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  • Billy Wooldridge

West Ham's Ajibola Alese aiming for Europa League history in Lyon after breakthrough season

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

“Every game we’re confident. We know the players we have and we look at the opposition and see how we can stop them, there’s always confidence going into every game.”

Ajibola Alese, at the age of 21, has been at West Ham for almost 14 years and this year has made his breakthrough as a first team squad regular.

Alese and the rest of the West Ham squad travel to Lyon this evening for one of the biggest games in the club's history, with the tie all square at 1-1 after last week’s first leg at the London Stadium.

With Angelo Ogbonna’s continued recovery from his ankle problem and the recent injury to Kurt Zouma, the young centre-back may be of big importance to David Moyes’ side tonight.

Born and raised in Hornchurch, East London, Alese was scouted at the age of seven whilst playing at a Saturday tournament for his local grassroots side Romford Royals.

“We had loads of games, and then semi-finals and finals, and a scout from West Ham was there. He spoke to my dad and thought I was a good player and invited me down to a trial,” Alese said.

“A couple weeks later I went to a trial in Beckton, I got invited back for a few more and then they told me they wanted to sign me.”

Alese was able to rise through all of the age groups for the Hammers over time before signing his first professional contract for them in 2018 at the age of 17.

“You grow up wanting to be a pro footballer so to be able to say that you’ve signed a pro contract is a huge step to where you want to get to”, says Alese.

Even at such a young age, Alese made sure not to look too far into the future after such a great moment when he signed his contract.

“When you sign, you can’t have an expectation to jump to the first team, I’d say a pro is just a sign that you’re doing well in the academy. There’s still a long way to go to get to the first team,” said Alese.

His time to make the step up into the first team came in September 2020, playing the full 90 minutes in a 5-1 League Cup victory at home to Hull.

It was a bitter sweet moment for the, at the time, 19-year-old, “unfortunately there weren’t any fans due to Covid, but to get the call up to play Hull was amazing, to play 90 and get the win was even better.”

Before making his first-team debut, Alese had spent time away from home at League One side Accrington Stanley, helping them finish 17th in a Covid-hit season.

“It was a massive change, going there at 18. I’d never been away from home. Overall I really enjoyed it, playing men’s football week in week out for fans who are paying to come and watch you.”

When asked whether there were any doubts about moving away from home Alese explained that “most of my mates were going to university, moving out at the same time, so it wasn’t much different if I was a university student. So I looked at it that way and you get used to it.”

A brief spell at the end of last season, helping Cambridge United achieve promotion into League One, was completely different to the previous loan spell for Alese.

“When I was at Accrington we were in a relegation battle, we finished 17th but we were constantly looking behind us. Whereas at Cambridge we were always looking up saying we can win the league, our aim was to get promoted so it was a different vibe in the dressing room,” Alese says.

“You would come in every day and the mood is happy because we had won on the weekend but sometimes at Accrington we would have been beaten so you come in thinking we need to win sooner or later so it was a different vibe entirely.”

This season has been a standout for Alese so far, being named the Under-23’s captain, making the bench for regular Premier League games and his Europa League debut against Dynamo Zagreb in December.

“I’ve never ranked my moments in football but if I had to it would be up there,” said Alese when asked about the Europa League debut, “it was an amazing night especially to do it with so many of the other younger players in front of 60,000 at the London Stadium, I just wish we could’ve got the win,” said Alese.

West Ham had already been confirmed as Group H winners, and with one game remaining Moyes gave seven academy graduates a chance to shine under the Thursday night lights. Zagreb came out 1-0 winners, but the valiant effort from the young Hammers was praised by many.

Alese, who played the full 90 minutes, almost stole the headlines right at the depth as he was inches away from latching onto an Alex Kral header right in front of goal.

Away from the east end of London, Alese has been a regular in the England Under-20s side, continuing his run to play for all the national age groups starting at Under-16s level.

Alese has shared the pitch with players such as Liverpool’s Curtis Jones, Leicester’s Luke Thomas and Aston Villa’s Jacob Ramsey, as well as PFA Premier League Fan’s Player of the Month Bukayo Saka.

“Bukayo is doing really well. From Under-15s to 19s we played together. When we were 15-16 you could see he was amazingly talented, he could beat anyone and when he was at left-back you couldn’t get past him.”

The Under-23s captain will be looking to follow the footsteps of the names above and push himself into the West Ham XI on a weekly basis, but when asked about his goals for next season, Alese showed true maturity with his answer.

“Personally I try not to set goals because if you set a certain goal for a certain time period, once that time passes and you haven’t hit your goal it demotivates you and you look at it as a failure,” said Alese.

“At the beginning of the season I wouldn’t have thought I would be on the bench in the Premier League as many times and playing in the Europa League and be on the bench there as many time, so if I had set a target I would have exceeded it. But at the same time I could’ve set a target and not reached it.”

Alese will be looking to end the season well with the Under 23s as they face their final two games of the season, sitting three points behind Manchester City in second place, whilst also being in the quarter final of the Premier Cup.

However tonight, his eyes will be solely focused on the first team and the chance to show why he is so well thought of at West Ham as the Hammers look to make history in the Parc Olympique Lyonnais.

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