The big interview: Super talented but humble too, Ipswich Town’s Josh Emmanuel is refreshing
In the cover interview for the latest Kings of Anglia magazine, CHRIS BRAMMER sat down with young Town star Josh Emmanuel - and found him to be a fascinating character.
Josh Emmanuel reacts with genuine surprise as we close our interview.
His eyes light up, his beaming smile filling the room, when I suggest his face on the front cover of Kings of Anglia “should shift a few copies”, given his popularity among Town fans.
It’s a refreshing sight to see from such a young star with the football world at his feet.
The trappings of the beautiful game, both positive and negative, are never too far away, yet Emmanuel is humble, unwaveringly polite and seemingly not affected by his growing reputation and status.
At 19, he is ripped, athletic and, worryingly for Championship wingers, still growing.
His football talent can’t be questioned and he has been catapulted to the frontline in recent months – the softly-spoken youngster having played 16 times for Town in league and cup this season, at the time of writing.
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He has got a great deal going for him.
His Blues’ senior career started at Brentford in August 2015, a game in which, by his own admission, he “dominated” his opponent.
Then there was the impressive display, despite a 3-0 defeat, against a Manchester United side, including Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, at Old Trafford, last September.
Ironically, his appearances were few and far between after that game, his Town career punctured by a short spell at League Two Crawley which was an “eye-opener” and “needed” in his eyes.
Since re-emerging this season, he has started to give Town manager Mick McCarthy a selection headache.
Having worked as a football reporter up and down the land for almost a decade, I have encountered players with far less talent but with far bigger egos, and rarely have they lived up to their self-inflated hype.
That isn’t to say Emmanuel is the finished product, but his solid upbringing and his unwavering Christian faith have given him every chance of succeeding.
Raised in Harlow, Essex, by his parents, Christopher and Janet, the youngest of three children Emmanuel knew from an early age that he would become a footballer.
“I was alright (at school) to be fair, but my mind was just on football and I knew I would be a professional footballer, as arrogant as that sounds,” explains Emmanuel.
“I knew I had a good chance of making it with God behind me.
“When you come into an academy, you need to at least believe you can play in the first-team eventually and, thanks to God, this happened.”
Not that it’s all been plain sailing, as a youngster he suffered growing pains in both knees during his time at West Ham’s academy – he joined when he was six – and, after regaining his fitness, was told he had a small window in which to make the grade.
“They (West Ham) wanted me to prove myself for six weeks and my dad wasn’t really having it at the time, so I left the club,” remembers Emmanuel, who was just 13 then.
“I didn’t protest but I was like ‘What’s going to happen now?’
“I was still a bit immature, but it was a life-lesson and, looking back, I am thankful for it.
“It proved to me that if I wanted something then I was going to have to really put in overtime to get there. It built me up as a person.”
Emmanuel joined the academy at Ipswich soon after, and quickly saw first hand the sacrifices his parents had to make to get him to the position he is in today.
“When I was a scholar, and before I turned 17, my parents would bring me in from (home) Braintree to start at 8.30am,” explains Emmanuel, who still lives with his family, now in Colchester.
“I would finish most days at 4.30pm when my mum and dad would pick me up and take me home. In between they would be working on their computer in a library in Ipswich or somewhere else, as they had a cleaning business to run.”
Surely then, Emmanuel had a fail-safe back-up had he not made it as a player?
“Possibly, although it was all about football, and I never had a back-up plan, which was probably a bad thing,” he admits.
Perhaps that isn’t the best careers advice for an aspiring footballer but, on the flip-side it is another demonstration of his steely determination to make it to the top. Nothing was going to get in his way.
“I used to play rugby when I was younger and I was offered a trial at Saracens when I was at secondary school, but my mind was set on football, I would have been devastated had I not made it, and I didn’t consider rugby as an alternative,” remembers Emmanuel, whose Sundays are taken up by visits to the Liberty Church in Canary Wharf, when football or training is not on the agenda.
“I would just get the ball and run to try and score a try – I couldn’t even tell you what position I played!”
On to his full debut for Ipswich, the 2-2 draw at Griffin Park on the opening day of last season, the sacrifices finally paying off.
“Bez (Christophe Berra) was suspended for the game as he had been sent off in the play-offs at Norwich,” said the amiable Emmanuel, who was 17 at the time.
“I remember watching that (Norwich) game at home with my parents and, while you don’t want to see your team-mates getting sent-off, I was thinking I might have an opportunity to play.
“I worked hard in the summer, played a few pre-season games to be ready and thankfully God created an opportunity.
“I was calm and confident, although I probably didn’t look that confident at the start, and it was a great experience for me and enabled me to get used to the Championship.
“I was up against a foreign player (Andy Gogia), I am not sure what his name was but I dominated him and we should have won the game.”
The game at Old Trafford followed soon after and Emmanuel lined up in an unfamiliar-looking back four that also included Josh Yorwerth, Piotr Malarczyk and Jonathan Parr.
“That was a game of mixed emotions for me. It was a massive experience playing there but it could have gone better from my point-of-view and the team lost, but I enjoyed the experience and that is where I want to be, playing against top-class players,” confessed Emmanuel, who is a self-confessed Arsenal fan.
“My dad watches all my games but my mum has never seen me live, but she says she will be there when I make my Premier League debut!
“At Old Trafford I was pretty calm and even after the game I didn’t ask for anyone’s shirt, although I got given (Matteo) Darmian’s as I left, which was nice.”
This season, the youngster has continued to impress at Portman Road, in what has been a tough campaign for the Blues, and asked about his personal highlight to date, he said: “Probably the Lincoln game away for me, although we lost it. It was on BBC and my family were watching both in England and Nigeria. Maybe that game, not because of the result, but because of the build-up.”
With Emmanuel’s talent having spread as far as Africa, are his extended family regular watchers of his progress?
“I think they watch when they can,” he says.
“My dad was born there and left when he was young. I have never been there but hopefully this summer will be a good time to take my family.
“That’s another motivation to do well, succeed and make them proud.
“I want to pay them back, not just materially but also emotionally. I want to repay all the effort and expense they put in bringing me up.”
- You can buy the current issue of Kings of Anglia in shops now, and the next issue comes out next month!