What Milan Means to Me

To read in Italian, click here.

What Milan Means to Me

To read in Italian, click here.

There was this moment on the pitch at Sassuolo the day we clinched the scudetto last season.

Even though it was an away game, the stadium was like 90% Milan. I heard our fans had crashed the Sassuolo website trying to get tickets. After 11 years without a title, some people paid thousands of euros to be there. It was this sea of red and black. I’ve never seen anything like it.

After the final whistle, all those fans ran on the pitch to celebrate with us. I’ll always remember this one guy who grabbed me by the shoulders and just started shaking me. He was shouting in English: “Fik! FIK!!! Thank you! Thank you so much!!! This means EVERYTHING to us.… You don’t understand!”

I was like, Rah … this hits different in Milan.

That whole scene and the celebrations that followed, the trophy parade into the Piazza del Duomo … it was like … you know in a cheesy movie with the record-scratch freeze-frame? One of those how did I get here? moments.

Honestly, I’ve had that thought so many times in the last two years: Is this really happening?

Before Milan, I’d gotten frustrated. My career at Chelsea had started so well, but then suddenly I didn’t know where it was heading. Going into the summer of 2020, I’d still never started a preseason fully knowing which club I’d be playing for on opening day. That’s not easy.

Don’t get me wrong, I have soooo many good memories from Chelsea. That youth team I came through? Winning two FA Youth Cups and UEFA Youth Leagues in a row? Those times were elite. We had been together for so many years. Me, Tammy, Mason, Dom Solanke, Andreas Christensen, Trevoh Chalobah, the names go on … we were just mates loving life.

After that, I grew up a lot by going out on loan to Brighton, Hull and Derby. No one was trying to nurture me or put their arms around me anymore. This was the Championship, not the youth league. There were real world consequences on the line — promotions, relegations, people’s jobs. Not to mention the physical aspect. One time at Derby, I remember I got done by the big Bristol City striker Famara Diédhiou and I ended up with a dead leg so bad that I couldn’t carry on. Our club doctor told me it was the worst dead leg he’d ever seen. He was like, “I only ever see this type of injury in rugby!”

That’s the Championship.

When I finally broke into the Chelsea first team in 2019–20, it was surreal. Not only to have made it but to have done it with my mates, too. There were so many times when Tammy, Mason and I were just like, “Boys, we’re here. We’re actually playing for Chelsea.” Back then, I always made sure I recorded Match of the Day just so I could see myself on TV.

The game that sums it up best was when we beat Wolves 5–2 away that season. I scored that screamer. Hit it first time, side foot, and it just flew. Pewww! Willy Caballero was always making fun of my shooting in training, so that one was for him haha!

At halftime, Tammy turned to me like: “I’m so tired. I’ve been running nonstop.”

I was like, “Mate, what do you mean you’re tired?? You don’t get to be tired! You’ve scored twice. You’re on for a hat trick in the Premier League. Keep going!!!”

Second half, he got his third, and then Mason added another. The youth team boys all scoring together to win a game for Chelsea. In the changing room afterwards, Tammy and I were sitting next to each other and we just caught each other’s eyes. It was like this moment: Can you believe this is happening??

I couldn’t stop smiling.

But then after COVID, everything changed.

Suddenly, I wasn’t playing as much. It felt like my career had only been going in one direction and then it stalled.

I’m the kinda guy that likes to think he doesn’t let himself get too high or too low, but I’m not gonna lie, my smile had gone.

Then I got the call that changed everything.

When I told my dad, his first question was: “Why is Paolo Maldini speaking to you?”

Hahaha! Cheers, Dad.

I explained to him that Maldini was the sporting director at AC Milan and he’d called to sound me out about moving there on loan. To be fair, the whole Zoom call, I couldn’t believe it either. I was sitting there looking at him, listening but not really taking it in. Just thinking:

That’s actually Paolo Maldini.

I’m talking to Paolo Maldini.

If nothing else happens, I can still say I had a conversation with Paolo Maldini.

My dad looooved Milan. Dad’s Nigerian and he grew up following the best European football. Back in his day, Milan were the team – it felt like they were winning the Champions League every year. Once he realised my call was real, he got excited and started giving me a little Milan history lesson. I was sitting there like, “Yes, thanks, Dad. I do know a bit about football.”

But he was right, you know. It’s such an iconic club. All I could think was, I don’t know if I’m ready for that.

When I was growing up in London, it felt like the only English players playing abroad were David Beckham and Owen Hargreaves. It wasn’t a real option. And this wasn’t just any club, it was AC Milan.

But then I spoke to some of the boys at Chelsea who’d been in Italy — Toni Rüdiger, Mateo Kovacic and Emerson. Toni had been at Roma, and he was always going on and on about how good the support was. He came up to me like, “So you going to Milan? Listen, if you’ve got the chance, you go.

“The fans … it’s just different in Italy. It’s crazy. I was the man there, you know? Just give everything and they’re gonna love you.”

Then there was Thiago Silva. He didn’t even speak English, but when he heard what we were talking about he just went, “Milan?” and gave a massive thumbs up! Hahaha!

I was like, O.K., get me on that plane!

When I went over to sign in January of 2021, they gave me a tour around the museum. There are so many trophies you can’t even take it all in. Champions Leagues and Ballon d’Ors everywhere. I’m looking around at the photos on the walls like, Rah … this is proper. There’s Shevchenko, there’s Kaká, Nesta, Ibra, Pirlo, Ronaldinho … and those are just a handful of the ones that I’m old enough to remember watching as a kid.

The moment that really hit home though was when they handed me this bag with my tracksuit in it. When I took it out, I just stared at the Milan badge. I think Dad realised I was still struggling to actually process everything. He looked at me and said: “You play for AC Milan.”

Two years on, every time I see my tracksuit, I still get a special feeling. I still say to myself, “I play for AC Milan.”

A lot of British players have asked me what it’s really like to play in Italy. The thing that really hits you is the culture. I don’t mean the food and drink — although I have to say, I’ve been converted. I never drank coffee before, now I’m on that macchiato life every day!

It’s the fan culture that’s unique. Toni and Kova and the others tried to tell me about it before I came but it’s more than what they were saying. It’s impossible to describe if you’ve not experienced it.

It’s so different from England, where maybe if you nip out in the street, you’ll get asked for a selfie or two. In Italy, I can go out with the full cap-hood-mask combo on and still get recognised. Someone will catch my eye and you can see them thinking about it like, I know those eyes, and then all hell breaks loose!

It’s madness. But it’s good madness. After so long waiting for a title and watching rivals dominate, you might expect some negativity from the fans, but I have to say I never felt anything like that — only love. The number of people who refuse to let you pay for coffee, or who just randomly flash you their Milan tattoos … mate, I’ve seen so many tats of Giroud celebrating his goal in the derby hahaha!

The way they treat us, the way they look at us. I mean, we’re just footballers right? But to them it’s like we’re kings. And because of that it was so important to me that I learned the language quickly to be a part of it. I wanted to be all in. At a club like this you can’t do things half-hearted.

The love given to us during the Scudetto race was immense. (We felt that love so much in the title run in. Without the fans, we would never have got over the line.)

There were so many special moments on the way to the scudetto, especially towards the end of the season.

At every game I had more and more mates flying out from home, trying to get involved in the excitement of the title race. Normally, I set them up in the players’ families section of San Siro, but one time I put them in with the regular fans and they came back afterwards like “Yeah, Fik … we need to be in there every time. We want to be a part of that energy. It’s mad!”

I remember the derby last February. I’d just had surgery on my knee, but when Oli scored his second to complete the comeback, I jumped up like I’d just had a miracle cure! That was an away game but we still had our ultras in the curva sud and when everyone ran over to celebrate with them, you could see them jumping and screaming down on us from above.

It was the same in April when we went away and beat Lazio 2–1. Tonali scored in the 92nd minute, jumped the advertising hoardings and it went off. I still remember the individual faces of the fans as they were just losing it with pure joy.

Even when you’re in the game and focused on the moment, when the fans go mad like that it just hits you like a shock wave. The thing you don’t get about San Siro from the TV is the noise. You can really feel it. It knocks the wind out of you and gives you new life at the same time.

The fans were one half of the equation, the other was my teammates. I have to give a shout-out to them. It's such a special group. The spirit you see is real. Everyone is close off the pitch. We go out to eat together, not as little groups but as a team. There’s a bond and it breeds this mentality that we’re in this together.

The other thing is that — and full credit to Gazidis, Maldini, Massara and Pioli — it’s a team in which so many young players have been given the chance to take on responsibility, and have used that to go to another level.

Guys like Pierre Kalulu and Rafa Leão. Mate, what a player Rafa is! When he came I don’t think even he knew how good he actually was — how easily he could dominate players one on one. He’s tall, he can dribble, he can shoot, he can pass. He’s got it all … and now I think he knows it.

And then on the other side, there’s super experienced guys like Zlatan. I know what you’re thinking and, yes, he is exactly like that in real life.

I remember when I first arrived in Milan, he asked where I was staying. Then he told me we were neighbours. He was like, “Yeah, I live in the building next to you. My apartment is the one right at the top … so God can watch over his city.”

But he’s also the strongest, most dedicated, most flexible guy in the squad — even at 41. He’s just a machine. There’s no other word to describe him. And he’s always talking in that big booming Zlatan voice, making speeches and giving out advice. You see the odd clip on social media. We see it right in front of us, every day.

In those final games, he kept us levelheaded. I remember we went into halftime on the final day against Sassuolo 3–0 up. I don’t think I’ve ever been that happy in my life. I was looking around at my teammates smiling like, We’ve done it now.

But I think Zlatan clocked some of us getting a little carried away in the moment and was like, “No one should be smiling yet!!! There’s still 45 minutes left!!!”

We stopped smiling.

Forty-five minutes later, we were champions.

The 24 hours after Sassuolo were madness. I’m not even gonna try to describe the trophy parade. If you haven’t already, just go and watch the videos … I’ll wait for you.

The route was around seven or eight kilometres and it took five and a half hours to move through the crowds banging on the side of the coach. Looking out, you couldn’t even see the ground, just people, flags, flares and red mist. I heard there were 50,000 people packed into Piazza del Duomo — all singing “Pioli’s on fire” hahaha!

In my head, I had this little thought, Imagine if we win the Champions League.

The night after the Sassuolo game, I went back to my place to be with my parents. They’d flown out to Italy but they didn’t come to the stadium — my dad never watches my games. Never. Too nervous. Instead, he goes to church. But that day, he risked his blood pressure and watched it at my place. That tells you how big a deal this was.

That night — 16 months after we toured the Milan museum not quite believing what was going on — my dad and I celebrated together.

I play for AC Milan and I won the scudetto.

It really happened. And it was better than I could’ve dreamed.

I’d love to be able to find that fan who took me by the shoulders on the pitch at Sassuolo. If I could, I would grab him back and say in my best Italian:

I get it.

I understand what it means now.

I hope you know what it means to me.

This article was originally published on theplayertribune as What Milan Means to Me.

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