Joel Asoro lifts lid on life under Chris Coleman, the buzz of first-team football at Sunderland and a frustrating debut season
A broad smile breaks out across Joel Asoro's face as he reflects on the wild celebrations at Burton Albion after his late impact helped seal Chris Coleman's first win.
Asoro, who provided the cross for George Honeyman’s goal to seal the 2-0 victory, raced to the away fans, arms out wide, screaming in joy with the Sunderland faithful.
For the 18-year-old, this was more than just three points, though.
It was an outpouring of emotion after a frustrating 12-month spell since he made his Premier League debut for Sunderland against Middlesbrough in August 2016.
That day, Asoro, having impressed former boss David Moyes last pre-season, became the club’s youngest ever Premier League player, at just 17 years and 117 days.
But he only made a further three first-team appearances last season, all in cup competitions, as Sunderland battled unsuccessfully against relegation to the Championship.
It was a tough campaign for everyone connected with Sunderland and Asoro has been forced to wait patiently for another first-team chance.
Now 18-year-old Asoro, playing under his fourth manager in the space of two years, is making a positive impact at first-team level and could yet start against table-toppers Wolves on Saturday.
“I would be really happy to start, but it is not my decision. That is the manager’s decision,” said Asoro.
“I love the buzz of the first team.
“That video of my assist at Burton, I love it. I don’t know what to say when I see it.
“It made me smile a lot. George scored and everyone was celebrating with me. I think people realised how much I wanted to play!
“Last season, I was a bit frustrated.
“If you look back on the season, we didn’t do well. I can see why [I didn’t get more minutes] as there would have been a lot of pressure on you.
“At Burton, I just felt I needed to do something – it could be defending well or to help out in attack to show the manager I want to play and play well.
“That feeling at Burton ... it is hard to say, I have no words.
“Trying to get that frustration and anger out of my body from last season, that was it – to get my emotions out.”
Asoro has come off the bench in all three of Coleman’s games in charge so far; including that dazzling spell at Burton and a man-of-the-match showing in the defeat to Reading, Asoro winning the penalty from which Lewis Grabban scored a consolation goal.
That defeat extended Sunderland’s winless home streak to 21 games and while Asoro sympathises with fans’ frustration, his focus is on his own game and helping second-bottom Sunderland pick up much-needed points.
Confident Asoro – who is also the youngest Swede ever to appear in the English top flight – isn’t fazed by the challenge facing Sunderland.
And the Stockholm-born forward is loving life under Coleman.
“I really like him. I like the way he thinks about football. It feels different under him,” said Asoro.
“You can do games in training. but we focus a lot on what we will do at the weekend, how we will approach the game, prepare a bit earlier.”
Such was the initial buzz around Asoro when he burst on the scene that the Under-21 Swedish international was scouted by a host of clubs including Arsenal, both Milan clubs, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, PSG, Lyon, Valencia and Villarreal.
He didn’t let the speculation affect his game, though. His focus was on breaking into the Sunderland side regularly.
Asoro added: “I don’t let it affect me. I just play my football. The rest will come.
“I was working hard last season and this season I am focusing on what I can do for the team.
“There was a bit of a buzz around me, but I am still young. I was only 17 when I made my debut, I didn’t expect any of that.”
Asoro started his career as a youth player at local side IFK Haninge before joining the club he supports – IF Brommapojkarna – at the age of 11.
Asoro was then spotted by Sunderland’s Scandinavian scouting network and invited to Wearside, signing a permanent deal in 2015.
Having moved to the North East with his mother, and with his English excellent after two lessons a week back in his native Sweden, Asoro quickly settled.
His sister has also spent time in the region, having played basketball for Team Northumbria before moving to further her own career in Germany.
Ex-Sunderland midfielder Seb Larsson, a fellow Swede, helped young Asoro settle. The pair still keep in touch, despite Larsson having signed for fellow Championship strugglers Hull City in the summer.
“I still keep in touch with Seb,” revealed Asoro. “He always took time out to speak to you and offer advice.
“It was good to have somebody from your own country to talk to, not just about football.”
By his own admission, softly-spoken Asoro is laid back, but he is driven when it comes to making a success of his football career.
Building on his positive start to life under Coleman is the first priority, with the club’s chronic injury list helping gain him more first-team opportunities.
Asoro added: “For me, this season has been about getting more minutes, but I need to work hard and earn it.
“I have tried to do well when I have come on, especially at Burton. I didn’t expect that but I had to do something.
“I wanted to get more minutes and I am getting them.
“To be fair, all the coaches say to me I have time so you don’t have to stress. ‘As soon as you get your chance just do your best’.
“I am not really thinking about what I am going to do on the pitch, I just try to be myself and let it happen.
“It is a physical division, the Championship, but you need to be clever with the ball.
“I am not fazed by the challenge.
“I didn’t play much in the Premier League, so I can’t compare it but my game won’t change much.
“I am not a person that talks so much. I am laidback.
“I try to listen and take it in. When they are asking ‘why are you not talking?’ I say I am listening!”
Versatile Asoro is comfortable on either flank or through the middle, not that he minds where he plays.
“I really don’t mind, it depends on the game situation and where the manager wants to play me – sometimes down the right, sometimes down the left,” he added.
“There is a bigger chance I will play a part at the moment because of the injuries and suspensions.
“Of course I want to be starting and playing minutes, but, like all managers say, you can’t burn someone out, you have to wait for your time.”
Asoro has made a big impact under Coleman and hopes this is his time to shine.