Chiwome reflects on his journey to Wolves first-team debut

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Leon Chiwome recently made his first team debut at Wolves during an FA Cup quarterfinal

There aren’t many players who can say their professional debut came in an FA Cup quarter-final, but Leon Chiwome is one of them.

The teenager was given the nod by Gary O’Neil to play the final 30 minutes of Wolves’ last eight tie with Coventry City earlier this month, with Chiwome replacing fellow academy graduate Nathan Fraser on the hour mark at Molineux.

However, a rise to first-team football hasn’t always been plain sailing. In fact, Chiwome’s footballing journey had barely got started when Wolves made the semi-finals of the competition in 2019, as he recalls. “It’s been a bit of a crazy journey and there have been lots of ups and downs,” Chiwome said. “I started off playing football quite late when I was 10 or 11. I was just playing grassroots for a while and at the age of 14/15 I had a lot of interest for trials with a few clubs – Chelsea, Fulham, Wimbledon and Brighton.

“I lived in Brighton at the time so I went to Brighton and they took me on trial. I stayed for around four or five months and they said no. After that, I went to Wimbledon and after a couple of weeks I got signed. I was there for a year, did well and then Wolves came in. They bought me and said they had a pathway for me through to the first-team which I thought was amazing.”

Leon Chiwome coming on for his first team debut at Wolves recently

Even in his short time at Compton Park since arriving in the summer of 2022, the 18-year-old has had to overcome adversity with injuries having already disrupted his progression through the academy ranks. Chiwome immediately impacted following his arrival from AFC Wimbledon and has continued to do so, at both club level and on the international stage with England, while fighting back to full fitness at various intervals.

“The first few months were good and I was scoring goals in the U18 Premier League, got my first England call-up and was starting to integrate into the under-21s. I was 16 at that time, so that was a big step. I was grateful for my opportunity and played in PL2, making my debut against Liverpool and playing against Tottenham.

“After my first camp with England, I got injured and was out for 10 weeks. I came back again, played one under-18 game and the day after I was flying out with England again – that’s where I scored my first hat-trick and first goal on my first start for England.

“That same game, after I scored my third goal, I got injured again and was out for 12 weeks with that injury. I came back and played a couple of games in the U18 Premier League, scored a hat-trick against Leeds and then went with England to the Euros.

“It was pretty successful, we got to the quarter-finals and I got an assist. I got injured again and then was out for 16 weeks with that. This whole season, I’ve just been with the under-21s. When I came back in September, I’ve just been trying to stay fit, keep pushing and improving.

“The physio staff are really good at Wolves and they kept me positive. The goal was always to come back and play for Wolves, and there were England camps around the corner that were goals to go to and good landmarks for me to make.”

Chiwome went away to Abu Dhabi with the first-team in January and scored a brace in February’s Black Country derby victory in Premier League 2, before a first appearance in the senior squad came calling at the start of the month.

“Hwang Hee-Chan and (Matheus) Cunha got injured so they needed players for the first-team and I was on the bench against Fulham a couple of weeks ago,” Chiwome continued. “I was supposed to come on but then we scored and I was told to sit back down, but that was a really eye-opening experience and I knew with a few injuries this could be my opportunity.

“When the manager told me to warm up, you’re going to come on, I was a bit shocked because I thought I was only really there for numbers, but it goes to show that you never really know what’s around the corner for you.

“After that game, the manager told James Collins (U21 head coach) that he was going to need me for the week (ahead of Coventry), especially with two more injuries out in the attacking area. I always had in the back of my mind that I do have an opportunity to come on in such a big game, so you’ve got to prepare yourself but not get too over happy because you’ve got to stay grounded.

“That week before the game, there were some signs saying I was going to come on. The assistant manager was saying I could come on so be ready and make sure you’re listening and be involved with everything. When it got to the game, I was just prepared to come on.”

Leon Chiwome, who has a Zimbabwean father and a British mother joined Wolves from AFC Wimbledon in July 2021

And ‘preparation’ being the key word. Chiwome admits that, at first, he took time to adapt to under-21s football after moving up from the under-18s at the start of the current season, but additional work and individual sessions have given him a strong platform to be ready for his big moment.

“The step was quite big for me, especially being out with a lot of injuries. I had lost a lot of time to improve technically and tactically, so going straight into the under-21s with Nathan Fraser going up to the first-team was a big responsibility.

“At first, I did find it pretty hard but I’ve been going out every day before sessions doing extras with the coaches like Ian Sharps and Rhys Carr. They’ve definitely really helped me and especially over the last couple of months. I’ve seen some big improvements and I’m just really grateful for them.

“I’ve always gone down with the first-team for a session here and there. I knew the players, knew Gary O’Neil who is a really great manager and I always felt comfortable going down there, but I never really thought I would integrate and make my debut as soon as I did.

“You can always see some signs and with a few players injured, your opportunity might be there. It is very strange and things can just come out of the blue as you’ve seen with players at other clubs such as Jayden Danns with Liverpool. You never know what’s going to happen and the opportunity can be just around the corner, and you’ve just got to take it.”

Unlike against Fulham, Chiwome had got his head around the fact that he wasn’t just there to make up the numbers and believes that being mentally prepared was important for when he was called upon on the 60-minute mark against Coventry, as he entered a packed-out Molineux in the world’s oldest competition.

“I really didn’t expect to be on that early, especially at 60 minutes for a debut. It’s quite unheard of really and it was quite a big shock, but I was always prepared.

“I’ve been physically fit and playing a lot of games recently, so I knew I was going to be fine physically so it was just the mental side of things. Would I be able to cope for the full 30 minutes or even if it went to extra-time? I think that was the big thing, but I didn’t expect to come on that early. I’m very grateful.

“It was good and a real eye-opener to see how the fans react to different situations, that was a big difference between 21s and first-team. You can always hear the fans and you’re there to excite the fans and make them happy. To hear the roar at Molineux, especially when we scored, was just amazing and there was no feeling like it.

“The nerves were there before the game and the night before I could barely sleep for a few hours because I was just so excited and nervous. As soon as I was told I was coming on, it was straight serious and I knew my job. The assistant manager told me what I was supposed to do when I came on and the gaffer gave me some nice words and encouragement before I came on so the nerves just flooded away. I was just there to work and help the team.

“I think I could’ve been involved a bit more but I’m happy to have helped the team score the first two goals. I would’ve like to help stop the two goals at the end being conceded, but I’m overall quite happy with my performance. There are always things to work on and I could’ve been better challenging for the 50/50s and just being more available to players for support.”

Leon Chiwome scored the winning goal as England U18 beat Netherlands U18 to win the U18 Pinatar Super Cup last week.

Linking up with England under-18s the day after his debut meant Chiwome hasn’t had much time to take in the biggest milestone in his career to date, but he has flourished wearing the Three Lions in the past week, helping his country win the U18 Pinatar Cup and scoring the winning goal to clinch the trophy.

“I don’t really think it’s sunk in yet because I made my debut and then the next day I was flying out to Spain with England. I haven’t had much time to wind down, have it settled to mind and spend time with my family to celebrate it.

“I’m so eternally grateful and it’s always something I’ll look back on for the rest of my career. I’ve very grateful to the gaffer for giving me the opportunity and trusting me to come on. I just hope that I can maybe come on, get some more minutes and positively influence the team and the future.

“It’s amazing and always an honour to come out here and represent England, the country I was born. The lads are really great and there are some really talented footballers here. It’s so good to be in and around them, be recognised for my talent and that’s something I’m always very grateful for.

“I’m always looking forward to the next camp and working as hard as I can to get there and show that I’m good enough to be here.”

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