Crystal Palace forward Jordan Ayew tells Sky Sports about growing up in Accra and being part of a family steeped in rich football history; watch Crystal Palace vs Arsenal on Monday Night Football, live on Sky Sports Main Event and Premier League from 6.30pm; kick-off 8pm
“Most of the time, I use soft ground,” says Jordan Ayew, gazing up at the row of studs in a matchbox boot room on a sweltering day in New Beckenham, the leafy suburb of South London.
Given the spate of serious knee injuries to have recently riddled the professional game, it doesn’t seem too inane to ask the Crystal Palace forward for his boot preference as an opening gambit.
“I find it difficult for me to use hard ground. I would prefer to slip only once or twice!”
Copers Cope is a hive of activity with Ayew taking respite in between a flurry of interviews to eye his choice of weapon to take down Arsenal on Monday Night Football, live on Sky Sports.
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Black Stars and a family affair
The 31-year-old is ready to embark on another trip around the sun having recharged over the summer in Turkey.
Ayew is a family man, shaped by a sense of community on the streets of Accra. From where the chickens roam on Labadi Beach to where the Eagles fly, a smile as wide as the Volta River breaks out when his hometown is mentioned.
Accra, with a population of 300,000 inhabitants, is a football-mad city. While coaching the sport on my gap year in 2007, I was handed the thankless task of assembling a group of energetic 11-year-olds to play in tournaments against kids at least two years older than them. From my own personal experience, it is a city built on endurance.
Ghana was celebrating its 50th anniversary as the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve independence from its colonial masters, schoolchildren would weave in between tuk-tuks on bicycles wearing Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah shirts.
A year later, the city would be hosting the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, and the wheels were already in motion.
“The traffic is plenty,” my cab driver would always say as I absorbed the rush-hour chase to get to a television screen to watch Essien’s Chelsea in action during those peak Jose Mourinho years. Every Wednesday, in the neighbourhood where my compound was based, there would be a water shortage which would require a 2km walk to the nearest safe vendor.
The sound of the car horns and the scene of sweat and toil is a familiar one for Ayew, whose unremarkable origins despite his father’s fame have carried him via 240 Premier League appearances to two World Cup finals with the Black Stars.
“I grew up with my grandparents,” he tells Sky Sports. “I can’t speak highly enough of Accra. It’s home for me, and I learned a lot of things – the basics in life: being disciplined and humble.
“You get advice from your family, but also from people in the neighbourhood. They would tell me when I was not doing the right thing. It’s a different mentality compared to Europe.
“It’s helped shaped who I am today. These are the people who started with me from the bottom, my real friends, and I always love going back to see them.”
Some would argue that Ayew was destined to have a ball at his feet, the third-born son of three-time African Footballer of the Year Abedi Pele.
“I didn’t want to fall into the game of being compared to my brothers Andre and Ibrahim, or my father,” he counters. “I never thought of needing to be better than other members of my family.
“I don’t think that’s the right mentality to have. I only see their success as a positive thing and I’m lucky to be part of a family like this. The pressure will always be there regardless, and it’s one I put on myself.”
His interest beyond the sport extends only as far as Formula One, and there was very little career alternative before his target was set as a 14-year-old following a transformative family holiday trip to Marseille.
It was here while his brother Andre was having a trial in 2006 that his godfather and club president Pape Diouf told him to lace up his boots. Ayew didn’t look back. He signed on at Marseille and would stay in France until he was 23.
“It was a huge challenge,” Ayew continues. “I would only go home once a year, so I left behind my family and my friends. But it was the best decision I ever took.
“When I think of what I’ve achieved in the game, where I am today, I can only be thankful to God and feel blessed as when I was young, my dream was to play professional football. I’m now 31 and that’s what I am. Hopefully, there’s more years to come.”
Ayew has played under World Cup winners Didier Deschamps and Patrick Vieira, but it was while on loan with Sochaux that the player first excelled under Herve Renard, whom he credits as being the greatest influence in evolving his game.
“I’ve been with some top coaches. Herve was more like a father figure to me. He took me at a young age and made me understand the basics in the game. He was always onto me. He was hard on me. Sometimes when you’re young, you get upset but when you look back, you realise that was the best thing.
“He told me what I needed to work on and what I needed to improve on. I can’t be more thankful to Didier Deschamps because he gave me my first chance in the professional world at Marseille. All these people are part of my success.”
Roy Hodgson continues to extend his record as the Premier League’s oldest manager, but as Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Sheffield United showed, the fire still burns brightly within the 76-year-old.
A comical touchline scuffle with Max Lowe – half a century younger than the Palace boss – has been the talk of the training ground this week, and Ayew sees it as only a good thing.
“We’ve had a laugh about it in the changing room, and I don’t see any problem with that. It shows he’s not a quiet person and he’s not that old. He still has the energy and the desire to win which is positive.”
‘Keeping Eze and Olise is massive’
Ayew is used to the battle, bruised by 90 fouls last season – the most of any player in the Premier League. It is a stat which bemuses him, if not the distance he regularly clocks up for his team.
Palace finished 11th last season despite Hodgson returning in place of Vieira, with Ayew featuring in all 38 of their games, 31 as a starter.
Having been voted Players’ Player of the Year at both Palace and Swansea, his worth to his team-mates is measured beyond goals and assists as one of the league’s most underrated footballers.
It has been a summer of change in SE25, with talisman Wilfried Zaha ending his long association with the club to join Galatasaray while after Chelsea activated Michael Olise’s £35m release clause, the player promptly committed to another four years.
Cheick Doucoure has been linked with Liverpool after an excellent debut season while Eberechi Eze has yet to commit to a new deal.
Paddy McCarthy has been promoted to assistant manager and the highly rated Irishman will certainly pick up a few useful tips from Hodgson’s trusted lieutenant, Ray Lewington.
Ayew believes the future remains bright under Hodgson and momentum is building after the opening-day win at Bramall Lane.
“It would be massive to keep them,” he says when asked about the futures of Olise and Eze. “We want the club to bring in top players. We always want to have top players in order to have good competition for places.
“It’s the club that will decide so it’s something I can’t really talk about, but it can only be a positive thing as it shows that the players are doing well.”
Back in November 2011, both Jordan and Andre started a Champions League game for the first time against Arsenal for Marseille, and with Mikel Arteta’s side the first to visit Selhurst Park under the lights on Monday, Hodgson will hope all the stars align for a second win on the bounce.
Not that Ayew is setting any season targets.
“We’re ambitious, but we’re keeping our feet on the ground. We’re not looking too far ahead as we know we have to be consistent in our performances.
“Our focus is on Arsenal and it’s going to be a very hard game. I can’t predict the result, but we’re looking forward to being back at Selhurst Park. My family and friends will be there, so it’s going to be a very exciting night.
“My family back home will be in front of the TV so hopefully we can put smiles on people’s faces.”
Watch Crystal Palace vs Arsenal on Monday Night Football, live on Sky Sports Main Event and Premier League from 6.30pm; kick-off 8pm.