“The moment the ball touched the net, it was an amazing moment. Hearing the roar of the fans, running over to them, it was incredible.”
As Femi Azeez recalls his first goal in senior football, to Tim Dellor on BBC Radio Berkshire last Saturday, it’s clear that he couldn’t have dreamt of many better full home debuts. At 28 minutes past three, the 20-year-old had turned in Josh Laurent’s cross at the back post, setting the Royals on their way to a 2-1 win over Preston North End. As he launched into a knee slide across to Club 1871, his beaming smile told of his pure euphoria. It was a goal for which he had waited his whole lifetime.
Azeez was born in north-west London to a Nigerian father and Spanish mother. He has a younger brother, 18-year-old Miguel, who has been in Arsenal’s academy since the age of five and is also tipped for big things. Femi joined Watford at nine years old, but was let go by the Hornets at 14. Like many youngsters released by academies, it knocked both his confidence and love for the game and it wasn’t until he was 16 that he looked to get back playing regular football again.
“I think Femi was a bit disillusioned after he left Watford,” says Mark Fox, who at the time was putting together an under-18 team at Northwood FC, whose ground is a five-minute walk from Azeez’s family home. “He came to our trials and didn’t stand out initially, but he kept training with us and you could see there was something about him.
“He was very quiet at first because he didn’t know anyone else. But he didn’t have to speak much because you could see his ability on the ball, his pace and his eye for goal were fantastic. He quickly came out of his shell though and became such a big part of the club, as his whole family did. His mum and dad were so involved.”
Azeez turned out for Northwood’s youth sides on Wednesdays and Sundays, largely playing on the wing but also starring upfront.
“His football brain was so good, even at that age,” Fox recalls. “We had a few good attacking players, and they would just switch positions during games without us telling them to. Other teams couldn’t deal with it.”
Towards the end of the 2017-18 season, Gordon Boateng had been placed in interim charge of Northwood’s first team in the Southern League East Division - the eighth tier of English football and step four of non-league. He watched Azeez play for the under-18 team and was immediately impressed by the youngster. At 16 years old, Femi was handed his first-team debut.
“He took his opportunity with both hands,” says Boateng. “He came off the bench and played well, so I gave him a start and he just continued to grow. He started the last six games of the season, which is virtually unheard of for a 16-year-old at that level. It doesn’t happen.”
Influenced by his father, Azeez’s determination to succeed stood out as one of his biggest attributes.
“More than anything, his attitude was spot on,” Boateng says. “He was hungry and willing to learn, he was never late to training. That comes from his upbringing, as his dad keeps him so disciplined.”
“His dad is a very well-driven man,” Fox echoes. He pushed both his boys to play football and has always been hugely supportive of them. Femi acquitted himself well in everything he did, whether that was his school work or football. He would always listen, take training seriously. He knew what he wanted to achieve.”
Azeez made 12 appearances in total for Northwood before being signed by Wealdstone two levels higher in the National League South. Again, he started out as part of the youth side but was fast-tracked to the first-team squad, via a loan spell at Hanwell Town where he scored four goals in four games.
“I watched him in a youth game and I knew something was special about him straight away,” then-Wealdstone manager Bobby Wilkinson recalls. “I brought him up to train with the senior team, because he needed to be around men to develop further.
“He listened, learned and never complained. He just wanted to be better. I put him in my squad for a National League South game, which raised a few eyebrows because he was only 17 and I left out a few big-hitters for him, but I knew he had the ability.”
Wilkinson was such an admirer of Azeez’s talent that he rang Reading’s under-18 manager David Dodds to see if he could secure him a trial. In September 2019, the forward signed a one-year professional contract in Berkshire.
However, life was not plain-sailing in his first season as a Royal, and he failed to score in eight appearances in Premier League 2 for the under-23s. In February 2020, the opportunity arose to reunite with Wilkinson, who was now manager at Bracknell Town.
“He was at a stage where he wasn’t enjoying his football and maybe Reading weren’t showing him enough love,” Wilkinson suggests. “He was only here [at Bracknell] on loan for about three weeks, but I got a smile back on his face again. It could have been difficult for him to come here, dropping to a level below where he was playing at Wealdstone, but it’s a credit to him that he did and gave it his all.”
With the coronavirus pandemic curtailing all academy football, the summer of 2020 came around and not everyone at Bearwood was convinced Azeez should be kept at the club and offered a new deal.
“I think some people at Reading weren’t sold on Femi, but I said you’ve got to keep fighting for him,” Wilkinson says. “He’s got so much potential. Don’t judge someone after one or two games, look at where they could be in two years. I have to give a lot of credit to Michael Gilkes, who fought so hard to keep him.”
The Royals quickly reaped the rewards of Gilkes’ judgement as Azeez made sure there were no doubts over his talent last season. He was the under-23s’ top scorer with 10 goals and was named in the first-team matchday squad on four occasions, making his debut as a 90th-minute substitute against Sheffield Wednesday in March.
Left-back Ethan Bristow was in a similar position, eager to break into Veljko Paunovic’s team while starring for the under-23s.
“My first impression of Femi was that he was a very humble and confident person and you could see he came to the club to achieve one thing and that was to break into the first team,” Bristow explains. “Playing alongside him is brilliant. He really brings a lot to the table, especially with his pace and determination to always have an ending to an action within the game.”
With several first-teamers departing this summer and the club unable to bring in any replacements due to their transfer embargo, pre-season presented a host of academy players with the opportunity to stake a claim for the Championship season. Azeez started all four friendlies, an early sign of the regard in which he is held by Paunovic.
There was therefore excitement, rather than surprise, when Azeez and Bristow started the opening-day trip to Stoke City. His full home debut came a week later, complete with that inaugural goal, before he netted against Bristol City on Tuesday night. In what has been a fairly gloomy start to the season for Reading, the youngster has been the bright spark with his pace, energy and enthusiasm.
“Playing men’s football at such a young age will have helped him massively,” Boateng points out. “If he had been in an academy from earlier on for example, he wouldn’t have experienced senior football until later when he would have probably been sent out on loan. But he played amongst men from the age of 16, meaning he is ready now his chance has come at Reading.”
“Having played with Femi at under-23 level to then starting the first game of the season with him was something special,” Bristow says. “We both knew we had to work hard during pre-season to get a spot in the starting 11 and seeing us walk out onto that pitch showed we had done enough to get to that point. But as well as that we both know there is still a lot more to improve on to really secure a spot in the team.”
You do not doubt the sincerity of Bristow’s words. This is only their first step in senior football, but they are in no mood to stop here.
“The biggest thing with Femi is that he always wants to improve and be a better player,” Boateng says. “He never settles for what he’s got. I believe he’ll be playing in the Premier League before too long. I really think that. He has all the attributes to do it, he just needs to keep working hard and stay focused.”
Bristow echoes that sentiment: “Femi is the same on and off the pitch - he puts his all into anything and everything he puts his mind to and always looks to do more.”
For those who have helped Azeez develop to this point, they have nothing but pride for a player who has overcome setbacks and shown that there is not just one route into professional football.
“Every time I see him on the team sheet and now he’s scoring, I’m such a proud man to have been a part of his journey,” Wilkinson says. “But I’m only one piece of the jigsaw, most of the work he has done himself and he deserves to have a fantastic career.”
“I look out for what he’s up to all the time,” says Fox. “It’s fantastic for Northwood to have a player who is now playing in the Championship. He is an example to our youth players now and I feel so proud of him.
“Femi had a dream like millions of kids around the country. He has proved that even if you get a knock-back, if you keep working then that dream will come true.”