For many, July’s pre-season friendly draw between AFC Wimbledon and Crystal Palace was hardly a memorable occasion. But for Dons left-back Paul Osew, it was a night he credits for allowing him to prove he could cope at first-team level.
The 19-year-old played on the left of a back five which had to defend against the experienced Eagles striker Connor Wickham and pacey Brandon Pierrick – who made his Premier League debut on New Year’s Day.
Yet Osew was the standout performer. In the first few minutes, a crunching tackle followed by a mazy dribble and a dangerous cross proved there were no nerves for the rookie wing-back. His first-half display earned him half-time praise from then Dons boss Wally Downes.
When he ventured forward, the Wandsworth-born teenager was up against makeshift Eagles right-back Nikola Tavares.
Osew recalls: “We came in at half-time and Wally told me: ‘Listen you’re doing brilliantly. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep taking him [Tavares] on, he doesn’t like it. Glyn [Hodges, then assistant manager] told me the same thing: ‘Keep your head down, keep running at him, he doesn’t like it. He is going to come off soon’. That really boosted me up.”
Ironically, Tavares was taken off at half-time. His replacement David Boaten had an even tougher second half. Osew earned man of the match.
“That game was a big stepping-stone for me. That really started off my season. It was against Palace, so I needed to try to make an impact because it was against a Premier League team. The fact that I got man of the match really built up my confidence.
“I’ve watched back through that match so many times, to see what I did well and what I could improve so that I could take that into account any time I played or trained with the first team.
“For me as a defender, if I have the ball and I see space in front of you, I’m running at you. I am running at you whether you like it or not. That’s my strength, I’m going to bring it out. There were all the fans there as well so I had to let them know what I’m capable of. Sometimes Wally would say: ‘Just give the ball to Paul, let him do what he does’.”
That half-time show of appreciation by Downes makes it a surprise that the former Wimbledon boss only played Osew once in League One – an 18-minute cameo against Accrington Stanley in August – although he did make his official debut against rivals Milton Keynes in the EFL Cup.
It was in Hodges’ first match as caretaker manager that the youngster was handed a full league debut in a 3-2 defeat against Peterborough United. He has been a regular fixture at left wing-back ever since.
The highlight has been a first senior goal against Rochdale.
“I can just visualise Waggy [Scott Wagstaff] running down the line and all I had in my head was ‘I’m gonna finish’. I was bombing down the line making sure I was going to be in the box.
“In my head I only had one thing on my mind and it was that I needed to score. So, when the ball came across, my initial reaction was just to put the ball in the back of the net. It went in the net and the reaction from the fans was just amazing.
“That rush that was in my body, I didn’t know how to celebrate, I wanted to run around the whole pitch. I didn’t see anyone to begin with. But then I ran into [Anthony] Wordsworth and he picked me up and shouted: ‘Celebrate with the fans, celebrate with the fans’.”
First-team success has not come easily for Osew.
He was scoring “four or five goals a game” as a striker in Brentford’s academy before being let go by Chelsea for being too small. He had struck up a good relationship with England forward Callum Hudson-Odoi in the Blues’ dressing room.
There was also Wimbledon academy coach Mark Robinson bringing the wide man back to play as a full-back. Osew struggled to come to terms with that switch at first, saying he would argue with Robinson about being put in defence.
But extra sessions doing one-versus-one have enhanced his defensive ability. He has not given up on a role further up the pitch. He still sees himself on “either the left or right of a front three” in the future.
Osew – who could have gone into athletics but always had eyes set on a professional football career – grew up in Brixton where he admits opportunities for young people are limited and, for some, that can see them turning to crime.
He also feels there are not enough scouts watching the vast array of talent South London has to offer.
“Everyone wanted to play football,” Osew says. “Every Wednesday we would meet up at the local cage, around 12 or one o’clock and a couple of guys came down. Junior [Tiensia] from Millwall played. Loads of the young players came down. We would make little groups of teams.
“I feel like we don’t get enough people coming to watch us. There is so much talent around South London. I’ve seen players and asked: ‘What team are you at?’ and they have replied saying that they have no team – I’m like ‘wow’.
“The reason is always the same – ‘I don’t have anyone to come and watch me’. There are so many who should at least be playing at a decent level. Even though South London is known for violence, we’ve got a lot of talent, trust me. Violence is a result of the lack of opportunity that young people are getting. That’s what my mindset is, you’ve just got to grind through the situation and try to get to the top.”
Osew has a way to go before he gets to the top of the professional game, but he is on the right path. He was awarded with a new deal earlier this month to ward off potential suitors, despite only signing a first professional contract last April.
Downes and Hodges have had a big impact on his fledgling career.
“When you get the manager telling you to continue doing what you’re doing, that kind of trust between you and the manager, it makes me realise what I’m doing is good and makes me want to do it more.
“Wally believed in me, he would always tell me, ‘I signed you for this reason so don’t stop doing it.’ To know that the manager has that much faith and trust, it helps me build up my confidence. I feel like I need to repay him and show him what I’m capable of.
“There was a lot of pressure on us because of the change of manager but we all have faith in Glyn as well. We knew he liked to play [good] football. That really helped us.
“We went on a four or five-game winning streak, so that really built up our trust in the manager and the relationship.”
PICTURES BY PAUL EDWARDS AND KEITH GILLARD