It was the moment most young boys dream about. After years of training as a schoolboy at Chelsea, Dapo Afolayan was offered a place in the Blues’ academy.
Afolayan’s future was mapped out for him. A step up in training would be followed by a stint playing alongside some of the continent’s brightest young talent in Chelsea’s youth team, before the teenager would try to force his way into the senior squad.
Only Afolayan had other ideas. Instead of excitedly shaking hands on a deal with one of Europe’s top clubs, the teenager said no. There were no other offers waiting in the wings for the promising forward – the Londoner’s immediate future would lie in textbooks and exam papers.
“It was hard to give up Chelsea at the time,” recalls Afolayan, looking back at the decision he made as a 14-year-old to focus on education instead of football.
“The reason I left Chelsea was that I’d have needed to leave school to carry on there. When they [clubs such as Chelsea] introduced category academies, it meant players couldn’t stay at school to be part of it. I was supposed to be doing my GCSEs the year after and I wasn’t happy to only learn three days a week, so I left.”
As rare as it is brave, Afolayan’s decision set him on a path that has taken him into the deepest, darkest realms of non-league, before resurfacing at National League strugglers Solihull Moors last year. His form for the West Midlands side earned him a move to West Ham in January, and he will now link up with the Hammers’ Under-23s after signing a three-and-a-half year contract.
After scoring on his debut for Solihull Moors, Afolayan continued to impress league scouts with a return of 14 goals and a handful of man-of-the-match performances in 44 outings.
Still only 21, Afolayan has now returned to the promised land. But West Ham will have to sidestep the same snag that Chelsea hit six years ago: his studies.
The forward’s determination to get a degree was a crucial factor in his decision to turn down another move to a higher-ranking club last year, when he picked the part-time Moors in favour of League One Rochdale.
“Part time worked for me at first last year, but it’s also important not to get too far ahead of yourself too soon and playing first-team football is most important,” Afolayan says.
“The National League is a good level and there are some quality teams from top to bottom – just look at what Lincoln did to get into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup last season. I’ve learned a lot by playing in the team at Solihull and I feel that if I’d gone into the Football League last year, I wouldn’t be the player I am today.”
Despite his confidence in the career decisions he’s made so far, Afolayan could be forgiven for occasionally dreaming about what might have been had he stayed at Chelsea.
With the promise of the Premier League’s bright lights dangled in front of him as a teenager, it’s inevitable that his mind has wandered to a parallel universe where he blossomed in Chelsea’s academy and burst on to the scene as England’s latest hot prodigy. It’s a tantalising alternative for a youngster whose recent reality was a relegation battle to merely stay at non-league’s top table.
Yet such ‘what if’ notions soon dissipate when Afolayan considers how few academy graduates have made an impact on the Blues’ first team in recent years – Andreas Christensen’s breakthrough this season is the first of any significance since John Terry nearly two decades ago.
Further vindication came in the form of two familiar faces joining Afolayan in Solihull’s squad last season. Both goalkeeper Nathan Baker and Ghanaian midfielder Nortei Nortey had been on Chelsea’s books while Afolayan was there as a trainee and stayed on at Stamford Bridge after he’d left.
It showed that, while many might have seen Afolayan’s refusal to prioritise his place in Chelsea’s youth team above all else as a backwards step, he’s no further behind those who remained in west London. In fact, having now made the step back up with West Ham, he believes that having a host of senior appearances under his belt has been hugely beneficial.
“When younger players from bigger clubs [came to Solihull], that’s who I compare myself to,” Afolayan explains.
“A lot of times I’m ahead of them because I already know what it’s like to play men’s football and some of them are doing it for the first time.
“The difference between the 23s and senior football is huge, and that’s one thing that’s helped me a lot because I’ve been playing men’s football since I was 16. People are more experienced and do different things, but in 23s football, it’s always against similar players on nice pitches.
“I don’t know many 23s teams who have ever played on pitches like those you find in non-league when you’ve just got to get on with it. To me, that’s all part of my learning curve.”
While Afolayan’s education has flourished on and off the pitch, a nightmare situation emerged last summer. After turning down a move to the Football League to stay in part-time football, Solihull announced they’d be moving to a full-time model for the new campaign – meaning Afolayan had to choose between lectures and training sessions.
After a great deal of soul-searching, Afolayan made the difficult decision to swap his civil engineering degree at Loughborough University for an online course. For the first time, his football career took centre stage.
The endless temptations Afolayan has faced at such a young age demonstrate why it’s so difficult for emerging players to provide themselves with a backup option if their football career doesn’t take off. But Afolayan believes it’s a cultural perception within British football that higher education and a successful career on the pitch can’t go hand in hand.
“It seems that a lot of young players sack off their education at a young age and don’t think about going to university, which is why it’s rare to find an 18-year-old footballer with A Levels,” he says.
“That’s mainly down to how we treat youth football in England. We say to children that there is one path in football: you work hard, go to an academy and get a scholarship. Then you get a pro contract and try to get in the first team.
“That’s why people don’t think about going to university. It isn’t an option for many because, once you’re in an academy or become a scholar, you fast track school.
“From a young age, my parents told me how important education is and that it’s the one thing nobody can take away from you. I always bought into that. Having seen friends and people around me go through difficult situations shows that education really helps. I have friends who have been playing football, got injured, then they’re not left with much.”
As Afolayan’s stock continued to rise, his latest big decision came when he agreed to join West Ham. But although he’s now got more flexibility in terms of his education, the strong-minded ex-Chelsea trainee may find the compromise doesn’t end there.
“I’ve always said that I want to get into professional, full-time football and learn the game, so I can be the best player I can be,” he adds.
One thing’s for sure: there’s no threat of Afolayan being forced into a deal that isn’t right for him. After all, he’s never been afraid to say no.