Taiwo Awoniyi: The story of a historical Nottingham Forest jersey

On Saturday evening, Nottingham Forest secured their Premier League safety against title chasers Arsenal with a goal from Taiwo Awoniyi. The Nigerian striker’s 19th-minute goal made history in favor of the Tricky Trees and ended the Gunners’ title run, handing the trophy to Manchester City. The victory was celebrated by hundreds of thousands across the River Trent, marking the team’s first season back in the Premier League since 1999.

Awoniyi’s heroics were not limited to Nottingham Forest; he also left a significant mark on Union Berlin, where he made the fans dream. On the last day of the 2021/22 Bundesliga season, Union needed a win against Bochum to secure fifth place and qualify for the Europa League. As the minutes ticked down, the visitors held them to a 2-2 draw, but Taiwo rose to score an 88th-minute winner, sending the entire stadium into crazy celebrations.

As a pitch-side photographer that day, I witnessed firsthand the Nigerian striker’s greatness and the Union fans’ love for him. It made me decide to watch his first home game in the Premier League when he was transferred to Nottingham Forest for a princely sum of 20.5 million euros that summer.

Taiwo Awoniyi’s journey began by playing on the streets of Ilorin, Nigeria, and coming under the guidance of coach Garba Abdulrasaq Olojo, who ran the Unicorn Football Academy in Ilorin. Despite facing challenges along the way, including being locked up for playing football, Taiwo persevered and found a home in Berlin. Union decided to make his loan move permanent, and he led the attack and scored 15 goals in the Bundesliga to hand the small K√∂penick-based club their first Europa League qualification.

When Nottingham Forest visited Berlin in pre-season, Taiwo was warmly welcomed back for a final goodbye. He got a proper send-off and was handed memorabilia in the middle of the pitch as the fans sang his name in the stands. It was an emotional moment, and it was difficult for Urs Fischer to see his star striker leave, but the money was too good for the Irons to turn down.

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I promised Taiwo I would watch his first home game for Nottingham Forest, and I made good on that promise. The Nigerian striker scored the lone goal that handed Forest their first Premier League win since 1999, and I celebrated with joy. Taiwo’s impact on the team was significant, even though injuries restricted his impact. He came up clutch whenever they needed him, and he was a big part of their survival run when fit.

As the players left the parking area, Taiwo spotted me and parked his car. About 30 fans made a line for him to sign autographs and take selfies. Afterwards, he emerged from the car where his family waited, and we had a good hug, and I congratulated him on the feat. He brought out his wet match jersey and handed it to me as a token of appreciation. It was a special decision he had made.

However, Taiwo’s agent later informed him of the historical implications of the shirt. It was the first Premier League goal for Nottingham Forest in almost a quarter of a century. Taiwo took the train to London on Monday morning to pick up the shirt in South Harrow. He arrived quite early, so we decided to get breakfast in the neighborhood before his return. None of the other passengers recognized the player.

Taiwo Awoniyi’s journey to football stardom has been filled with ups and downs, but his determination and skill have made him a hero to fans across the world. From playing on the streets of Ilorin to scoring the winning goal for Union Berlin and securing Premier League safety for Nottingham Forest, Taiwo’s impact on the game has been significant, and his legacy will continue to inspire future generations of football superstars.

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