For many people, becoming a professional footballer is the wildest of dreams, bordering on a fairy tale. In the minds of a select few, it’s all but inevitable.
Grimsby Town’s Siriki Dembele has enjoyed a whirlwind start to his professional career since joining the club earlier this year. The 21-year-old has featured in all 20 Sky Bet League Two fixtures this season, as well as outings in the Carabao Cup, Checkatrade Trophy and FA Cup, scoring four goals.
The pinnacle so far, though, was winning October’s EFL Young Player of the Month award. Three goals in five appearances, including two in the Mariners’ 3-2 away victory against Cheltenham Town, helped his side go unbeaten throughout the month, allowing him to collect the award and put himself in fine company.
“I didn’t actually know that,” he exclaimed, when told of past winners such as Dele Alli and Wilfried Zaha. “Now that I do it makes me feel great, and it makes me believe that I can go all the way.
“The whole team were playing well which means that it went well for me too. If the team are doing well, then the individual performances tend to come from that. I think I’m improving every week.
“The manager [Russell Slade] has helped me a lot on the pitch and as a person. He’s looking after me, and since joining the club he’s given me the opportunity to play. That’s helping me a lot, and he has faith in me, which boosts my confidence too.”
Dembele’s route to professional football has not been a straightforward one. Having been born in the Ivory Coast, his family relocated to London in search of better footballing opportunities, before finding themselves north of the border in Scotland.
A number of years at Dundee United was followed by the unique opportunity to join the Nike Academy, based at St. George’s Park in Staffordshire. The aim of the programme is to help young players, predominantly under-20s, earn professional contracts while playing against some of the world’s biggest clubs.
Despite his obvious aspirations of going on to achieve everything he can in the sport, Dembele remains grounded and knows that any success is going to have to be worked for.
“I’ve always wanted to play football, and I knew it’d happen one day,” he explained. “It was just a matter of time. I always believed in myself, which I think is important. From a very young age, I always believed it would happen.
“It just wasn’t happening for me [in Scotland]. I felt I had to come down to England and then I was able to express myself a bit more. I went to Manchester for the Nike trial, then to France for the final.
“Everyone’s got their own path into professional football, maybe that’s through the youth team of a club up to the first team, which is very hard a lot of the time, but mine was through the Nike Academy. We played against some really big clubs, like Manchester City and Liverpool, and it helped us get noticed.”
With a selection of clubs after the winger’s signature, it was the offer of first-team football that Slade and Grimsby Town presented which persuaded Dembele to put pen to paper at the Lincolnshire outfit.
He hasn’t looked back since, and is going from strength to strength in Sky Bet League Two. A modest start to the season sees Grimsby sitting in 12th position on 29 points — just three points outside of the play-offs.
The 21-year-old has some big goals in mind but is insistent that his feet remain firmly on the ground. For now, he’s keen to add to his total of four goals in the black and white stripes, and hearing his name ring out around Blundell Park has not gone unnoticed.
“I have to thank the fans a lot,” he said. “Since I came in, they’ve been very welcoming to me. They sing my name, and it’s been unbelievable. I think they were happier than I was when I got my first goal!
“A lot of clubs were looking at me, but I felt the best thing for me to do was to come to Grimsby and play first-team football — anywhere else I’d likely be playing at under-23 level. I’m growing a lot as a player here.
“It’s great when people praise you, but it’s important for me to keep level-headed and make sure I make it happen, because I really want to. I want to be at the very top — the only way I can do that is to make it happen myself.”