BY DAN MARSH
Ayoub Assal is looking to follow in the footsteps of his idol Didier Droga after being given the opportunity to prove himself during AFC Wimbledon’s relegation run-in.
The 19-year-old supported Chelsea as a kid and cites the powerhouse striker’s “magical influence” on the west London club as one of his biggest inspirations.
Now it’s Assal who is casting his own spell over Plough Lane after a stunning start to life in senior football.
But it could have been a very different tale for Assal, born and raised in Deptford.
“It’s a unique neighbourhood I’d say, because you can definitely go down the wrong path easily there,” he told the South London Press. “But football is what’s kept me off of that path.”
The youngster was quickly picked up at U9 level by Millwall after being spotted playing Sunday football for Docklands FC. He was on the Lions’ books for three years before he followed Michael Hamilton, who himself made the switch from Millwall to AFC Wimbledon and is now their academy manager.
“He was the one who got in touch with me and told me about the great set-up that they had here,” said Assal.
“I was thinking more long-term at that age. I was thinking ‘what’s the best pathway for me to get first-team football?’ Wimbledon seemed like they could provide it, and they have provided it. Mike provided a good set-up with good coaches, and I made the decision to come in.”
It’s a call which has paid dividends, as the forward has become the latest graduate of the Dons’ thriving academy to taste first-team football.
Just a couple of months ago, Assal was handed his senior debut off the bench against Shrewsbury with the Dons trailing 1-0 – by the end of his 20-minute cameo, the youngster had salvaged a point with his first goal for the club.
It’s a moment he hasn’t looked back from. He went on to net four goals in 14 appearances, proving to be the catalyst in Wimbledon’s resurgent run to all but secure safety with a couple of games to spare.
But far from being impressed with that tally, Assal is adamant he should have ended the campaign with even better stats.
“Not to sound arrogant, but I trust my ability – I know what I can do,” he said. “If anything, I should have had more goals.
“After every game, I go back, look at the game and look for areas I can improve on. Then I come back to the training ground and I’ll say ‘I want to work on that today, or I want to improve this’. As a young player, that’s what you need – to keep planning and going back over your games and improving and improving.
“Finishing is an area which I need to keep improving, because then I’ll get way more goals. That’s going to help the team climb up the table and be where we know we can be.
“When I was younger I was always a striker. I was dropped back into midfield because of my work-rate off the ball. After growing up a bit more, when we went to 11v11 football, I’ve always played as a number 10 or out wide. I’d say number 10 is my preferred position.”
Mark Robinson is clearly someone who has had a big impact on Assal’s fledgling career. The youngster isn’t sure he would have been given his chance in the first team had Robinson not been appointed head coach in February.
Assal also credits first-team coach Rob Tuvey.
“Rob and Robbo have had a massive impact on my development as a player,” he said. “But I wouldn’t just say that they’ve just helped on the pitch, it’s been off the pitch as well. Values like being an honest man off the pitch, applying myself in an honest way and just always trying to represent the club in the best manner.
“It was a bit surreal at the beginning when [Robinson] got the job.
“I’ve worked with him at U18s before, so we know each other very well. He knows the areas that I need to work and improve on. The main thing I’d say is just belief and giving me the opportunity. I never had that before. But Robbo came in and gave me an opportunity and luckily I’ve taken it.
“That’s all a young player needs, just a chance.
“If you’re not given that opportunity in the first place, then how are you going to make it in the team? No matter what you do on the training pitch, you’ll never make it in. It’s not the same [as playing first team football]. All praise to Robbo for having the belief to play me.”
The teenager qualifies for Morocco through his parents, who were both born in the country.
He was called up for a Morocco training camp at U20 level earlier in the year – an experience which he feels helped play a part in his domestic development, and has fuelled his international aspirations.
“It was a great experience, because football there is completely different to football here,” he said.
“On the ball, the pitches are slower. Off the ball you don’t press as much, you sit in the mid-block.
“You’re with players from Holland and France, who play in top divisions there as well, so you get to see where you are at.
“The facilities are top notch. They’ve just built a new facility as well.
“They’ve invested a lot of money into Moroccan football, because they want to be a force on the world stage, which they can do.”
Photos: Keith Gillard
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