Michail Antonio has never felt better in a West Ham shirt. The forward is playing with a freedom he has rarely enjoyed since arriving in 2015 from Nottingham Forest. Gone is the pressure of a relegation battle but, most importantly, he no longer fears feeling a tweak in his hamstring.
Tonight’s historic Europa League quarter-final against Lyon is a huge moment for West Ham, but for their No9 it is also a significant milestone.
When the 32-year-old walks out at the London Stadium, it will be his 38th appearance of the season, matching his highest-ever tally in one season for West Ham, with almost two months of the campaign still to run.
Hamstring injuries and muscle problems have dogged his time at the club, but now Antonio finally has confidence in his body to compete at the highest level, despite the gruelling schedule brought about by European and international commitments.
“It has been amazing,” Antonio tells Standard Sport. “I’ve loved every minute of it. Setbacks are hard to take, especially when you are trying your hardest and feel like you are doing all the right stuff. This season, throwing in even international games, with no real breaks, my body has managed to stay together.”
It is quite the difference from the days he would hold back from giving his all through fear of another injury.
“It was difficult,” he says. “I wasn’t really sprinting 100 per cent. There were certain things in the back of my mind, where I was thinking, ‘My hamstring is going to go, it’s going to go’. Mentally, it was a battle. Now, being able to play freely, it is a huge weight lifted off of me.”
Many people, including manager David Moyes, held concerns over what this season could do to Antonio’s body, given the relentless schedule European football brings. But a grounding in non-League with Tooting and Mitcham and years in the Football League with Reading, Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday and Forest meant he was ready for the challenge.
“Having come through non-League, my body is used to playing this amount of games,” says Antonio. “I told the manager and physio that I am used to playing week in, week out. In the Championship it was Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday. My body did that for seven years before coming to the Premier League.
“Going Thursday-Sunday now, I feel like I am used to it. You don’t train as much, all you do is prepare for games. My body is always able to play in the games.
“I am going for it now. The beginning of the season I was holding back a bit, but as time has gone by I’ve been getting stronger and stronger as the season has gone on. I managed to play 120 [minutes, against Sevilla], then played against Spurs on the Sunday — and there was no complication. These are the things that kept me going and made me believe that my body can be alright.”
Antonio had the support of friends, family and the medical staff at West Ham during those times, but he has worked hard to put them behind him. A tailored gym routine focused on his hamstrings has helped; so, too, after some experimentation, an overhauled diet.
The Jamaican international was previously dogged by hamstring trouble
“I’ve tried to change it multiple times,” he says. “I gave up alcohol, tried to be vegan for a week — I couldn’t do it —but now I don’t eat red meat. It’s just chicken, fish and I have loads of vegetables. Veg is an alkaline and it helps to combat ninflammation in the muscles.”
Those changes are working, and Moyes talks of a more mature player to the one he has worked with in the past.
The Scot now has so much faith in Antonio that he has been confident to turn down signings to support his only striker for more than a year, preferring to stick with him over a gamble in the market.
But their relationship has not always been so straightforward. During Moyes’s first spell at West Ham, he dropped Antonio from a squad after he was late to a team meeting — a clear line in the sand.
“When he came the first time, there was a bit of a fall-out between me and him,” Antonio concedes. “We moved on from that quite quickly and finished the season quite well.
“One thing with the gaffer is that even if you’ve had a falling-out, he will easily forget. You can go in and have a full-on row with each other, but from that row we both respect each other as player and manager.”
That does not mean there is no longer the need for choice words to be exchanged every now and then.
“There are definitely some voices being raised and digging people out,” he says.
“Scary? Yeah. It is needed. People need to be lifted and know if they’re not doing well. That is one thing we get from him and from player to player. Everyone demands the best from each other; the coaching staff and players, we all demand it and we will keep pushing each other.”
That collective drive has taken West Ham to the dizzying heights they are now experiencing and enjoying.
“I have been here a long time and four out of the seven seasons I have been here we’ve been in relegation battles,” says Antonio. “I love that we are looking up, instead of looking back.
“The pressure of relegation is awful. It is a completely different pressure now. It is good pressure, because it shows that we are doing well.”