Each year, the EFL’s competitions provide a platform for young players to announce themselves on the professional stage. This season has seen the emergence of promising defender Jordan Zemura, who has excelled for promotion-chasing AFC Bournemouth.
Prior to the 2021/22 campaign, the talented prospect had only featured five times at senior level, with two Carabao Cup outings against Crystal Palace and Manchester City being the highlight.
Slotting in at left-back following the summer departure of Diego Rico, Zemura has established himself as an influential figure in Bournemouth’s backline, contributing to 10 clean sheets in 16 appearances, including seven successive shutouts away from home, at the time of writing.
“I hadn’t started a League game before this season, so it’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” he admits. “Last year, the Carabao Cup was a great experience for me, especially playing against Man City at the Etihad and sharing the pitch with some of their top players.
“That gave me my first true taste of being a professional footballer and my mindset heading into this season was that I wanted more. I didn’t want to be on the fringes, I wanted to be playing and showing everyone what I can do.
“With the new Manager and staff coming in, it was a perfect opportunity for me to lay down a marker. It can be hard for a new Manager to come in and trust younger players, but if you look at the gaffer’s track record, it’s not something that he hesitates about.
“I had a conversation when he arrived about having the chance to earn a spot in the team and that really inspired me to grasp the opportunity with both hands. When you have that sort of belief and faith put in you, you don’t play with any fears or worries because you feel like you belong.”
Under the guidance of Manager Scott Parker, Zemura made an instant impact for the Cherries. Building on an impressive opening-day performance against promotion rivals West Bromwich Albion, the budding star went on to lead the supporter vote for Club Player of the Month in August and has twice been named in the EFL Team of the Week, which is determined by player ratings provided by WhoScored.
“It’s always nice to be recognised but I don’t ever let myself get carried away with stuff like that,” Zemura proclaims. “My mindset is always to be focused on moving onto the next game and trying to put in another good performance for the team.
“There are a few of us that are young and it can be quite daunting stepping into the first-team group, but the experienced players have guided us along the way and I feel at home now in the dressing room.
“The word I would use to describe the Championship is relentless. When you’re having to play Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, there is a natural wear and tear, not just on your body but also your mind.
“Some games can end up being tougher than you might expect because it’s so physically and mentally demanding, so you’ve got to maintain the hunger for every game. Working hard as a collective and setting high standards for each other is something that has been instilled in us from the start of pre-season.”
Zemura’s attributes are not just limited to the defensive side of the game either. Determined to push forward as a creative spark along the left flank, he has chipped in with three goals, earning two Club Goal of the Month awards in the process.
“The modern day full-back isn’t just judged on one aspect of the game,” he says. “You can receive recognition for being a good defensive player, but if you’re not the best going forward then people will highlight it as a weakness.
“Likewise, if you’re really good going forward but a liability defensively, you’re called out for that, so I try to balance my game as best as I can. My main priority is getting clean sheets, being solid at the back and setting the platform for the attacking players to go and win the game, but I also know my capabilities going forward and I enjoy being an attacking threat.
“I used to play higher up when I was younger, so running at players and trying to have end product is something I’ve worked on vigorously for many years. To have already contributed with a few goals at this level just pushes me on to produce more.
“I’m determined to unlock new facets to my game, and I’ve received a lot of support from the Manager, the Coaches and also the Sport Science staff. If I can keep running up and down the wing for 90 minutes, there’s only so long the opposition can cope with that level of intensity. It feels like my superpower!”
Although he now appears to be destined for success, it hasn’t always been a seamless journey for the 22-year-old. Released by Charlton Athletic in 2019 after spending eight years in their Academy, Zemura endured a brief period out of the game altogether, temporarily working as a glass fitter.
“I was only out of football for a few weeks, but it gave me a taste of the real world and it was another incentive for me to work hard and find another Club,” he reminisces. “My family helped a lot during that time – my mum was on LinkedIn trying to contact Clubs and then I found the opportunity to come to Bournemouth on trial.
“At Charlton, I think I was maybe a bit sure of myself but coming here from London has humbled me. It’s not a big area, but it’s a hardworking place and I’ve enjoyed becoming part of the community. It’s made me a better person.
“When I was released, one of my Coaches there at the time said to me, ‘this might be the best ‘no’ you’ve had in your life.’ I was at Charlton from 12-years-old and it was all I’d ever known, so it was devastating to leave but everything that they taught me has helped me to progress.
“Coming to Bournemouth, I challenged myself and really thought about how badly I want this. That desperation to do well has driven me to where I’m at now. Every setback or rejection, I come back with that mindset. Even after anything positive, I think, ‘okay, now I need to do it again’. That’s how I attack every day.”
Zemura’s development on the pitch domestically has led to international recognition, representing Zimbabwe on a handful of occasions since gaining his first cap in November 2020, when he faced Riyad Mahrez’s Algeria in an Africa Cup of Nations Qualifier.
“I’m honoured to play for Zimbabwe,” says Zemura. “My family, including my mum and dad, are from Zimbabwe, so being able to play for the national team fills me with immense joy and pride.
“Representing them takes me to the next level of football. The nation is football crazy and they’re so supportive. I just love the joy it brings to my mum and dad and when I go back there, my grandparents are so happy to watch me.
“I’ve played in a few tough games and helped us qualify for the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations. It’s a major tournament that I’ve watched growing up on TV. Some of the great African players have played in it over the years, so to participate would mean the world to me.”
Despite his burning desire to achieve great things in the game, Zemura is aware of being more than just a footballer, too. Academically gifted, with a particular interest in English and History, he was once in the running for an esteemed scholarship that could’ve led him towards the top universities in the country.
“I think it was in Year Nine, four of us were put forward to visit this very prestigious school in an attempt to attain a scholarship there, where you go during half-term and it gives you an opportunity to go to universities like Oxford and Cambridge,” he adds.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t end up getting accepted, but I did do really well in school, getting 10 GCSEs, and then I was studying a degree in Sport Science and Physical Education at Canterbury University while I was still at Charlton.
“When you’re involved in football, the pressure can take its toll at times. It’s good to switch off and take your mind off the game for a couple of hours so that you stay refreshed and raring to go for the next day.
“I also think that from a tactical perspective, it’s obviously good to be able to understand what the Manager wants and then apply that onto the pitch. If you’re accustomed to taking in information and gaining an understanding of that, then you’re developing an important skill and it makes you a valuable asset to the team.
“Moving to Bournemouth has put my studies on pause, but it’s definitely something I’m keen to restart and finish off because there’s nothing better than furthering your education. My mum and dad have both got degrees, so it’d be nice to share that achievement.”
On and off the pitch, the future looks bright for Bournemouth’s multi-talented youngster. Although an ankle knock halted his soaring progress at the end of October, Zemura is gunning for end of season glory at Club level, while he is already considering his legacy away from the game, with intentions to give back to his hometown.
“My ambition from the start of the season has always been to gain promotion and get the Club back into the Premier League,” he reveals. “I’m not focused on any personal accolades, I just want to help the team win and then if anything comes my way, it’s a bonus.
“I’m also really keen to make a difference back home. I come from a small community called Isle of Sheppey and still have friends that live there. I want to go back and help out with certain aspects of the place, because it’s important to use your platform to help other people.”
From a career that almost never started to one that’s ceiling seems to have no bounds, Jordan Zemura is a case in point that hard work does pay off.
This feature originally appeared in the winter 2021 edition of the EFL Magazine.