Joe Aribo didn’t make his senior debut until he was 20… now he’s flourishing under Steven Gerrard

Joe Aribo is Rangers and Nigeria‘s 24-year-old central midfielder, a mainstay of Steven Gerrard’s Scottish title-winning side and figure central to his countries present and future.

And his story makes Aribo even more on top of that. An inspiration to scores of youngsters hoping to make their way in the game.

Proof that the academy route is not the only one into football. Proof that if you believe you can achieve, no matter how unlikely it can at times seem.

Joe Aribo has become a vital cog in Rangers' Premiership-winning side under Steven Gerrard

Joe Aribo has become a vital cog in Rangers’ Premiership-winning side under Steven Gerrard

The midfielder has 17 goals in 88 games since arriving at Ibrox from Charlton in June 2019

The midfielder has 17 goals in 88 games since arriving at Ibrox from Charlton in June 2019

Londoner Aribo was approaching his teens and part of Fulham’s Kicks community project when he first dreamed of becoming a professional.

‘Seeing Fulham, the team, first-hand, going to the training ground, was just amazing,’ Aribo said, reminiscing. ‘It was like “yeah, this is where I want to be playing.” Being close to it, seeing it but not really being in it, you want it more.

‘I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to get to a level where I can say I’m a professional footballer.’

Though it was not until Aribo was 19 that he joined his first professional club, Charlton, and 20 that he made his senior debut.

And there were many points before that when Aribo feared such milestone moments would never be reached.

Nowadays, though, he is rubbing shoulders with players he watched growing up like teammate Jermain Defoe, receiving priceless guidance from ‘father figure’ Gerrard and his No.2 Gary McAllister among others, and has helped Rangers end their long title wait and Celtic’s dominance of Scotland’s top division.

Avoid defeat in their final three games – starting with Sunday’s Old Firm derby – and they will end the league campaign as Invincibles too.

‘I honestly thank God,’ a grateful Aribo said. ‘Without God I don’t know where I would be. Sometimes I just literally think “wow, look at how far you’ve come” and there are still places you are going to go. This isn’t the end of it.’

Though when he was still playing under-16s Sunday League football, a few years after his informal association with Fulham, Aribo was concerned that it might be the end for his professional hopes.

Aribo first dreamt of playing professionally when he was at Fulham's Kicks community project

Aribo first dreamt of playing professionally when he was at Fulham’s Kicks community project

‘This was the age where you’ve got to get into an academy otherwise the dream is fading,’ he said.

When that season did not really come to anything “I thought I might stop playing football because I didn’t know where to go next,” he said.

Rather than an academy it was on to Kingston College, where one of his former Sunday League teammates suggested he go on trial at non-league Staines Town who had a tie up with the college.

‘I thought ‘I’ve got nothing to lose so I just went there,’ Aribo said.

He was successful, impressed in Staines’ youth setup, crucially catching the eye of first-team manager and former Wimbledon forward Marcus Gayle.

Following Gayle’s final game before he left in December 2014, he and Aribo were part of a dressing room conversation the youngster will never forget.

Staines boss Marcus Gayle believed Aribo could make it - and the dream came true at Charlton

Staines boss Marcus Gayle believed Aribo could make it – and the dream came true at Charlton

‘We lost the game 5-3 but I actually played so well and he said, in front of the whole team, “just make me a promise that you’re going to be a professional footballer.” I said “yeah, I definitely am.”

‘We joke about it nowadays but having that in my head made me think “I’ve made the promise and I have to back it up.”

Though when things did not go to plan and he was struggling to get in Staines’ squad under Gayle’s successor, former Reading and Brentford striker Nicky Forster, it was again difficult for Aribo to see how he could.

‘At this point I was even going to [South Bank] uni and I thought “why am I even still playing football?” he said.

‘That season came to an end and I actually said to myself, “you need to start thinking about what you’re going to do next because football is not going to work for you.”

‘I stopped going to uni because I hated it as well so it was like ‘nothing is going for me.’

Aribo excelled under Lee Bowyer and credits him with bringing out a nasty streak in his game

Re-enter Gayle. A friend and former Wimbledon teammate of Charlton academy chief Jason Euell, Gayle pulled some strings to get Aribo a trial, knowing the talent he possessed deserved to be showcased at a higher level.

‘If I didn’t get into Charlton I would have stopped playing football,’ Aribo said. ‘I had something to work towards [the trial] that whole summer and I just gave it my all.

‘I remember getting the call that Charlton were going to offer me something.

‘It was surreal because this was my first ever pro contract. As I was coming in very late, it was a nice feeling. My family were so happy for me.’

Russell Slade gave Aribo his Charlton debut, Karl Robinson introduced him to league football but it was under his successor Lee Bowyer that Aribo really flourished, helping the Addicks gain promotion from League One in 2019 before joining Rangers.

‘He really helped me and I learnt so much under him because he was a central midfielder as well,’ Aribo said of Bowyer.

Aribo helped Charlton beat Sunderland in the League One play-off final before moving north

Aribo helped Charlton beat Sunderland in the League One play-off final before moving north

‘He taught me the nasty side of football especially. That it’s never going to just come to you, you have to work for it. Every single day you’ve got to graft and work.’

Aribo has adapted impressively to every step up he has had to make, both for club and country.

Better suited to playing higher up than in non-league, where the ball can spend more time in the air than central midfield, other adjustments were required from Aribo when joining Charlton.

‘I remember my first pre-season I was coming home from training and sleeping straight away,’ he smiled. ‘I couldn’t handle it at the start.

‘I wasn’t good with timekeeping either and used to get in trouble with Jason Euell for that and I had to learn quick, the hard way, and improve my time keeping.’

At Rangers he has found greater demands from the fans but increased adulation too.

Aribo revealed that he couldn't hear himself think during his first taste of the Old Firm derby

Aribo revealed that he couldn’t hear himself think during his first taste of the Old Firm derby

‘I would say probably the day I signed [was when he realised just how big Rangers are],’ Aribo said.

‘It was like a whole different ball game. I was staying in a hotel initially and went into town quickly just to get a few bits and people are asking me for pictures, stopping me and I’m thinking “wow this is my first day, I’ve just signed.” That was overwhelming.

‘Another experience was my first Old Firm, another day that just showed me this is massive. I couldn’t hear myself thinking.

‘You know when you try and speak to yourself in a game it was so loud. The atmosphere was amazing. The occasion actually got the better of me that day and it was so much for me to take in.’

This season’s title win meanwhile, has given Aribo the thirst for more success.

‘The title this year is my first one,’ Aribo said. ‘I love this feeling and just want to have it as much as possible in my career.’

One of Aribo's two goals for Nigeria so far came in a 1-1 friendly draw against Brazil in 2019

One of Aribo’s two goals for Nigeria so far came in a 1-1 friendly draw against Brazil in 2019

Internationally, Aribo has an Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup to look forward to next year as the latest proud wearer of Nigeria’s prized No.10 shirt.

‘Getting called up was a surreal feeling and one I definitely didn’t expect, from where I’ve come from but it just showed me how far I’ve come,’ Aribo said.

‘I’ll never forget my first game with the No.10. They left the spot [in the changing room] for me and I didn’t sit there because I was thinking “this can’t be me.”

‘They said “no, this is you” and when I was warming up I was thinking “yo, this is crazy. The ten for Nigeria.” I didn’t know how to feel. A crazy feeling. In football, let alone Nigeria the No.10 shirt is iconic. If you’re wearing it you’ve got to be a good player so I feel like I have to be good.’

Aribo has always had a faith in his ability, even when circumstances tried to test him.

Aribo is hoping that his first league title is the first of many during a career that is just starting

Aribo is hoping that his first league title is the first of many during a career that is just starting

And in those earlier years when his talents were not accurately reflected in the level he was playing at, that faith was maintained when I was playing in the area, people asking “how are you not playing? How are you not at an academy?” That made me keep my confidence,’ he explained.  

So, for any youngster who may find themselves in the same position he once was, Aribo has some advice.

‘The biggest thing is self-belief but also give it your all before you quit,’ he said. ‘Give it one last push and just see where that takes you.’

Aribo’s helped get him through the door at Charlton and he has not looked back since.


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