a surreal feeling and one that I definitely didn’t expect from where I’m from, but it just showed me how far I’ve come,” Aribo said.

‘I will never forget my first match with the number 10. They left the place [in the changing room] for me and I didn’t sit there because I thought “this can’t be me.”

They said ‘no, this is you’ and as I was warming up I was like ‘yo this is crazy. The ten for Nigeria.’ I didn’t know how to feel. A crazy feeling. In football, let alone Nigeria, the number 10 jersey is iconic. When you wear it you have to be a good player so I feel like I have to be good. ‘

Aribo has always been confident in his ability, even when conditions tried to test him.

Aribo hopes his first league title will be the first of many in a career just starting

Aribo hopes his first league title will be the first of many in a career just starting

And in those earlier years when his talents weren’t accurately reflected in the level he played at, that confidence was maintained when I played around, people asked “how don’t you play? How about an academy?” That’s how I kept my confidence, ”he explained.

So for any youngster who’s in the same position he ever was, Aribo has some advice.

“The most important thing is confidence, but also give your best before you stop,” he said. “Give it one last push and see where you go.”

Aribo got him through the door at Charlton and he hasn’t looked back since.

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