Out Of The Blue
Author: Freddie Lammie
It is 30 August 2020, and Malik Owolabi-Belewu is receiving his final instructions from academy director Alexander Kuye. The 18-year-old probably shouldn’t be coming on for the second-half of this Onside Emerging talent showcase game, partly because Phoenix Sports FC have already moved quickly to secure his services before the Isthmian South East Division gets underway for the new season. More significantly, however, because this feels like a world away from recent memories of years gone by.
The old saying goes “don’t let your dreams be dreams”, yet people will always bring up the statistics. In 2017, sports journalist Michael Calvin concluded that out of all the boys who enter an academy at the age of nine, less than half of 1% make it, or make a living from the game. Academy-less teenager Malik had little reason to believe that a footballing career was worth pursuing. A planned trial at Dagenham and Redbridge seemed like the closest he’d come to playing at that level, but a move to Canada at 13 denied him the opportunity.
Malik recalls: “It was quite out of the blue. A year, two years after I moved, it was hard not to think ‘what if I had stayed and went on that trial?’”
But that wouldn’t prove to be his one and only opportunity. Three seasons at the top of the London Youth Whitecaps goal scoring charts was enough to generate some attention from the Vancouver Whitecaps themselves.
“There were maybe 50 trialists at the beginning, so it was a bit mad. They brought me and four other players from my specific academy for trials. Only two of us made it into the next round, but before that I fractured my ankle, so I had to miss it. They still brought me in for the last round because they wanted to see me and I had just recovered from injury. I wasn’t fully match-fit and I did ok, but it didn’t work out with them.”
His injury problems did not end there, yet a torn ACL was not going to threaten what had otherwise been an extremely positive 2018, for Malik had found his new home: the Toronto FC Academy.
“I owe it all to God. I don’t know how it happened,” reflects Malik. “I went from playing Sunday league football, to not knowing what my future will be moving from England, to then getting opportunities with Toronto. Those are the types of things which have kept motivating me and have made me realise that professional football is something that I can chase.”
Not to forget a Canada U15 call up. Nor those integrated training sessions with Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David. A first professional contract lay firmly in Malik’s sights. A return back to England due to personal reasons at the height of the coronavirus pandemic immediately put hold to that thought.
“I didn’t take it too well. I was at Toronto thinking that it was the place to be. There was uncertainty if I moved back to England because I didn’t have a team to play with. It was right before lockdown happened in Canada and England as well – we just about made it. Football was not taking place in England – how was I going to get a club? The longer I waited, the harder it became. The only thing I could do was go to a park and train every day, waiting for an opportunity to come up.”
But with persistence, and a bit of luck too, that opportunity did come, in the form of one of London’s leading talent scouting academies.
“When lockdown was over, I went to Goals with my cousin’s friend, who was also friends with a Stoke player called Ify. He wanted to see us guys play against each other, and I had done some individual training that day, so I didn’t really want to go. We ended up playing, and he went and told Alex at Onside Academy about me the next day. That was how I got on their radar. Alex brought me into an U16 session and put me through some individual drills, before the U19 sessions came around, because he wanted to see me and my ability in person.” As did some European heavyweights.
“Chelsea wanted to bring me out on trial in July. They needed a left-footed centre back, and said that they were really interested, but wanted me to play some more matches in a more competitive environment [before making a decision]. I was also planning to go to Anderlecht in July on trial, but there was another wave of coronavirus in Belgium, so that got postponed.”
Malik would have to settle for a pre-season with the less glamorous Phoenix Sports instead.
“They brought me into a first-team game and wanted me to sign for them. Because of that, I was originally not going to play in Onside’s first game [against FW Group], but I hadn’t officially signed for Phoenix yet, so Alex put me on the bench. From that match, I just played 45 minutes, and played well.”
Well enough to get scouts, albeit not in physical attendance of course, on the phone.
“Alex told me after the match that there were a few scouts speaking to him. My hopes weren’t that high, because there was never anything set in stone. The next day, I got a phone call from Alex, saying that Serie B team SPAL wanted to bring me in. They said ‘this Thursday, let’s bring him in for a trial.’”
“I started packing and got ready to go straight away. When I finally got to play, maybe five days after I arrived, we had two training sessions, a morning and an evening one. I played two in- house matches with the U19s, did well in both and it turned out that all the upper management were watching. I was speaking to the manager and then got told to follow someone into another room. They told me that they wanted to offer me a contract. I was surprised and shocked. I didn’t realise that it was a professional contract until my agent told me. I expected another week of training before they made a decision.”
And it didn’t take too long for that faith to be repaid. Just 20 days on from his second-half display for the Onside Academy, Malik stabbed home from close range in a 1-1 draw away to Genoa on his U19 debut. Just over a month later and the central defender had already received his maiden call-up to SPAL’s first-team, and there is little reason to believe that such a switch cannot be made permanent in the coming months.
From London to Ferrara, Italy via Canada. Malik Owolabi Belewu’s journey has not been an ordinary one so far, but it is a diversity of experiences from which he draws his strength.