Alex Iwobi’s 99th minute winner against Newcastle United marked the turning point in his Everton career. Or so the story goes.
There is no doubt his cool finish past Martin Dubravka was important. It sparked elation inside Goodison Park and gave hope the Blues would pull clear of the developing relegation battle. And Iwobi, having taken advantage of his return to the starting line-up with that goal, then started each of the club’s last 11 Premier League games.
But the reality is after the win over Newcastle, Everton’s situation got far worse before it got better. And having had time to reflect, Iwobi now believes the turning point for him was not his stoppage time winner but the red card he received while representing Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations almost two months before that late night in Walton.
For Iwobi, his 66th minute sending off as Tunisia knocked Nigeria out of the competition represented rock bottom. He had been on the pitch for just minutes when he saw red and he later penned an emotional message in which he wrote: “We will be back to fight for our nation, stronger. We owe it to you, and I owe it to myself.”
In the days that followed he turned to his family and their support, coupled with the backing he received from fans and his desire never “to be in that place again”, was crucial.
Speaking exclusively to the ECHO during the first leg of Everton’s pre-season tour of the USA, the 26-year-old said: “I had lows of not really playing under the previous manager [Rafa Benitez] and then that red card was one of the hardest challenges to overcome. What I am grateful for is the support system I have at this club, with Nigeria, and with my family. They were able to talk to me and get through to me. That is why I was able to have a decent run towards the end of the season because without them I would have been struggling.”
Just days after Iwobi’s disappointment with Nigeria, Everton appointed Frank Lampard as manager. This was also crucial to his success later in the season.
He explained: “I feel like ever since the new manager came in and I came back from the Africa Cup of Nations it was almost like a a new challenge and a new start. When I came into training I felt I was capable. I was hungry to get myself back into the team and the gaffer appreciated that. Luckily he had that faith and belief in me and I was able to do what he wanted me to do and able to help the team get results. It was good for me when he came in, it has been helpful for my career.
“He is able to relate to how someone is feeling mentally as well as trying to help people on the pitch. For me, when I was going through a difficult period where I wasn’t playing [under Benitez] and coming off the back of the Cup of Nations he was literally talking to me just saying ‘go again, I know the qualities you have’. He kept saying ‘express yourself, play freely’ – and that is what I have been doing.”