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Meet the ex-Chelsea wonderkid you've never heard of who is set to tear up the Bundesliga after non-League stint

Meet the ex-Chelsea wonderkid you've never heard of who is set to tear up the Bundesliga after non-League stint

Twelve years after dropping out of Chelsea's academy, Dapo Afolayan speaks to SPORTbible as he prepares for life in the Bundesliga.

“There are things that are bigger than us", says Dapo Afolayan - perhaps surprisingly for a player who less than 24 hours earlier was being serenaded by thousands of adoring fans in Hamburg city centre.

The 26-year-old Londoner was celebrating the promotion of St Pauli to the Bundesliga after 13 years away, clinched with a 3-1 defeat of Vfl Osnabruck in which he scored twice.

Next season Afolayan will take on the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, quite a change of scenery from before he moved to Germany in January 2013.

It’s been some journey since leaving Chelsea’s academy at age 14 in order to pursue a better education. At 15, Afolayan and his family moved to Canada where he spent time with the reserve team of MLS franchise Toronto FC, but turned down a soccer scholarship at Yale University to study civil engineering at Loughborough University.

There he played part-time for the university team and ninth-tier Tooting & Mitcham United, before joining non-League outfit Solihull Moors. It was there that West Ham spotted him.

For the next three years, Afolayan’s career resembled what you might expect for a talented player plucked from the lower leagues.

Loan spells at Oldham Athletic, Mansfield Town and Bolton Wanderers followed, before West Ham sold him to the latter in 2021; the Londoner made just one appearance for his hometown club.

At Bolton the youngster quickly made an impression, scoring 12 goals and setting up seven more as Ian Evett’s side attempted - but ultimately failed - to secure an immediate return to the Championship.

The mere mention of Bolton brings a smile to Afolayan’s face, and it’s largely because of the man who left a huge impression on him.

“He’s a special person, he believed in me and gave me the opportunity to play proper games in the Football League,” Afolayan tells SPORTbible when asked about Evett.

“You can see what he’s done at Bolton in such a short space of time, it’s amazing. They were unlucky to miss out on promotion again [Bolton lost in the 2023-24 League One play-off final], but I’m sure it will happen soon.”

Afolayan spent almost two years in League One with Bolton Wanderers. [Getty]
Afolayan spent almost two years in League One with Bolton Wanderers. [Getty]

Despite finishing as Bolton’s top scorer in his first season at the club, Afolayan found minutes harder to come by the following campaign.

When an undisclosed offer - reportedly in the region of £500,000 - came in from German second division side St Pauli in January 2023, the former Chelsea man leapt at the opportunity.

St Pauli is a club known more for its values and fanbase than its footballing success. Playing at the Millerntor-Stadion close to Hamburg’s infamous Reeperbahn, the club has earned cult status for the inclusivity, progressiveness, activism and passion of its supporters. Those sentiments flow through the whole club, creating an environment that is comfortable and rewarding to work in.

“Every player that comes here is told why the club is the way it is, why it’s the club of the people,” Afolayan says.

“In the dressing room there’s more of a consciousness about certain things, certain issues, the way we address people and each other.

"It’s a big part of who we are as a club and as a team. We are a special team, we don't do things that are conventional.”

At the time Afolayan signed, St Pauli were just above the relegation zone in 2. Bundesliga, yet he wasn’t put off by the prospect of a relegation fight.

“Football is bigger than just the standings or the table,” he says. "You have to look at everything, so something I looked at was why the club was where it was.”

St Pauli were drawing too many games, but that changed upon Afolayan’s arrival. The Hamburg club began the second half of the season with 10 consecutive victories, and ended up finishing in fifth place.

Afolayan's brace against VfL Osnabruck secured promotion to the Bundesliga. [Getty]
Afolayan's brace against VfL Osnabruck secured promotion to the Bundesliga. [Getty]

Their young Englishman chipped in with three goals, but there was much more to come. In 2023/24 the attacker notched nine goals and three assists as St Pauli were crowned champions, securing a return to the Bundesliga after 13 years in the second division.

The thought of facing the likes of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen seemed impossible just a few years ago.

Afolayan credits former West Ham under-21s coach Dmitri Halajko with turning his career around at a time when he felt lost in the game, but he also has to take credit himself for taking the plunge and moving abroad.

In recent years young English players like Jadon Sancho, Fikayo Tomori and Jude Bellingham have reaped the rewards of leaving England in search of more minutes at a higher level, and it’s something Afolayan believes more youngsters should consider doing.

“In the UK we look at the Premier League being the pinnacle and so much better than anywhere else,” he says.

“The reality is there is good football all over the world and players are suited to different environments.

“Playing for a top team in Denmark for example, you go there and the year after you could be playing Champions League football against the likes of Man United.

“There are lads dropping through the leagues at home when maybe English football doesn't suit them, maybe European, Spanish, Italian or German football suits them. There is more than one way to get to the top level. I think it’s something us Brits can look at more.”

Afolayan credits his upbringing in north-west London, playing street football in the shadow of Wembley Stadium, with making him mentally strong.

“[We played] winner stays on, the pride of not wanting to get off the pitch, not wanting to go home having lost," he says.

“Even now in the summer, when I play football with friends, I have the same mentality, I always want to win. I think that’s my main strength, never giving up and always trying to help my team in whatever way possible.”

Many English youngsters will have had similar experiences, of fighting so hard to make dreams a reality only to slip through the cracks at academy level.

“I hope my journey can show a lot of young players, especially those that feel like they are struggling in an academy, that it is not the be-all and end-all,” Afolayan told The Guardian.

“You can keep working hard, make sacrifices elsewhere and still make it back into top-level football.”

Featured Image Credit: Getty

Topics: Bayern Munich, Bolton Wanderers, Bundesliga, Chelsea, Football, Spotlight