Tottenham’s Josh Onomah discusses his fledgling Spurs career, his inspirations and the north London derby against Arsenal
Local pride will be at stake once again when Tottenham visit Arsenal in Sunday’s derby – and Josh Onomah understands the rivalry more than most.
The 19-year-old midfielder has always lived in north London and was already a Spurs fan when he was scouted by the Lilywhites while playing for Southbury Primary School and signed for the club at the age of eight.
Last week, during a visit to Tottenham’s half-term football camp at Woodhouse College in Barnet, the youngsters asked him to name his favourite opposition and he replied: Arsenal.
“I’ve got a few friends who are Arsenal fans and they’re always saying that if I do get a chance to play, not to score against them,” said Onomah, who has made 25 first-team appearances.
“When I was younger, even when I was about nine years old, the competition between us and Arsenal was very high so it shows how important that match is.”
Onomah’s parents arrived in England from Nigeria when they were in their 20s and he was born in Edmonton, while the family made the short move to Enfield when he was five.
He lived there, just up the A10 from White Hart Lane, until April this year – when he got his own place in Barnet – and could hardly believe his luck when Spurs built their new training base and academy on his doorstep in 2012.
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“I remember going to the old training ground in Chigwell (Essex) after school for evening sessions in the dome,” he said. “I would get home and call my dad and say ‘where are you, I’m going to be late for training’ and he would rush home and take me.
“It was good news when the new place was built in Enfield because I only lived around the corner, about five minutes away.
“Everyone’s quite close in the academy, especially since Harry [Kane] started playing well and becoming one of the best players. It showed that if you work hard, anyone can make it and it brought us all closer together.
“I used to play with Harry through the academy, and seeing him going on and doing what he’s doing gives us all confidence – and the manager does that as well.
“He trusts in us, he believes in the academy and he believes that if you’re training well and you deserve to play then you’ll play. When you have a gaffer like that it gives you great confidence to work hard and do what you do best.”
Onomah continued: “When I was growing up, in Year 6, I had a school project which was to pick a sports legend and research them. I picked Muhammad Ali and what I learned from him – his attitude, his commitment to boxing – I think that helped me to be focused and believe in myself.
“Honestly, since I was a kid I’ve always wanted to play football - my dream was to be a footballer, and when I read books I read autobiographies. I try to read a lot of footballers’ autobiographies.
“When you can see what it was like when they were young, growing up, and you can relate to some things, that helps as well. I liked Paul Gascoigne’s book.
“These are exciting times for all of us at the club. I remember when I was younger - my first game was when I about eight years old - I just dreamt of playing in the stadium.
“To have done so already is an amazing feeling, and we’re all looking forward to going to the new stadium. We’ve seen images and hopefully it could be a good place for us.”
Onomah underlined his youth during his appearance at Woodhouse College when he gave the youngsters a rendition of the song that the Tottenham fans have given him – ‘Josh Onomah’ to the tune of The Muppets’ ‘Phenomena’.
It was a popular ditty in the 1990s and will be familiar to many, but the Spurs teenager admitted he had been unaware of the reference before it was explained to him – fairly understandably given he was only born in 1997.
He was just 17 when he made his first-team debut, coming off the bench in an FA Cup tie against Burnley at the Lane in January 2015, and he went on to make 19 appearances last season, while he has had five outings so far this term.
Onomah had to wait until his 23rd game for his first goal or assist, but he opened his account in front of the home fans in September’s EFL Cup tie against Gillingham.
“I’d had a few chances to score and hadn’t managed to do it,” he said. “When that finally happened it was a proud moment for me and a dream come true because I’ve always wanted to score for Tottenham – especially at White Hart Lane.
“It proved to me ‘I can do this’ so I was raring to go for the next game. I think in that game there were glimpses of what I can do, but I still feel I can do more.
“I don’t think the fans have seen the best of me, I think I still have a lot to offer. I can still be a lot more positive on the ball, score more goals, be more effective, get more crosses, in, dribble more.
“When I scored my goal I think that was only the first glimpse of what I can really do. I just hope the fans carry on being patient with me until I can show them what I can do.
“I don’t think age should matter - if you’re a good player you should show it, and if you play badly sometimes you should be told you’ve played badly so you can learn from your mistakes and hope for the next time to play, so you can show what you’re good at.
“The gaffer (Mauricio Pochettino) will tell you how you could improve what you’ve done wrong, so the next time you can show that you’ve learned.”
Onomah largely played in central areas in Spurs’ youth teams and has had to adapt his game after generally being deployed in wide areas for the senior side, but he is happy to gain experience in different roles.
“I trust in the manager,” he said. “Wherever he wants to play me, if that means I play for the first team then I’m happy to do a job there.
“The central areas, like Harry [Winks] and Dele [Alli] - those were my favourite positions growing up.
“I guess it is a bit trickier playing out wide because you get less time on the ball. You’ve got to know what you’re going to do before you get it, so that’s something I’ve got to learn - and you’ve got to be effective in those areas, with more crosses, assists, goals.
“All of those things are a factor in earning a starting place in that line-up so that’s something I’ve got to learn.”
He is learning quickly. Having broken his duck for Tottenham, Onomah was called up to the England Under-21 squad for the first time last month – and he scored on his debut in a 5-0 win over Bosnia & Herzegovina.
The latest ‘pinch yourself’ moment came when the teenager made his first solo appearance at a Spurs community event, at the half-term camp in Barnet.
For Onomah, it brought back vivid memories of the occasion in 2007 when Dimitar Berbatov turned up at his school – a day when his 10-year-old self had been similarly star-struck by the appearance of a first-team Tottenham player.
“It’s actually scary because it feels like yesterday when he came into our school,” said Onomah. “I was like those kids asking questions and wanting to play football with him - and now I’m doing it, so it’s a bit of a wow moment for me.
“When did it all really sink in for me? Probably a few months after I made my debut and I’d get people stopping me in the streets. I think it hit me then. I get recognised more now – especially when I had blond hair!”
Having achieved some notable milestones with both club and country in the past two months, Onomah may have to get used to that recognition – and he will certainly find himself in demand with Spurs fans around north London if he is involved in a derby victory at the Emirates this weekend.
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