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League Two

Tope Fadahunsi: Student of the Game

27 December 2022

As the saying goes: everyone has their own journey. Sutton United’s Tope Fadahunsi is living proof of that.

While rising through the ranks in Watford’s Academy, he rubbed shoulders with Manchester United star Jadon Sancho, talented Burnley loanee Nathan Tella and former England youth international Ian Poveda.

After being released by the Hornets in 2015, the Sutton-born youngster dropped down to non-league side Tooting & Mitcham United alongside Isaiah Jones, who would go on to attract the attention of Middlesbrough and rapidly emerge as one of the hottest prospects in the Sky Bet Championship.

Still awaiting his own big break in the game, Fadahunsi looked abroad for playing opportunities, signing a short- term deal with Finnish Second Division outfit Kemi City in September 2019.

“My brother’s friend had started an app called ‘Skouted’ where you could set up a profile and hopefully receive offers,” he recalls. “They were sponsoring Kemi City and I had the opportunity to play out there full-time in a professional environment.

“Going to Finland was very eye-opening. It was a different lifestyle and culture and I must admit, it was a shock at first. The sun doesn’t set for parts of the year because it’s so far up north. There was one night where I’d been speaking to my flatmate for a while and I asked him for the time, and it was 2am – it was bright daylight outside!

“I joined during their mid-season break and then played about 10 games. We ended up winning the league and I really loved it. I had a fantastic experience and made some lifelong friends.”

When COVID-19 prevented his return to Scandinavia, Fadahunsi turned to higher education to prepare for a career away from football, studying architectural engineering and design management at Loughborough University.

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“Before going out to Finland, I’d been accepted to go to Loughborough,” says the Sutton striker. “The season in Finland runs from April to October and the university year is around September to May, so the plan was to manage the two, but COVID ended up scuppering that.

“I’d gone to a college that specialised in engineering, so I was shoehorned into that area. If I’m being completely honest, it’s a lot of work to balance doing an engineering degree and still trying to play professional football. I was waking up at 5:30am and training before starting lectures at 9am. Then, I wouldn't be getting back until 10pm at night, running off about four hours sleep from the night before.

"I did struggle at times, but I learned a lot and it's going to be very useful in the future, as my plan for life after football is to be a property investor.

“The knowledge I’ve gained about the construction industry and the legal proceedings and all that will be paramount. The long-term goal is to redevelop and introduce better infrastructure back in my home nations of Ghana and Nigeria. Without a solid foundation of knowledge in engineering, I wouldn’t be able to achieve those goals effectively.”

Although Fadahunsi would’ve preferred a direct route to professional football, he’s grateful for his detour and believes he can use the experience gained to his advantage.

“I’ve seen the other side of life,” he explains. “I’ve been released, and I’ve spent a long time out of the professional game. If you’ve never experienced it, you might not even know why you don’t want to be in that situation.

“I gained a lot just from a social point of view and I grew a lot as a person, and I don’t think I would be playing professionally now without going to university. It’s sparked a huge change in my outlook in life and the way I view the world in general.

“You meet different people, you hear different opinions, you have different experiences and you learn about different cultures. You develop your ability to manage your time and manage your money. You learn to be resilient and push through obstacles. These are intangible skills that you can take onto the football pitch.”

The Leicestershire-based university is renowned for its sporting prestige, and Fadahunsi capitalised on the facilities available, developing significantly on the pitch over the course of his three years on campus.

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“The first-team pitch at Loughborough is Premier League standard,” he notes. “I’ve never seen another gym like the one there. They get a high intake of very good players who have been released from Academies or professional contracts, so the standard of training was fantastic.

“There were also sport scientists and physiotherapists at our disposal and the level of coaching was very high, too. If you’re willing to make the best use out of the tools Loughborough can offer you, then you can come out as a more complete player, as well as having a degree under your belt.

“The team plays in the University BUCS league and in Step 5 of non-league. I amassed around 150 appearances in total and we managed to win a BUCS Championship in my final year.”

Having played predominately as a right- back for much of his footballing career growing up, a sudden switch up front changed Fadahunsi’s fortunes in an instant.

He explains: “During pre-season going into my second year at Loughborough, the coaches started calling me Michail Antonio because my build is similar and he’d also been at Tooting & Mitcham. It became a talking point to try me out as a striker.

“A few games into the season, we were losing 2-0 at home and I hadn’t been playing particularly well. There was a substitution in the 78th minute and my manager called me over to the sideline. Instead of taking me off, he told me to go up front, and my reaction was: ‘I don’t think it’s time to be testing this out now!’

“Two minutes later, I chased down a long ball over the top, it bounced over the keeper and I slotted it in. Then, around the 90th minute, a corner came swinging in and I headed it in. I ran over to the side of the pitch and gave it a big knee slide and from there, the rest is history!”

Having netted 35 times and accumulated 14 assists in 47 outings during the 2021/22 season, the university graduate had put several Clubs on high alert.

And it would be Fadahunsi’s hometown team that would ultimately offer him his long-awaited chance in the EFL.

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He adds: “I didn’t necessarily know I was ready for playing at a certain level because I hadn’t seen or experienced it. At times, it felt like I wasn’t going to make it if I’m honest, but I remained focused and worked very hard, and I had people around me who kept supporting me through it all.

“Sutton was my first trial, so I was thrown in at the deep end as I was playing five leagues lower at Loughborough. I won’t lie, I panicked a bit and thought it was such a big jump, but I went in there and after the first day, I felt I could definitely help the team. Thankfully, the manager agreed!

“There have been a lot of young players who have messaged me since I moved to Sutton, asking for general advice about how they can get into the professional game. Being an inspiration to them is very important to me because I want to show that hard work can pay off and dreams can be achieved.”

Eager to make up for lost time, the 23-year-old made an immediate impression at his new Club with an EFL debut to remember.

“It was a bit of a mad situation,” he reminisces. “I’d actually told my parents not to come to the game because I hadn’t featured in the Papa Johns Trophy game a few days earlier and I thought I would just stay on the bench again.

“It was 0-0 with about 20 minutes to go, and the manager called me over to bring me on. As I was coming on, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to score the winner here’. It was more being sarcastic really, but I ended up speaking it into existence!”

That goal against Barrow was followed by another decisive strike against Mansfield Town, while he then scored five minutes into his first start in the Papa Johns Trophy to cap off a memorable opening month in League football.

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With three winning goals from five appearances in August, Fadahunsi became an instant hit with the U’s supporters.

“The fans are incredible,” he beams. “I didn’t really have many fans watching games at Loughborough, so it’s a new experience. I think they’ve embraced me, especially because I’m a local lad, and then I’ve scored a couple of winners as well.

“I recently had a conversation with a fan on the bus on the way home – when I have the time, I like to speak and engage with the fans and I think they appreciate that. It just feels like a family.”

Having adapted well to life in League Two, primarily as an impact substitute, Fadahunsi is determined to fully establish himself at the professional level.

“It’s been a learning curve,” he admits. “The defenders are much smarter, more mobile and more physical at this level, and it’s about finding ways that I can combat their attempts to thwart me.

“The tactical information we receive is so much more detailed than I was used to as well, and I guess that’s where my university experience has come in handy!

“I didn’t expect to go through as much as I did to get to this place, but I’m grateful for it because it’s given me a new perspective and made me a better footballer and a better human-being by going through these different experiences.

“It’s only just the beginning now of my professional career and hopefully, it’ll be a long journey from here.”

This feature originally appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of the EFL Magazine.


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