How Millwall youngster took debut against Crystal Palace in his stride – as he aims for next step

AN FA Cup debut as a teenager in one of English football’s most intimidating stadiums against a hated local rival? It’s no surprise to hear that Nana Boateng took it all in his stride.

That’s because after he was given his first professional contract last summer he celebrated by playing PlayStation with his friends.

Boateng, 19, doesn’t play down that big milestone, but he recognises it is only the first step on what he hopes will be a long and successful career.

Attacker Boateng had been with Millwall since the age of nine after being spotted following a showcase involving youngsters from schools in Southwark and Lambeth.

Almost 10 years later, that day arrived as it does for lots of kids when it could be make or break, either the end of the dream or the start of picking up the pieces elsewhere.

“It was May of last year, it was a big moment but I wasn’t too fussed about it,” Boateng tells NewsAtDen when asked to recall the day he went into the club to find out his fate. “It was a big moment but what matters to me is playing in the first team. But getting a professional deal was a good moment for me and my family.

“I was confident [of getting a deal] but you never know in football what’s going to happen. I wouldn’t say I was over-confident, but I was confident.

“I went home, played my PS4 with my friends and chilled. Getting a professional deal is only the beginning.”

It’s put to Boateng that he seems like a relaxed character.

“A lot of people say that to me, but I know when it’s time to be relaxed and not be relaxed,” Boateng says.

“That’s crucial, work ethic in football. That’s something you can’t mess up. Then there are other things like expressing yourself and enjoying it, really. That’s what I’ve been doing.”

Boateng took a cab to The Den last Saturday week for the third round of the FA Cup at a sold-out stadium, listening to music on the way.

His big moment arrived with nine minutes left in the tie when he was sent on in place of Sheyi Ojo. And he was a whisker away from a fairytale debut after just failing to reach a cross from Billy Mitchell.

“I was told the day before I was going to be in the squad,” Boateng says. “It was funny, I had been training with them but I didn’t know I would be in the squad. I was training with the 23s and then all of a sudden I was getting call-ups to first-team training.

“At the start, no [he didn’t feel nervous] but when I was warming up and getting ready I was nervous, to be fair. But when I got on the pitch I was just really focussed.

“It was crazy, when [Gary Rowett] told me I was in a rush, putting on my shin pads. It was big for him to put me on in a game like that against Palace.

“I almost scored, I was very sharp in my movement but the defender nicked it at the last minute. It was funny because I didn’t touch the ball in the game!

“The game was on TV, my phone was getting hot afterwards. It was a good moment, people recognising how hard I had worked to get my debut.

“I’m very happy for me and my family and friends, it’s been hard work over the years and it was an honour to represent the club, especially in the FA Cup against Crystal Palace.”

Two days after the Palace game, Boateng was back at The Den, this time playing in front of a handful of spectators as Kevin Nugent’s under-23s lost to Charlton.

“You always want to play football, when I was dropped down to the under-23s I was happy, to be fair. It’s good to get game-time,” Boateng adds.

“It makes you a humble person.

“[Nugent] is very good. If you’re in a bad mood, for example, he’ll always have a conversation with you, asking you what’s going on. That’s big for me, especially as someone who likes to express themselves in the final third.”

Nana Boateng goes close to a late equaliser against Crystal Palace

After the south London derby, Rowett challenged the young players to get into the first team and make impacts.

Boateng knows that has to be the next goal.

“Of course,” he says. “For me to be in and around the senior team is very big now. For me it’s now about being consistent in my performances and enjoying my football, I would say. Expressing myself and entertaining the fans.”

Rowett has shown there is a path to the first team for academy players if they show they are good enough. Boateng has had advice from Jed Wallace, but it’s players like Danny McNamara and Mitchell who can be his biggest role models.

“There have been a few times when I was training with them and playing with them, to see them as established first-team players now it makes you want to work hard,” Boateng says.

“I wouldn’t say it’s advice, it’s more about what they do off the pitch, on the pitch, I can see I need to push on.

“With someone like Jed, I play in a very similar position. He’s been in the game for a while, he’s very talented so it’s very good for me to watch him and, again, see what he does on and off the pitch.

“He tells me to work hard and that’s big coming from a guy who’s had a long career and done a lot of things for Millwall.”

As with any teenager who breaks into the first team, speculation around their future is never far behind. Already, reports have linked Rangers, Leicester and Brighton with interest in fifteen-year-old Zak Lovelace.

Boateng won’t pay much attention if there are similar stories linking him with a move away.

“It’s step by step, from now my aim is to try to push into the first-team squad and see from there. I try to be realistic and not look anywhere else,” he insists. “I want to try to build myself up.

“Right now it’s about me working hard to try to get into the first team, that’s the main thing.”

A packed Den on an FA Cup weekend has given him a taste for more.

“It does [inspire playing at The Den], football without the fans is not that good. It makes me more driven.

“I want to experience it even more to see how it is.”

Image: Millwall FC 

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John Kelly

(@jkelly1882)