Benik Afobe knows there is an onus on him to deliver goals for Millwall, and the on-loan Stoke City striker reckons he operates best when there is expectation on his shoulders.
The 28-year-old Londoner has scored twice in eight Championship appearances for the Lions.
But he has also been brought down twice when clean through on goal at The Den – Jed Wallace converted from the penalty spot in the recent 1-0 win over Bristol City while Blackpool defender Callum Connolly saw red in the 14th minute, Millwall going on to claim a 2-1 victory.
Afobe says the last time he enjoyed his football as much was when he joined Bristol City on loan in August 2019. He had three goals in his opening six fixtures before an anterior cruciate ligament injury ruled him out until June.
“I feel wanted,” Afobe told the South London Press. “I feel like the players rely on me and they put pressure on me, which is always good.
“I’m someone who thrives off pressure. I know a lot of people find that hard, but I prefer when people are counting on me to make things happen.
“They’ve given me that responsibility, and I like it. I’m just trying to take the opportunity with both hands.
“Some players like when a manager shouts at them and some like it when they don’t say too much to them. It’s a bit of both. I need confidence from the manager and the staff, whether that is people being harsh or letting me be free.
“The main thing I really, really like about Gary [Rowett, Millwall manager] is that you can play wherever you want, as long as you’re getting in good positions and trying to create things in the final third. As a forward, that is music to your ears.
“I don’t like those rigid ‘I want you to stand here and do this’. As long as we’re trying to make things happen and we’re working hard for the team, he’ll let us do whatever we want.
“I like those kind of management skills. I’ve always been about that freedom but somewhere along the line I lost that a little bit – through managers not believing in me, my injuries or not performing great.
“I’m just hoping that I’m not going to let him down now.”
Twice Afobe has been fouled when about to be one-on-one with the keeper. While denying him a scoring chance is frustrating, he also has a different take.
“I’ve always been a team player – and in both those games we’ve won,” he said. “Jed scored the penalty and Blackpool were a man down [for most of the match]. Just contributing to the football club is what I’m here for, whether that is scoring goals or helping the team win in some shape or form.
“If I’ve scored goals and Millwall are in a place where we think we can be at the end of the season, that means the old Benik must have come back.
“Listen, a lot of things have happened in my life where I don’t even think about being the old me. It’s a new, different type of me. I’ve gained experience. I feel strong, quick and I’m playing with a freedom I haven’t had in many years.
“When I’m playing, I’m enjoying myself – whether I’m playing well or not playing well. It’s about winning games. I’m not a selfish person. I’ve come to add and gain experience, plus help Millwall Football Club. That’s all I care about.”
Afobe missed three matches due to a knee problem. And having twice suffered ACL injuries, the first cutting short his loan with the Lions in 2013, it was naturally a worry.
“You always fear the worst with knees and ankles,” said the former Arsenal youngster. “They are probably the two injuries that footballers worry about the most.
“I had a bit of a problem with my cartilage, which was annoying. We didn’t know how long I’d be out for. I went to see a specialist and we actually didn’t have a time frame when I’d be back.
“To only miss three games, that was the fewest I was going to miss. It went pretty quickly, the physios and fitness staff helped me massively with the rehab. I have them to thank for me being fit now.
“I just thought about getting right, which is the most important thing. After the season I had last season, where I was on the bench for most of it [at Trabzonspor], I wanted to have a big impact on Millwall’s season. I’m looking forward to the next 30 games.
“Everyone is still trying to find their form and the injury probably set me back a week or two, in terms of where I’d have liked to be.
“It’s a long season and each game I’m getting better and better. The boys are helping me, my team-mates are playing for me and I’m playing for them – that’s always a good mix. And the manager and staff all believe in me.
“I always give 100 per cent, whether I score or not. Millwall fans like players that give 100 per cent and I always give that.
“We’ve got a good squad now. We’ve got at least two players who can play in each position. Millwall haven’t had that for years.”
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