Pride, Ghana, Jai and the rise of a Bristol City star: Interview with Antoine Semenyo’s father
Ghana may not have had a great AFCON 2021 but they do have some fantastic talent in their squad still and they have the 2022 World Cup on the horizon this year.
Two huge matches at the end of March against Nigeria saw the Black Stars victorious on away goals and make the year’s winter showpiece football tournament.
Preparations for that will begin this summer, with two matches in AFCON 2023 Qualifying against Madagascar and Central African Republic early in June. A friendly in Japan has been arranged for shortly afterwards, as well as a fixture against whoever wins between Tunisia and Chile four days later.
And taking part will be Bristol City’s own Antoine Semenyo, who is able to make this squad after an ill-timed knee injury ruled him out of the World Cup play-offs back in March, and having been called up again by head coach Otto Addo. He will join stars such as Arsenal’s Thomas Partey and Ajax’s Mohammed Kudus.
With one ex-Bristol City player in the Ghana ranks already, goalkeeper Joe Wollacott, now there will be two players with West Country connections among the Black Stars.
Former Nottingham Forest boss Chris Hughton is now the Ghana technical director and he took in Semenyo’s game against Fulham at Ashton Gate in the FA Cup third round as well as against Hull City towards the end of the campaign.
The 22-year-old Bristol City striker has been in brilliant form in 2022, after a knee injury meant a later beginning to the campaign and a first league start did not arrive until 4 December in a 1-0 win over Derby County.
BristolWorld recently caught up with Antoine’s father Larry to discuss the family’s pride in the call-up to the national team and also how well the young forward has blossomed this year - the January Championship player of the month, brother Jai at local rivals Cardiff and more.
First off, a bit of background and how Antoine wasn’t even playing as a striker when growing up.
“Growing up Antoine was a midfielder. He always played in midfield but Dave [Hockaday, head of football at SGS College and his former coach] saw something in him,” says Larry.
“It was Dave who played him up front. When he called me and said that he was going to play him up front, I had to ask him what he was talking about.
“I played in the Ghana Premier League but I was a midfielder not a striker. But I think Antoine gets his skills from me!” jokes Larry with a laugh, who played himself for Okwahu United FC and the Advance Stars FC in Winneba, Ghana.
What a season so far for the striker who has really made a menace of himself to Championship defences of late, with eight goals and 12 assists, with the work rate off the ball to go with it.
So much so that Antoine becomes only the second Bristol City player to win a Championship player of the month award, while now international recognition beckons.
“I’m so proud of him. He’s doing so well. The club have been winning games but sometimes in the final minutes things turned upside down,” says Larry on the Robins’ fortunes in 2021/22.
“Nigel Pearson has been really good for him. He’s trusted him and given him the opportunity for Antoine to play,” he adds.
It’s not been a straight road to this point for the Semenyo family. The journey has taken in lots of clubs, set-backs and some perseverance.
It’s an important lesson for young players to never give up.
“Antoine was so passionate about football as a young player. It’s been a heck of a long journey. People don’t realise the effort that you put in and the hard work when you are younger,” explains Larry.
“We took them all around the country. We drove them everywhere. He was at Arsenal and Tottenham and Swindon as well and we took him to all of these places.
“Dave worked really hard with him and said that he would help him to become a footballer.
“We said to him that he might not make it as a footballer so he had to work hard at school too. It’s important to have that too,” he adds.
And now an exciting future begins with the Black Stars, with the carrot of a World Cup squad place ahead. Ghana will face Portugal, South Korea and Uruguay in Group H, and many players will hope to be involved.
Antoine is ready to play a part if called by his coach. Father Larry is excited at the prospect.
“Ghana has always had good players. I liked Anthony Yeboah - he was a great striker - but just recently the team has not been as good and they didn’t have a very good AFCON,” says Larry. “Hopefully they can get back to winning again.”
“Antoine can go very far if he keeps working hard. He practised so much when he was a young player.
“We’re very proud and Antoine has always been saying from a very young age that he wanted to play for Ghana… He was always very sure. It was his dream. And now thankfully he’s going to do that. We’ll be very happy to see him playing.”
Former England coach Aidy Boothroyd once considered calling up Antoine for the England youth sides but, with Rhian Brewster at the same age, the former Watford boss settled for the ex-Liverpool man. In time that may be a mistake.
The national team of great players such as Asamoah Gyan, Andre Ayew and Sulley Muntari will be the ones to benefit now.
Meanwhile, Antoine’s brother Jai is flourishing too. The young right-back recently signed a new long-term deal with Cardiff City after making his debut at Anfield back in January, a game that Antoine was present for. His older brother has certainly influenced things.
“Jai was not so interested in football early on, it was more Antoine playing all the time. Antoine had this passion and was always playing and playing,” says Larry.
“And when he started bringing home some trophies then Jai said that he was going to be interested in football too.
“He’s doing well for himself too. Antoine always liked Dider Drogba but also Arsenal. But Jai said it couldn’t be Arsenal for him and instead he supported Chelsea,” explains their father.
Spotting a talent
BristolWorld also spoke to the scouts that spotted Semenyo for Ghana and got the lowdown on how the Bristol City sharp-shooter was called up by the Black Stars this week.
“It was with great pleasure to discover that Antoine has great potential to be Ghana’s No. 1 striker,” explains Ghana scout Eric Anyan.
“My son Elijah Anyan, who is an FA ID Talent Scout, and Josiah Anyan, my analyst, went with me to watch Antoine play both home and away and straight away we realised that Ghana would have an exceptional striker in Antoine,” said Anyan senior.
Elijah and Eric both have meetings twice a week analysing potential players for their agency JIA Sports Agency UK, with players from around the world and also for the Ghana national team.
They have Ghanaian heritage, and recently helped Swindon Town and former Bristol City goalkeeper Joe Wollacott join the Black Stars too.
“We both feel we have captured a top striker for Ghana and are still looking for other players for our agency and the Ghanaian national team,” they added.
Antoine’s former coach at SGS College Filton Dave Hockaday, meanwhile, agrees with dad Larry. Hockaday spotted the older brother at trials and got a young player with great potential believing in himself - but as a striker.
By accentuating the player’s strengths, effective coaching and installing confidence, things have moved quickly.
“I saw a lad who was slightly disillusioned and he’d been to a number of clubs and been rejected,” says Hockaday, who managed Forest Green Rovers from 2009-2013, and Leeds United for an eventful 70 days in 2014.
“He just needed someone to believe him. I saw something and got him to believe in himself, which isn’t easy with young guys.
“And now he’s playing for a coach [Pearson] and a club who finally believe in him and see him as a striker, and a modern day forward isn’t always in the middle.
“I see that trio - with Andi Weimann in behind - as good as an attacking trio as any in the Championship,” he says.
Hockaday recognises a player getting better by the year, with improved timing of runs, increased strength and finer link play.
He met with Antoine after the Coventry City defeat at Ashton Gate in late February to discuss how things are going.
(As a sign of Antoine’s humbleness he thanked Hockaday for coming to watch him, when his former coach believes it should have been the other way round - him thanking the Bristol City forward for a match ticket and inviting him to the game).
“He is such a good lad, a good egg and a real team player. He can still improve and as he becomes more selfish he’ll score more goals,” says Hockaday.
“Antoine’s taking on more responsibility and he’ll thrive on that.
“The interest of Ghana doesn’t surprise me and I’ve spoken to Della [mother] and Larry and I’ve had Jai at SGS too, and they’re a real tight-knit family. It was a pleasure to be around them.
“He’s blossoming in every which way, and I couldn’t be more proud. I was humbled that his parents thought so much of me that they wanted me to work with Jai too.
“Jai’s such a likeable lad and his development has been incredible from when he came to SGS and to where he is now. It’s a massive credit to his hard work, repeating the technical drills to build up the muscle memory needed, and more,” he explains.
Hockaday’s relationship with his former Leeds United striker Steve Morison helped as Jai was looked at by several top sides before eventually heading over the Severn Bridge to Bristol City’s neighbours.
And Antoine watched on earlier this season as Jai played for Cardiff City U23s in a dramatic 3-3 draw at the High Performance Centre in February, until an injury just before half-time saw the Bluebirds defender withdraw from the game, and again later in Leckwith, Cardiff.
But there is more to come from the young full-back, who came on against Liverpool in February and had to immediately mark £50m Colombian winger Luis Diaz in a true baptism of fire. And that is just the start.
The Semenyo name is clearly going to be one to keep an eye out for over the next few years.
“There’s a healthy sibling rivalry there and they’re a really lovely family and very supportive,” says Hockaday.
“It’s real fun to be in their company. I’m having a ball watching them develop and there is so much more to come.”
Football supporters this way - and in Ghana - will certainly hope so.