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Non-league to the Bundesliga: Dapo Afolayan's journey to Germany's top flight

Dapo Afolayan speaks exclusively to Sky Sports about his footballing journey after he played a starring role in St Pauli's promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in 13 years

Dapo Afolayan speaks exclusively to Sky Sports

From the National League to the Bundesliga, Dapo Afolayan has a footballing journey that few can match.

He's trained with the likes of Declan Rice, Jack Wilshere and Jermain Defoe. He's also played under David Moyes and Paul Scholes in a footballing career that has stretched over Canada, England and Germany. He also has a university degree in civil engineering.

The London-born winger has been promoted to the Bundesliga with St Pauli, who won the second-tier title for the only the second time in their history. Their promotion ends a 13-year wait to return to the summit of German football.

St Pauli won the title on the final day but achieved promotion with a game to spare in a 3-1 victory against VFL Osnabruck in their last home fixture. In that game Afolayan scored twice and set up the third to ensure victory. Owing to St. Pauli's strong bond with their unique support, fans joined the players on the pitch sparking some dramatic celebrations.

"It was like nothing I've ever experienced before in my life," Afolayan told Sky Sports.

"I ran on the pitch to celebrate with my team-mates, and I only managed to find two of them before we got surrounded.

"It was just pure ecstasy. For a lot of us, we were quite emotional because we spoke about the possibility of promotion. We dreamt of what could be possible. So, for us to achieve it in that manner, at home in front of our fans as well was perfect."

Breaking into the Bundesliga is just the latest achievement that the 26-year-old can add to his array of efforts to reach top-level football. He began his career in grassroots playing for his local team Harrow St Mary's. At seven years old Afolayan joined Chelsea's academy where he shared a youth dressing room with some familiar names.

"My Chelsea U9s team was one of the best they've had in terms of producing players," he said.

"Out of the 14 boys that joined when we were eight, I think 11 of us are playing top-flight football. We had Dominic Solanke, Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Chris Mepham, Jack Taylor's just been promoted with Ipswich, Jake Clarke-Salter, Ruben Sammut, and Kyle Scott. All very good players, we were blessed with a good team."

Dominic Solanke
Image: Afolayan played alongside Bournemouth's star man Dominic Solanke at Chelsea's academy

At aged 14, Afolayan's footballing journey took an unconventional turn. While most players at that age would be striving to secure their academy scholarship, Afolayan's family wanted to ensure that he could focus on his education.

Afolayan, along with his family, left London for Canada after a year at Barnet. It was there he would sign for Toronto FC, where Afolayan could combine his love for education with a potential route into professional football through the North American college draft system. At Toronto FC, Afolayan shared training fields with Defoe, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco.

However, Afolayan opted to return to the United Kingdom to pursue a university degree. He ended up at Loughborough University where he would study towards a civil engineering qualification. Afolayan also spent time on the university's football programme, but educating himself remained a priority.

"My dad always told me: 'The one thing no one in the world can take away from you is education,'" Afolayan said.

"Going to university was a good experience; I understand the importance of education. I think something that a lot of young boys in the UK tend to forget, especially in the footballing world, is you can't always focus on football, you have to be adaptable."

Solihull Moors to West Ham

Adaptability is a trait that Afolayan has had to apply into multiple areas of his life. While at Loughborough University, he was picked up by National League side Solihull Moors but moved to West Ham after just one year in 2018.

"There were clubs in League Two, League One and the Championship who were interested in me. And as a young footballer, with the dreams and aspirations I had, I was desperate to play professional football and I felt so close.

"Towards the end of the January window, it looked like the moves that I wanted might not happen.

"On the morning of deadline day, I woke up and had a phone call saying that West Ham are having a meeting about me. An hour and a half later, I was told to make my way down from Birmingham to London. So, you can imagine, I was driving the car very nervously.

"Ending up at West Ham, especially at that time, it was really good for me to be there. The club was going through a good transitional period."

Paul Scholes at Oldham
Image: Afolayan played under Paul Scholes during his 31 days in charge of Oldham Athletic

During his three years at West Ham, went out on loan three times. Afolayan's first loan was to Oldham Athletic in 2019 where he played under Scholes during his infamous 31 days in charge of the then League Two outfit.

"It was a hard time to go into the football club," Afolayan said.

"There was a lot going on behind the scenes that a lot of people didn't know about. Scholes was the manager at the time when I joined on loan in January, but I was still injured at the time.

"After two weeks, I went up there and met the manager, trained with the boys and it was great. It started off well as I ended up getting into the team and starting games. But after 45 minutes at Lincoln City, I dislocated my shoulder and then the next day the manager resigned.

"It was a good learning curve. Being around Scholes and to learn from him, even if it was for a short time, was great. He's still in contact with me today, he's a great guy. I think if circumstances at the football club were better, then things may have been better for not just myself but for him too."

Afolayan returned to League Two with Mansfield Town but had a tough time, making only six appearances for the club. In January 2021, Afolayan made his debut under Moyes in a 4-0 FA Cup victory against Doncaster Rovers. On that occasion he replaced Tomas Soucek and lined up alongside the likes of Mark Noble, Said Benrahma and Manuel Lanzini. It took Afolayan only eight minutes to score his first goal for West Ham.

The cup win was Afolayan's first and last senior appearance for the east London club. However, despite a short and sweet time with the first team, the winger is grateful for the years he spent there.

"I have pride to say that I was at the club," he said.

"Working with Moyes, I always appreciated him for giving me that opportunity. It was something that I'd worked really hard for. I kept my head down and just waited for my opportunity to be patient. When it came, I wanted to make sure I took it.

"I got the opportunity to train with some great players and make some good friends at the club. The main thing for me was the learning curve that it gave me.

"It showed me the level that I need to achieve to be there. As a young player, a lot of people think that you deserve opportunities. If you get an opportunity, you deserve it."

Afolayan left West Ham just eight days after netting his first goal, in an initial loan to Bolton Wanderers. When he joined the club, Bolton were in 20th in League Two and over the course of three months, the club had secured promotion back into League One. Following that successful spell, Bolton made the move permanent.

Dapo Afolayan
Image: Afolayan signed for Bolton after an initial successful loan at the club

In the 2021/22 season, Afolayan scored 14 goals and set up seven as he was named Bolton's player of the year and was the club's top scorer. The season that followed was one where Bolton boss Ian Everett chose to move the team in a different direction which meant Afolayan was on the periphery of his plans.

A future in Germany

In January 2023, Afolayan moved to St Pauli in a move that he says fit him "perfectly".

"Once I spoke to the manager my mind was set, especially how he wanted me to play and how he said wanted the team to play.

"I was really, really excited to kind of come here and try and show what I can do. This was a different challenge for me. To play in front of 30,000 every week is special, this is a bucket-list place to come and watch football. To be playing here is unbelievable."

After scoring 10 and setting up three to climb out of Germany's second division, the Bundesliga awaits Afolayan and his St Pauli team-mates and that's a challenge the forward is looking forward to.

Harry Kane celebrates scoring his 24th goal for Bayern Munich this season
Image: St Pauli will face the likes of Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund in next season's Bundesliga

"When I think forward to next year, it's thinking about a new challenge," he said.

"It's about being able to show what this club's about on the big stage and competing among the best. I'm thinking about the big teams coming here and making it as difficult for them as possible. We can compete, we deserve to be there.

"Who I can't wait to play against? Team-wise, you'd obviously have to say Bayern Munich because as an Englishman, there's a couple of Englishmen on their side and they are one of the biggest teams in Europe.

"I can't wait to test myself against Bayer Leverkusen. They are a top side and we've seen it this season. I can't wait to play against their full-backs like Alex Grimaldo and Jeremy Frimpong. I know Jeremy's little brother; he was at Bolton with me. So that would be a good game.

"You never know what happens. I think every team that comes here next season is going to be a great test for us. I'm just looking forward to the challenge."

On a personal note for Afolayan, performing on the big stage might move him closer to a number of personal goals he has for himself. He represented England's C team, the national side for players that play outside of the Premier League and EFL. As a player with Nigerian roots, playing in the Bundesliga may offer up opportunities to even represent the Super Eagles.

"For me, playing for Nigeria would be really special," he said.

"I was born in London so, playing for England would be a dream also, but playing for Nigeria would be really special for my family too.

"I think if the opportunity came, I'd be so grateful. I would feel like I've achieved another one of my goals.

"That's all something I just want to keep working towards and hopefully, in the next few years, it can happen."

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