Big interview: Olufela Olomola on "coming home", Defoe, Southampton and Inter Milan
Olufela Olomola is going to live long in the memory.
Not just because he’s stolen all the Ls for a vowel-laden Scrabble score, but because his infectious attitude is exactly what the Stones need this season.
“I’ve had a lot of knock-backs in my career and I recognise now that I need to look hard at myself - I can only affect what I do, I can’t blame anyone else and I’ve got back the hunger I had a few years ago” he confessed when we caught up for a (lengthy) chat after the Bromley game. “And I can’t thank the gaffer, Stuart, enough for believing in me. I’m so grateful for his trust in me, that I can be a main player and be handed the No.9 shirt”.
That may sound incredibly humble for a young man who was in the Southampton first team squad, travelling to Europa League games and even making his Saints debut at the age of 18 in a League Cup win over Sunderland. But he admits that - despite scoring regularly in the EFL when out on loan - a combination of bad luck and bad injuries meant that he was without a club in the summer for the first time after leaving Hartlepool.
“Those months were a struggle for me” said ‘Fela’ as he likes to be known. “I’m 24 now and just coming up to my peak years as a striker, that’s why I’m so appreciative of Stuart recognising what I have to offer. “And I’m ready to seize this opportunity - I was brought up in Harrow and it really feels like I’m coming home, that this is my club”.
Remember the David Sesay interview last season? The Sierra Leone international who was brought up in Harrow Weald? Well Fela hails from even closer to the club’s original roots - he’s from Headstone Drive! The livewire striker laughed as he described how he is now back living within a long goal kick from our old Lower Mead ground.
“Yeah, yeah, I know all about Wealdstone - my dad Ola told me about the club and he’s been the biggest influence on my career. Lots of travelling and taking me to training and games since the age of six or seven - a big commitment!”
‘Fela’ went to Cedars Manor Primary School with Dave Sesay and first played youth football for Parkfield. Fellow fan Sudhir Rawal was involved with Harrow St Mary Youth in those days - mainly through his goalkeeping son Nikhil - and he remembers HSM luring young Fela to play for their Harrow rivals as they were short of forwards.
“I played up front with Dapo Afoloyan (who now plays for Bolton) and his dad and mine were good friends” recalls Fela. “I played up a year and when I was eight I went on a big trial with all the best kids in London, and joined the Arsenal academy. I was at Hatch End High School when, at 16 I was offered a scholarship at the Gunners.... but there so many bright forwards I decided to try elsewhere. “West Ham and Newcastle offered scholarships but Southampton had the best academy and the best manager in Mauricio Pochettino. It was the best fit for me, and though I had to go and live in digs down there my career really took off”.
Fela was made skipper of the Saints’ under18s and handed a pro contract. And then he was on the bench for a Premier League game against Sunderland, at St Mary’s.
“It was a great period for me, I was in the first team squad and playing and training every day, involved in the Europa League set-up and travelled to Inter Milan as a squad player - and then I made my Saints debut off the bench against Sunderland (again) at St Mary’s in the League Cup.
“I thought I might get a few minutes but Jay Rodrigues suffered a head injury after 30 mins and I played the final hour in our 1-0 victory. What a great experience!”
Fela played up top with Lloyd Isgrove on a night when the veteran Jermain Defoe was playing for the opposition. Did he mould his game on people like the ex-England star Defoe?
“That’s interesting because he came alive in the box, a pure goal poacher” said Fela. “I see myself as more of a nine and a half rather than a No.9!” he laughed. “I like to get involved more in the game, be a bit unpredictable... you might see me on the shoulders of defenders and running in behind, and then dropping a bit deeper to pick up the ball in the pockets”. “You were a bit of a poacher when you put us ahead against Bromley though” I told him. “True!” he said. “That was the sort of goal you need if you’re going to get 20 or 25 a season, and I just read where the ball was going to drop after their keeper had pulled off that amazing save from Max (Kretzschmar). “Charles-Cooke (the Bromley keeper) was very decent, I can see why he’s so highly rated” said Fela. “
"He made two more saves from me, one from a freekick and one from a header that I really should have scored. You’re coached to head back across the keeper but he read where I was going to put it”.
It was that eye for a goal that endeared Fela to the Yeovil Town fans when he went to the then-League Two on loan at the age of 19, for six months. “A bit like now at Wealdstone, I had a manager there who played a system that suited me and I got seven goals in 12 games - including two on my debut in a 3-2 win over Accrington Stanley at Huish Park. Two decent goals too... the first a sweet left foot finish on edge of the box, then a lob over the keeper. I was man of the match!”
Those figures helped Fela win a three-year contract at League One Scunthorpe, where he had former Stones star Abobaker Eisa for company.
“Abo was great, a real handful for defenders and he told me about his beginnings at Wealdstone and how the club had nurtured him. “But it didn’t work out for me at Scunny. I started the first game against Coventry which we won, but I wasn’t great. And then I didn’t really get a sniff again for three or four weeks. I was offered to chance to go on loan again to Yeovil, where I was welcomed with open arms... but I don’t know, my hunger had gone. Maybe I was complacent having won a three-year contract at Scunthorpe. Whatever it was, it was part of my journey and I know now that you have to be consistent, mentally and physically strong, 100% of the time”.
He scored three for the Glovers in 17 games but his game time at Scunthorpe was limited by a series of injuries. There was another loan at Carlisle, scoring five in 27 games but the gameplan (after boss Steven Pressley was sacked) was ‘a bit Boreham Wood” according to Fela!
“It was a direct, chasing-the-ball style under Chris Beech and I only started one game. Then Scunthorpe released me during the depressing Covid season and I went on trial at Hartlepool.... and scored four goals off the bench in the second half as ‘Triallist A” in a pre-season game at Runcorn!” That performance was hard to ignore by the just-promoted Pool and manager Dave Challinor snapped him up on a one-year deal.
“It wasn’t a bad season in League Two, and we had an FA Cup game against Crystal Palace, but after Challinor left for Stockport my face didn’t fit” said Fela. He played the last three games of last season against Scunthorpe, Swindon and Colchester but was then released... luckily for us! “I’m really pleased I signed for the Stones.
"The coaching has been excellent, really innovative and everyone gets on in the squad. Football’s not always like that! “We had a good bonding session after the Bedford trip and it was tough to make my Wealdstone debut against QPR’s first team but that was an interesting game. “Then the opening league game against Bromley: That was always going to be a test and we knew we couldn’t get into a fight with them ‘cos they were so big they’d win! We just had to do what we do best, keep the ball moving and thankfully it paid off. “But this is still very early days. We’ve achieved nothing yet and there are bits of our game that we have to improve. Personally I feel that nobody’s seen the best of me yet. There’s a lot to come!”
* Pictures by Darren Campbell and Jon Taffel
• This interview first appeared in the award-winning match day Wealdstone programme. Make sure you pick up a copy of the next edition at the Yeovil game.