For a man who comes from a family where “change” has been their watchword over the last couple of decades, Victor Anichebe has led a remarkably stable existence thus far.
By Dave Bowler
Growing up on Merseyside, rooted in the Everton FC way of doing things, that solidity has produced an impressive young man who knows exactly where he stands on the important things in life – his heritage, his sense of place, his evaluation of his own talent.
Quietly spoken, when he talks it’s worth listening because he knows where he’s come from, and he knows where he’s going. The only problem at the moment is that he’s still settling into where he is – West Bromwich Albion.
“It has taken a little while to settle in, but it’s coming together now. It was all a bit strange at first, a new club, a new city. It’s a bit different having never been anywhere else in my life other than growing up in Liverpool and playing for Everton. It was weird walking around, trying to find out where to go and what to do because at Everton, I’d been there for so long, I knew all the people and everything was just second nature to me.
“Even now, I’m still finding my way a little bit. I think for Nicolas Anelka or some of the other players who joined this season, it’s different for them because they’ve moved clubs in the past so they know how that feels and what goes with it. I’m still getting used to it, but at the same time, I’m really enjoying it, it’s an exciting moment in my life.
“Most people, if they change jobs, it’s still close to home, they don’t move somewhere else in the country, but that is part of being a footballer. The new challenge is exciting and hopefully, when I get the chance to play more often, I can put in some good performances. The more that happens, then the more you feel at home. I’ve had a really good opportunity put in front of me by the club and I’m just determined make the most of that”.
Victor’s life has, up until now, been largely rooted in Liverpool, but he is just a first generation Scouser given that the Anichebe family only pitched up on Merseyside when he was a toddler. Theirs was a move that really takes some settling in from.
Moving From Nigeria
“The move that I’ve made is nothing compared with what my family did when I was a baby, moving to England from Nigeria. My dad got a job with a shipping company and that meant him coming to this country. I was too young to remember any of this, but first of all we were in Liverpool, then we moved to London for a little while because they knew more people there. My parents didn’t really like it there, it was too busy, a crazy city, so we moved back to Liverpool and settled there.
“I was lucky, we lived in one of the best areas in the city at that time and I had a really good upbringing. They worked extremely hard to give us everything we needed, especially in a new country, and they gave us a good grounding and good values. All of us are doing well in our lives and we owe a great deal to them. Personally, I’m playing in the Premier League which is a good achievement, and I hope that makes them proud.
“Making that move was a big decision for them, but when you are a parent, I suppose you have to think for more than just yourself. And for them too, they were granted a great opportunity to come to this country and they took it. I think when you look at where the family is now, you would say that they bettered our lives by making the move.
“It’s very difficult to get on in Nigeria, there aren’t so many opportunities, a lot of people are suffering there. We were blessed to get this opportunity to come here. England gave us a good starting point, a good chance in life, and then my parents made the most of that, they took it onto another level by working very hard and doing the right things to make sure they could earn a good living for themselves and for us. With all those foundations, all those things behind us, that enabled us to go to school and try to work hard”.
Given that concentration on trying to build a new life in this country, it’s little wonder that the youthful Victor didn’t play that much attention to football. Football, however, was about to pay a lot of attention to him.
“I just stumbled on football, or it stumbled on me. I always tell people that I didn’t watch it and I didn’t really want to play it when I was younger but I just joined in with it in the playground at school. One of my friends, his dad had a team, so I just went along to play with them one weekend and it went from there. A year later, I was at Everton, so it was pretty fast.
“I was very lucky, I couldn’t have been at a better club than Everton at that age because they are so good in bringing young players through, the scouting system is brilliant. What they have done with that system, the players they’ve brought through, honestly, it is phenomenal. Sometimes you take it a bit for granted when you’re there and a part of it, because it’s all you know, but when you talk to players at other clubs, or when you just stop to think about it for a while, you come to realise just how good they are and how lucky I was to be a part of all that.
“Actually, I was very close to going to Crewe when I was young because they had an amazing track record for bringing young players through their centre of excellence under Dario Gradi. With it being a lower division club as well, there were maybe going to be more opportunities to play in the first team a bit earlier than somewhere like Everton. In the end, it was just too far for me to travel for training, so I chose to go to Everton instead and that was probably one of the better decisions of my life!
“The quality of the coaching at Everton is really good, and they are really good at identifying talented kids as well. I came across so many good young players while I was going through that system. On a personal level, I was fortunate too because I came across my best friend there, James Vaughan. He’s like my brother now, we played together for so many years, so being at Everton was good to me in so many ways.
“What they’ve managed to do really well at Everton is find a player pretty much each year from the academy that goes into the first team, and that is a big thing for a club like that. It’s just starting here with Saido, and hopefully we will be able to do the same at this club in the years to come, because once one comes through, I think it makes it easier for those in the following years.
“I remember that Vaughany scored for the first team at 16, but we were both training with the full squad when we were only 15. When he scored, I was so happy for him, but also it gave me that added drive to do what he’d done, to get in the team and make a name and that filters right the way through the academy. The next year, it was me in the team.
“But when you look back, there’s been Wayne Rooney, Jack Rodwell, Leon Osman, Tony Hibbert, Ross Barkley now, they all came through, and so many others as well that have left and gone on to do well at other places. And I know that they have a lot more quality players coming through the system that will be good enough to step into the first team at some time in the future”.
As Victor well knows though, young players don’t only need to be good. They also need opportunities to impress and sometimes, finding that chance can be the hardest part of breaking through.
“Sometimes you have to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time as a young player. You need a first team player to get suspended or maybe injured and then once you are in the team, it’s up to you to take your chance. That’s what a group of young players have done at Everton over a period of years.
“You also need a manager who is willing to take that chance on a young player and David Moyes was really good at that. With young players, there are always setbacks because at that age, it’s difficult to be consistent, so you are in and out of the team a bit, but they appreciate that. They know they’re talking about young kids, not robots, they know you can’t play well every single game, and so they treat you properly and players respond. The young lads give their best, and that’s all they ask of you at that stage.”
Victor was on the money with his choice of Everton over Crewe and another area where he knows his own mind is in terms of his nationality. There’s a lot of talk about the sudden fluidity over which countries a player might choose to represent at international level, with particular reference to Adnan Januzaj of Manchester United and his smorgasbord of choice which, ironically, doesn’t include Sweden. Anichebe however, is completely unequivocal when it comes to matters of nationality.
“I’m Nigerian. My parents are Nigerian, all my family is Nigerian, I was born there. Some of the boys joke around and say I’m English, but I’m not. I love living in England, I’ve been very lucky here, this country has given me great opportunities, but you are what you are.
“When I was younger, I spent every Christmas in Nigeria, I never spent a holiday in England, my parents would always take us back so that we knew where we were from. They always made a very big thing of it, going back every single year, six weeks at a time sometimes. Nigeria is my country, I don’t think you can change that. I’m blessed with all the things England has given me but at heart, I’m a Nigerian.
“Going back and playing for Nigeria for the first time was such a special thing. There was a lot of talk about me choosing Nigeria instead of England and everyone was so happy about it – I think that’s why a lot of people really like me over there, because I took that decision! In the past, a lot of players that have grown up in England have chosen to play for England instead at younger levels and then maybe tried to go back to Nigeria later on, so I think people were pleased with the path I’d taken.
“That first game, we qualified for the Olympics in Beijing, that was probably my favourite game. But then going to the Olympics itself, that was a great time. It brought so much happiness to the country that we got so far – it would have been nice to go that one step further but the team Argentina had, it was amazing. They had the best player in the world in Messi and so much quality through the team. But we fought hard and it was a great tournament for us”.
Having proudly represented his country in the past, it was a tough decision for Victor to put his international career on hold earlier this year. It’s one he doesn’t regret, but one that was never intended to be a permanent state of affairs, as he makes clear.
“Nigeria is coming together well as a team. They won the African Nations competition earlier this year with a good team so I’m really pleased about that. Hopefully the future is bright for the team because it does mean such a lot to the people back at home.
“As to whether I play for Nigeria in the future, that’s for the coach to decide. A lot of people talk to me about it, I have calls from Nigeria about it before the games, but it is not up to me. I chose not to play for Nigeria in the African Nations Cup because I’d been injured going into it and had only just got fit again.
“At that point, having only just got over injury, I needed to concentrate on playing for Everton and it paid off, I played the majority of the games from Christmas to the end of the season, and Nigeria won the competition as well, so it worked out pretty well for everyone in that way.
“If Nigeria want me to play in future, that is up to the coach, but they have done extremely well, they have a great team now. If the coach feels I can add to that, then that’s great. I’m not the coach. I’m not going to start shooting my mouth off and saying I should be in the team and that I should go to the World Cup. Other players have done very well for Nigeria this year and if he wants to stick with those players, then that’s fine.
“I missed the last World Cup at the last minute when it looked like I was going to go, but I didn’t get picked. I didn’t get cut up about it, I went on holiday with friends and enjoyed that instead. People sometimes think I’m very laid back, they sometimes think it seems as if I don’t care, but in a situation like that, it’s out of my hands, what am I going to do about it? You can’t dwell on it and get depressed. It’s just the nature of football.
“The fact is that the Nations Cup can be a bit awkward for African players over here because you can be away for five or six weeks or something, right in the middle of the season, and I think some players have suffered as a result of that. But again, that’s just the way the schedule is, there’s no value in complaining about it.
“And it is a great tournament to be involved in. You see the happiness it brings to people over there, it’s overwhelming. What it does for people is more important than anything. It made a lot of Nigerians really happy at a time when the kind of stuff that was going on there, the Boko Haram killings, it made life really hard.
“To have some success, something that unified the country, it lifted people’s spirits. That’s why sometimes these tournaments, they can give people hope and happiness, and that is the best thing. The football, who is playing in the team, it’s secondary”.
And finally, to the Albion. Once more, Victor is disarmingly frank in his assessment of the start to his life as an Albion player.
“The start to my time here has been ok. I haven’t really had a run of games as yet, the time has been disrupted a little bit by niggling injuries and by the international breaks, so there hasn’t really been so much of a flow to it yet, and we’ve changed the coach as well.
“I’m still adjusting to things. I’ve been working with the coaches to understand how this team works because all I’ve really known previously is how Everton played under David Moyes. It is very different here. I’m old enough and mature enough to adapt and in doing that, I hope it makes me become a better player.
“I believe in myself, I know I can bring a lot more to this football club, I can chip in with some goals too but my game has never been about being a 20 goals a season player. My job has always been to hold the ball up for the team, help bring others into it. I’m a team player, everybody knows that. I think the other players appreciate that because there’s nothing worse than when you’re defending in a game and the ball just keeps coming back, coming back. If you have somebody up front who can keep hold of it, then play others in on goal, that’s my kind of game.
“Saying that, of course I need to score some goals too, that’s what I’m looking to do here, to improve on that front. I want to learn from the coaches and from the other players, I want to keep improving, get in better positions and help us get the results we need”.