Meet Kwadwo Baah, the Rochdale prodigy thriving in Sky Bet League One, following rejection from Crystal Palace as a 14-year-old.
Baah first became famous as a ball-boy when, during a Premier League game at Selhurst Park in January 2017, the then 13-year-old took things into his own hands to prevent time-wasting by picking up the ball and placing it into the six-yard box himself, encouraging Adrian - West Ham United’s goalkeeper at the time - to hurry up and take his goal kick.
The incident saw him quickly become an internet sensation, but now, at 18 years old, there’s far more to his story than that.
One of the most exciting young players in the EFL, Baah has excelled for Brian Barry-Murphy’s side in League One this season. His quick feet, skill and bravery going forward have caught the eye of many. Combine that with his ability to score goals, it’s easy to see why he could be one of the most exciting talents of the next generation.
Two goals and an assist in what was a crazy January for Rochdale - who scored 17 goals in six games - has seen Baah deservedly receive the EFL Young Player of the Month Award, as he continues to showcase his ability on the League One stage.
“It’s really nice, I’m very proud,” Baah said, speaking exclusively to the EFL.
“I didn’t even know that I’d won it until this interview so it was a real surprise for me. It’s been a bit crazy lately; every game we go into, we don’t know what the scoreline is going to be but everyone has pulled through and as a team I think we’re performing well.
“I think in January especially I showed people what I can really do and what I’m capable of, and I think I can show people more of what I can do. There’s more to come from me.”
Born in Germany, Baah came to England at a young age having spent his early years in Ghana. Described as a ‘special talent’ by the Rochdale manager, it’s hard to believe that as a youngster he was picked up quite by chance, thanks to the Crystal Palace Foundation who used to visit his school on a weekly basis.
“It was strange, really. When I was at Palace I was actually playing with the Foundation, not the Academy,” Baah continued. “They used to come into my school and they’d set up a football match for us to play in so I did that every week.
“One day I was out shopping with my dad and I bumped into one of the coaches who came and did the sessions with us at school, he recognised me and told my dad that he thought I was a good player. Anyway, he took my dad’s number down and rang him the next day saying that I should come into the club for a training session and that was that.
“It was really surprising and overwhelming too, to go from playing with my dad and at school to Academy football was just crazy.”
Following his 15 minutes of fame as a young ball-boy, things didn’t work out for Baah at Palace and he was released as a 14-year-old.
“It wasn’t easy, but I think I handled it pretty well. I knew it was coming,” he admitted.
“As a young kid, I wasn’t the most well behaved, I messed about a lot and didn’t take things too seriously, so I think I knew I would get released and I had prepared myself for that.”
Honest words from the youngster. Fortunately, Kinetic Academy in London gave him a second chance. A registered charity set up in 2012, Kinetic provides full-time football and education programmes for teenagers in South London, with a number of its graduates going on to sign for professional Clubs.
“They really helped me. It was with Kinetic that I started to become a much better player. The coaching staff really cared about me and my football career, all the staff there were ex-academy coaches so the standard was good and that obviously helped me progress but also, the coaches really cared about the players and I think in turn that made us become better people as well as better players.
“That’s one thing that I’ve definitely learnt coming into men’s football; you’ve got to grow up quickly, you have to take everything seriously. It’s not a joke, it’s a livelihood, so I had to get my head down and change. Fortunately, I had people around me that helped me do that.”
Refreshingly open, honest and down to earth when it comes to talking about his past, Baah turned a corner with Kinetic Academy, and his performances on the pitch started to turn a few heads, too.
Premier League Academies showed interest in him, he even had a trial with Fulham but it was Rochdale who won the race to sign the teenager, first-team football being the deciding factor.
“The move to Rochdale happened really suddenly. Around that time I had a couple of Clubs asking me to go on trial. I actually went on trial to Fulham and I really liked it but then I heard that Rochdale were interested. They told me I would be a first-team player, I’d be training with the first team and I could be playing football every week if I made the team, and that made it an easy decision for me, I just wanted to go where I would play football. I had a trial for a couple of weeks and then they signed me, so I was really happy.”
A big decision to make for Baah, who was only 16 at the time, but with Rochdale a club well known for trusting youth and giving youngsters the platform to progress, moving north was a no-brainer for the winger. And, since then, he’s never looked back.
A different journey into the professional game maybe, but Baah has taken to League One football like a duck to water and his performances continue to turn heads.
“I did find it difficult at first, I’ve got to be honest. I don’t think it matters what league you’re playing in, professional football is a massive step up. Academy football isn’t that physical, it’s not as fast-paced as playing in the first team and I just don’t think you realise how physical men’s football is until you step up and do it, it was hard for me.
“I thought I was fast when I was playing Academy football, but in men’s football everyone is faster, stronger and the pace of the game is so different, and they read the game so well you have to be constantly ‘on it’. I very quickly had to adapt and get my head down to train harder than I was before, but I’ve had people around me, guiding me through my journey and with that I’ve just worked hard to try and be as good as I can be.”
Baah’s first goal for the club came in December against Wigan Athletic, a memorable occasion for any footballer.
“I remember in the game against Wigan, I had one chance where I could have scored, I was in the right position but I didn’t shoot, I don’t know why, maybe I was nervous.
“I remember Stephen Humphrys coming up to me and saying to me ‘next time you get the ball, don’t think of anything else, just shift the ball and shoot,’ so I kept that in mind and next time I got the ball I did exactly that, I just shifted it and took a shot and it was the right decision because I scored. It paid off!”
But his most memorable strike came against Charlton Athletic in January. A real ‘remember the name’ moment as he curled a first-time shot from the edge of the area into the Charlton net. And he’s got quite a celebration in the locker, too as highlight reels show him wheeling away in celebration, before doing a series of back-flips.
“That’s always been my celebration,” he said, laughing.
“I’ve done it since I was a young kid. To be fair, I don’t think it was necessarily the right time for me to be doing a back-flip but the manager kept saying to me if I ever scored my first goal then I should do it!”
Eligible to represent Ghana, Germany or England, Baah hasn’t yet made the decision who he will play for if called upon but there’s no doubt that the future is bright for this young teen.
“I do feel that I’ve grown as a player as time has gone on and off the pitch I’ve really improved my understanding of the game as well. The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that you just can’t lose focus in this division in any game that you play.
“A split second of losing focus at this level could cost your club a goal or the result, you’ve got to always be alert and that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learnt playing regularly. Coming up against such experienced players has helped me read the game better, you’ve got to be one step ahead and know what you’re going to do before the ball even reaches you.
“I feel like I’m learning every day. The older, more experienced players and the manager are always giving me advice and are helping me all the time to become a better player, but they’re also giving me a lot of advice off the pitch which is helping me become a better person as well.”
So what does the future hold for one of the EFL’s future stars? “Every young kid’s dream is to play in the Champions League one day, isn’t it? Or for your country, and of course, that’s what I want to do.
“I want to get to the top and I’ll do anything to get there as long as I keep working hard. I always wanted to play first-team football and get as much experience as I could and that’s what I’m doing”