‘I want to be a Premier League great’ – Ayoub Assal driven to succeed and why AFC Wimbledon is the right club for him

AFC Wimbledon’s Ayoub Assal has set his sights on reaching the pinnacle of world football and believes that his talent can take him there.

The driven 19-year-old has gone from only featuring in sporadic EFL Trophy games to becoming one of the most feared and dependable youngsters in League One in less than a year.

After being named in head coach Mark Robinson’s inaugural first-team squad for the trip to Wigan last season, there was a steady drip-feed of substitute appearances – scoring his first goal for the club at Shrewsbury – before being unleashed as a consistent starter with Wimbledon firmly immersed in a relegation battle.

Starting in every League One game for the South Londoners this season – except for the 3-1 win against Oxford United – Assal has seamlessly adapted to life in professional football and is intensely focused on where he believes he can be one day.

“I want to reach the top of football,” Assal told the South London Press while on his way to watch the club’s youngsters take on Haringey Borough in the London Senior Cup. “I don’t just want to reach the top and be a name. I want to be a key name that people talk about. When you see the great players now in the Premier League, I want to be there one day.

“I know I can do it – I know I have the talent to do it.

“It’s up to me to keep taking it day by day. It’s a long-term process but, before you know it, it will work.

“I trust the coaching staff, and I trust Wimbledon – I know one day hopefully that’s where I will be.”

Despite Assal’s frightening talent being repeatedly discussed amongst those within the third tier, he remains grounded by looking back on the journey and sacrifices that have allowed him to call football his full-time profession.

Ayoub Assal celebrates scoring at Morecambe Picture: Sean Gosling

When Assal finished his day at secondary school in Blackheath, he would have to sprint down a hill to catch a bus. Once he reached his home in Deptford, Assal would have to change, pick up his food, and head quickly out to catch two or three trains to get to Wimbledon’s training ground in New Malden.

“Training would finish by 9pm and then I have school the next morning, so I would have to rush back on the same journey – I wouldn’t get home until 11pm,” recalled Assal. “It was the same routine – again, again and again.

“All those emotions come into one moment. It’s just that relief to think about all of those days that I worked hard, all of those days where I rushed and left all of my friends in school – when I wanted to be with them – but my mum would always tell me: ‘Sacrifice now, and later you will be laughing.’

“My mum tells me every day that she’s proud of me, and that puts the biggest smile on my face, but she also tells me: ‘You can do more – you can keep improving.’

“It was late nights. People don’t see the work in the background that has led to this.”

When asked if being a footballer has quite sunk in for him yet, Assal explains: “Not really. I still have a normal life outside of football. I meet my friends, and we go to the cinema or bowling.

“I just get to do what I love – playing football.

“Sometimes I may not understand how lucky I am because a lot of my friends wanted to be in the same position that I’m in now. When some of my friends tell me: ‘You’re so lucky you’re playing this and that,’ it makes me realise what a great position I’m in. I have to keep going and striving.”

Ayoub Assal in action against Burton Albion     Picture: Keith Gillard

After playing an influential role under Robinson in the battle to secure League One football – scoring four and assisting two in his debut campaign for the Dons – Assal was rewarded with a new contract over the summer to keep him at Plough Lane until 2024.

“The main decision was development,” said Assal. “I’m still young – I don’t want to be looking at other things that are happening off the field. I still need to develop – I can still improve my game.

“That’s the main reason why I signed the contract, because I want to keep improving, keep getting appearances under my belt, keep growing my name and keep helping Wimbledon. They have paved the road for where I am now.

“Some youngsters get ahead of themselves and think: ‘I’m 19, I need to do this and that.’ But if you just focus on your own improvement, you will get to that stage regardless.”

After being an unknown quantity when he burst through and left an immediate impression on the Wimbledon first-team, opponents this season have set about devising plans of action to stop Assal and nullify his attacking threat.

“It’s helped improve my game a lot,” said Assal on the way he has had to change his style with teams administering the dark arts of football to stop him.

“Players now, if I am going past them and they’re not letting me go, they’re kicking me down or fouling me, and it’s a test of my reaction to keep going.

“The coaching staff always tell me: ‘Don’t see it as an insult – it’s a compliment because they can’t handle you’.

“If anything, it brings the best out of me and improves me. I accept the challenge – that’s how football is.”

Ayoub Assal has a shot against Sheffield Wednesday Picture: Keith Gillard

With eight goal contributions in 22 games this season, including his first home goal in front of the Plough Lane fans against Fleetwood last Saturday, Assal has carried over his exciting form from last season to be one of Wimbledon’s most reliable outlets.

“It was a special moment as an academy boy coming through the ranks – it’s one of those things you dream of,” said Assal of his goal last weekend.

However, he’s in no mood to dwell on his exhilarating start to his first full season in professional football.

“If you look at the best – Ronaldo or Messi – they don’t focus on what they have achieved. It’s just looking ahead to what’s next? What can I do more of? And what can I do to improve?

“It’s just constant improvement because you haven’t got time to settle down and think: ‘What did I do last year? Wow, that was good.’ That will come maybe when I stop playing football.

“Right now, I’m just focusing on progressing and improving.”

Picture: Paul Edwards

 


 

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