‘From Waterloo to a hat-trick in the Europa League final’ – It’s taken nine years of a professional career, none of which has ever come easy, for Ademola Lookman to finally find himself a home where he is valued and appreciated. Now, he and Atalanta are reaping the rewards. Let’s go back to where it all began …

From a Charlton Athletic supporter with a passion for Calcio. 

It’s never been easy for Lookman

How could anybody not feel moved after watching the interview with Ademola Lookman’s former Waterloo coach, Felix Emanus, on TNT Sports last night. It was a moment of sheer pride, passion and an underlying feeling that Wednesday night’s performance was something that the boy always had in his locker. 

Lookman’s rise from the cages in Wandsworth to a man of the match performance in a European final has been far from straightforward. He largely skipped the professional academy system, joining Charlton from Waterloo as a sixteen-year-old almost exactly a decade ago, upon the recommendation of former Premier League striker and ex-Addicks coach Jason Euell. 

The timid youngster was fast-tracked through Charlton’s youth ranks, making his senior debut in a cameo Championship appearance just over a year after his signing. His first goal would come a month later, in December 2015, opening the scoring in an eventual 3-2 loss to Brighton with a finish that was not too dissimilar to his third against Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday. Certainly a sign of things to come.

For those less familiar with Charlton’s recent misfortune, the 2015-16 campaign was probably up there with the most miserable seasons of any club in any division in any part of the world. The disastrous Roland Duchatelet ownership had, by this point, become completely untenable and the club had effectively gone to war with its supporters. The atmosphere inside the Valley, for the most part, was utterly poisonous. Numerous high-profile protests were counted as minor victories for the fans, but the disruption of matches can’t have been easy for any of the players, who were relegated to League One by April of 2016. 

By no means was this a nurturing environment for a promising young footballer, who had zero experience in the professional game, let alone the hardships of representing a club that was on the brink of collapse. For reference, future England international Nick Pope – six years Lookman’s senior – often crumbled under the pressure as well, before going on to excel in the Premier League with Burnley and Newcastle. 

Lookman, though, was one of, if not the only bright spark that torrid year, and it was miraculous that Charlton were able to keep hold of him for another six months in the third tier, where it soon became clear that he was far too good for that sort of level. Everton came knocking in January, and offered a fee that would make Lookman the second-most expensive signing out of League One of all time. 

Life on Merseyside could not have got off to a better start. Still only 19, Lookman emerged off the bench against Manchester City, sticking the ball through Claudio Bravo’s legs a handful of minutes into his debut to round off a 4-0 victory, inflicting Pep Guardiola’s biggest ever defeat in a domestic competition. 

Nomadic Lookman

That would, however, be his only Premier League goal for the Toffees. Consistent minutes in the first team evaded him, and the situation only got worse when Sam Allardyce was called in to replace Ronald Koeman in November 2017. 

Two months after that, Lookman was sent out on loan to the Bundesliga, joining RB Leipzig until the end of the 2017-18 season. Still an England youth international at that point, he became the first ‘Englishman’ to score in the German top flight since Owen Hargreaves well over a decade prior, and the first to score a brace since the Ballon d’Or-winning Kevin Keegan at the end of the 1970s. 

Five league goals in 11 appearances was enough to convince the German outfit to buy him outright for a reported fee of €18m a year later, in 2019. Ralph Hasenhüttl, who had originally signed Lookman on loan, was gone by this point though, and Julian Nagelsmann, who was at the helm in 2019, didn’t utilise the youngster anywhere near as much as his predecessor. 

That led to the second of his three loan moves, joining Fulham for the 2020-21 season, where he was finally able to put in a full, 30+ game season in a top-flight division. Leicester came in the year after. By the end of that season, it had become clear that Lookman was more than capable of performing consistently in the Premier League. Somewhat surprisingly though, no English sides fancied a punt after that, despite the fact he was available for a fee of around €10m. 

Finally at home in Bergamo

Atalanta, who have been lauded for their excellent recruitment in recent years, recognised his potential and spotted an opportunity. He would go on to be the club’s leading goalscorer in 2022-23, both in Serie A and in all competitions. 

Astonishingly, this is the first time in Lookman’s senior career that he has been based at the same club for two full seasons in a row. That stability, along with Gian Piero Gasperini’s strict coaching methods, have only come to be of benefit to the player and club alike. 

Fast forward to Wednesday night, by far and away the pinnacle of Lookman’s career to date, a European final against a Bayer Leverkusen side who had gone 51 matches unbeaten in all competitions, – a game, by the way, that Lookman was not even guaranteed to start – it’s no wonder why so many people who have followed him from an early age feel such a strong sense of pride, along with a small part of relief, watching the young man realise his full potential. 

It has taken a club like Atalanta to give him a continued opportunity. And now, they both have their names in the history books: Atalanta as the 2023-24 Europa League winners, their first ever, and Lookman as only the fourth player ever to score a hat-trick in a European final, after Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Pierino Prati. Not bad company at all.

Words: Peter Young / @peter_yng

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