Elyounoussi: I had to take my opportunity


August might not typically feel like a make-or-break month on the football calendar, but last year it felt dangerously close to that for Mohamed Elyounoussi.

It was in the final week of the first month of the season that the Norwegian resurrected his Southampton career with a hat-trick, in the modest surroundings of Newport County’s Rodney Parade, south Wales.

Three days later, Elyounoussi celebrated the bank holiday weekend with a first Premier League goal in the rather more illustrious backdrop of St James’ Park, Newcastle, in front of its towering Leazes Stand housing the bouncing Saints fans in the top tier – not only the furthest away day from home, but the longest distance from the action.

One year on, there is a justified sense of pride in proving his worth to the club where he always longed to succeed, even after two years on loan at Celtic and 27 months without a competitive appearance in the red and white stripes.

“’Just give me a chance’ was the only thing I was asking for,” Elyounoussi recalls. “Last season, coming back here, I felt like I had a point to prove.

“I don’t think a lot of people thought I was going to get a chance or going to be part of the squad and get as many minutes and games as I had in the end.”

His 2021/22 ended with a roll call of 33 appearances and eight goals in all competitions – the latter haul only usurped by James Ward-Prowse and Armando Broja over the course of the campaign.

When asked if he always felt he belonged in the Premier League, the affable midfielder takes an uncharacteristically stern tern. “Yes,” is the straightforward reply.

“I had a few good offers, but I said to my agent, ‘I don’t want to hear anything, I want to get back here and take my spot.’

“I was patient. I was going to get the best out of it, I’m a fighter, and as soon as I got one opportunity, I had to take it. I always knew I’m able to and I’m good enough, I just needed to show it.”

Elyounoussi still remembers his very first Saints cup tie, in August 2018, at Brighton in the Carabao Cup, when he went close to scoring in the first half. “If that had gone in, maybe my first season would have been different,” he wonders.

Instead, his considerable contribution to Saints’ biggest-ever away win, three years later, would prove his breakthrough moment.

“That changed the whole thing for me, and maybe the perspective from the fans and the club of me as well,” he says of the Newport hat-trick.

More highlights followed, including the opening goal in the Boxing Day win at high-flying West Ham, and another week to savour in February, when he followed up his equaliser in the away victory over Tottenham Hotspur with an assist for Ché Adams to earn Saints a point at Old Trafford.

Born in Morocco, ‘Moi’ moved to Norway at a young age. At the time, pitting his wits against the Premier League’s big hitters wasn’t even as much as a far-fetched dream, as the 28-year-old grew up in a household bearing no evidence of a future international in its midst.

“We didn’t watch football at home,” Elyounoussi admits. “My grandparents didn’t know what football was. My dad probably watched a bit, but only World Cups – he never had a [club] team. None of my family – parents or uncles – play football.”

Unusual, perhaps, given the necessary dedication for Elyounoussi to reach his current level, but it’s even more surprising given the success stories of his younger brother Anwar, who plays professionally in Norway, and elder cousin Tarik, whose 60 caps for the Lions give the family a combined total of 105.

Nowadays, Moi says, laughing, he can’t move for footballing advice.

“Even my mum, it’s crazy!” he grins. “Sometimes she comes out with these names and I’m like, ‘how do you even know who that is?’

“Before, she wouldn’t even know who Ronaldo was, but now she’s talking about this guy and that guy, saying ‘you should’ve passed that ball!’

“I guess when you have a son or daughter and they’re into something, you really go and support them and get into it. That’s definitely [true] in my case because my mum didn’t know anything about football before, but now she gives me advice! She’s very critical though.”

Rather than his ancestors, much of Elyounoussi’s football influence came from friends and teachers. Other boys in his hometown of Sarpsborg would have TVs showing the Premier League, though Moi was always keener to play than watch.

“I would say in Norway it’s mainly between Man United and Liverpool, and maybe the newer generations with City, as Haaland is there now,” he says of local allegiances.

But it was another club that dominated the school scene.

“I had a few teachers back in high school, I think four out of five were Tottenham fans,” he says. “All the talk was about Tottenham: Tottenham this, Tottenham that, ‘this week I’m watching Tottenham.’

“My first trip to the UK to watch a game was at White Hart Lane, a friend of mine was a Tottenham fan. My first time playing in the new stadium, I scored, and we won the game!”

Unbeknown to himself, Elyounoussi’s header in front of 54,000 fans in north London struck a particular chord back home.

“A few of those teachers texted me,” he reveals, “because I told them – I don’t remember this now – but one of them told me that I said to him, ‘one day I’m going to score against Tottenham.’ I was probably 15, and I told him one day I was going to score against his team.

“I probably said it as a joke, not as a cocky thing, but he texted me saying, ‘wow, you were right!’ I said, ‘right about what?’

“And then he said it, and it hit me.”

Unwittingly, the smiling Elyounoussi had perfectly encapsulated the global scale of the Premier League, and in doing so justified his own determination to make his mark on Southampton.