The Journey Home

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Sometimes people think that I appeared out of nowhere.

One day I was suddenly a Crystal Palace starter and then the next I’m at Manchester United, just like that.

That’s not how it happened, obviously.

Maybe because I’m kinda quiet and reserved, people get that impression from the outside. It all seemed like an overnight success.

I’m fine with people making assumptions about me, to be honest. That all comes with fame. People can think I’m shy, or whatever. Those who know me, like really know me, know I’m not like that.

There’s a lot you don’t know about Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

So, let me tell you about the journey that made me who I am today.

Train, Tram, Bus

The place where I grew up, New Addington, Croydon, there’s literally only one exit, which is the same way you came in. It makes it feel kinda like … trapped somehow, you know?

It’s a place where it’s easy to get lost. It’s not the richest area, but it’s also alive, friendly, active. There’s this great community spirit. You never feel left out.

It’s also a place where it’s easy to fall in love with football. I played nonstop growing up, for real.

Inside, outside, garden, street, school, park, cages. Anywhere, really.

More than anywhere else, there’s this green in front of my parents’ old house. We would play there all the time. Twenty of us or more, older lot as well, split into teams of 10 on 10, just playing til the sun went down.

It wasn’t the best. Sometimes they didn’t cut the grass and it would get so long. You could find anything in that grass, I swear! Money, dog poo. We used to just play on, whatever.

To us it was Wembley.

And I was Thierry Henry.

He was my hero growing up. He had that skill, that flair. Back then I was a striker. I was the goalscorer. I didn’t learn how to defend until much later. All that lot back on the green can vouch.

I even wore number 14 at my club because of Henry.

Courtesy of Aaron Wan-Bissaka
Courtesy of Aaron Wan-Bissaka

No one was more skillful than me back then ... except maybe my older brother, Kevin.

He was the one who really got me into football. I literally followed him around, wanting to do everything he did. Honestly, he’s one of the reasons why I’m where I am today.

When we weren’t on the green together, we would draw goals with chalk in front of our house and just play one on one, end to end, shooting on each other, practising tricks, until our parents called us in.

I think he could see from like seven, eight years old that I had something. That I could already do the things he was doing, you know? I was like his younger version.

I think the whole neighborhood could see it.

Most importantly of all though, my dad saw it.

Let me tell you a little bit about my dad, Ambroise.

He and my mum arrived in England not long before I was born. They actually had Kevin in Germany and, before that, they spent some time in the Netherlands. They’ve moved around a lot, but they come from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At home we speak a mix of French and English. To be honest though, my French ain’t great and their English ain’t always great either, but when we don’t know the word in one language we use the other!

My dad in particular was strict with me growing up. Back then I used to think he just wanted to control me, to annoy me, to stop me having fun, innit. I was stubborn as a kid. I didn’t always listen.

But the truth is he sacrificed a lot.

From when I was five years old until I was 11, my dad used to take me and my brother to academy training after school four times a week.

He worked as a cleaner — both my parents did — and he would sometimes have to leave work early just to take us. He didn’t even have a car then, nah.

This was: Train. Tram. Bus.

All packed with commuters and school kids. Sometimes the drivers wouldn’t even let us on because it was too full. Then after that, there was a walk to the pitch behind Bethlem Royal Hospital, where we would play.

I was stubborn as a kid. I didn’t always listen. But the truth is he sacrificed a lot.Aaron Wan-Bissaka

All in all, it was nearly two hours each way.

But my dad would do it with us, rain or shine.

It was tiring for me after school, imagine for him!

He would do it to make sure we went, to make sure we’d eaten, that we had a drink, that we had our boots and kit.

Training was 6–8 p.m., and the other parents would wait in their cars, or drive off and come back. Not my dad, though. He would stand watch and wait. Sometimes in the freezing cold. He couldn’t leave even if he wanted to. Like, where would he go?

Then we’d repeat it all to get back home. Cold, sweaty, hungry.

Those journeys, they stay with you.

That’s sacrifice.

And to be honest, I didn’t fully appreciate that until later on.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pay my parents back for what they did for me back then, but I’ll always try.

Courtesy of Aaron Wan-Bissaka
Courtesy of Aaron Wan-Bissaka

Once things really took off, one of the first things I did was to buy them a new family home. Something that they could enjoy, that they deserved, you know?

I wanted them to know that my success was theirs and that what they gave up for both me and my brother was worth it.

I’d like to tell you that my parents’ commitment and hard work influenced me from a young age ... but it wasn’t like that. After I was picked up by Palace, there was a period where I started getting slack. Things could’ve gone different.

You know what it’s like when you’re 14, 15 years old. You meet people at school and you want to mess about, because it looks fun.

I started to not take training too serious. Sometimes, I’d skip it even and I stopped paying attention to my diet. Chicken shop after school, all of that.

I don’t blame no one for getting me involved, it’s just the crowd, innit? They weren't in my position with football, so they could do whatever. I kinda got dragged in and I admit, I enjoyed it.

But as I said, where I lived, it was kinda trapped. From just messing about, it was easy to follow the crowd and get involved in other stuff. Let’s just say ... more negative stuff.

I’ve seen plenty of people drop off that way, talented players.

It’s because of my dad that I’m not one of them. He stopped me from taking a different journey.

From just messing about, it was easy to follow the crowd and get involved in other stuff. Let’s just say ... more negative stuff.Aaron Wan-Bissaka

Nobody at Palace told me anything direct, but they spoke to my dad and hinted that this could be my last season, that I wasn’t putting the effort in.

That hurt him.

After all the work he’d put in for me, all the support, the sacrifice, and I wasn’t matching it now when I had this amazing opportunity. I was throwing it away.

He stopped me seeing friends he didn’t like, people from the wrong crowd. He would chase me, if he found out I was skipping training. Like literally chase me and make me go!

Most of all though, I remember after that conversation with the club, he sat down with me and told me what was up. This wasn’t a lecture. He just explained the situation. He’d never talked that way to me before.

I felt his pain.

From that moment I knew I had to fix up.

Even after I got my attitude right at Palace, it took time before I really got noticed.

Earlier in the 2017–18 season before I made my debut, I was still just a 20-year-old winger with the Under-23s. I was the oldest one there. Everyone else my age had either moved up or moved out already. I felt that I was outgrowing it. I needed a new challenge.

I was desperate for a chance.

The first team used to bring us lot in from the younger groups to fill up the numbers, a bit like mannequins. That’s how I first got noticed as a right back. One day they needed someone filling that position and I don’t know why but they chose me.

I didn’t complain. It was a chance to get involved. Just like on the green, I’ll play anywhere.

We started doing one of those small-sided games, and opposite me, the man I was marking was Wilfried Zaha.

Wilf is obviously one of the best wingers in the Premier League. He used to just skip past players for fun. Made it look so easy. Still does.

But maybe it’s because I was a winger too, I just knew which way he wanted to go. I could kinda read his mind. We kept battling. Him trying to go one way, me showing him the other. I was actually challenging him.

The coaches and the other players were egging me on, giving me praise. Trust me, it’s not always like that when the young kids get called up with the firsts.

After a while, even Wilf told me, “Give it a rest! Go to the other side of the pitch, yeah?”

That’s when I think they started to notice me. Not as the next Thierry Henry or a tricky winger, but as a tough-tackling fullback.

After that session, I spoke to my Under-23s coach about switching positions. He didn’t like it at first but he agreed. For me, it was about doing anything that would get me closer to the first team!

By January 2018, I was training with the first team regularly as a fullback. I’d been on tour and preseason. But I was still only playing Under-23s.

I was getting frustrated.

Marc Atkins/Offside/Getty Images
Marc Atkins/Offside/Getty Images

During the transfer window, I asked to go out on loan and get some experience. I didn’t want another year of the same old on repeat. Roy Hodgson even called me in on my day off. There were two days left of the window. I was sure he was gonna say yes. He wouldn’t call me in for no reason. I got excited, not gonna lie.

But he just told me, “No.” That was it. To make matters worse, he even made me train on my day off!

I was pissed.

What was he keeping me around for??

Then a few weeks later, we had Tottenham on the Saturday. We were training as normal on the Friday before the coach put the squad up.

We had a bit of an injury crisis and I had counted the room and realised I actually had a decent chance of making the bench. There were only 17 players available and no one else from the Under-23s was as close to the first team as me.

I was like, “Nah, that spot has got to be mine.”

I read the squad sheet from the bottom up.

I look at the subs ... I’m not there, but two other Under-23s are.

My heart sank, man.

I was like, is he taking the piss?!

...

Then I get a tap.

“Congratulations!”

“Congrats man!”

“Congrats!”

Huh?

I look at the subs ... I’m not there, but two other Under-23s are.Aaron Wan-Bissaka

That’s when I saw it. Right there in the starting XI. Right back.

AARON WAN-BISSAKA

First thing I can think is ... Wan-Bissaka? It looked weird. Growing up I was never Wan-Bissaka. I was just Aaron Bissaka.

I had a new position and a new identity.

The day of the game itself was mad.

Right before kick off, I remember waiting with Damien Delaney.

He knew it was my debut and was just encouraging me, telling me standard stuff like, “You’ve been waiting for this. Just play without fear and you'll be alright. Play safe.”

One thing that stuck with me though. He told me, “After this game, everything will change for you. Your whole life will change.

“Friends will want you to come out, just to rebuild friendships that have broken up. People start trying to sell you things. The media will be on you.

“Everyone just wants you.”

I didn't believe it at the time, but he was right.

In that narrow tunnel at Selhurst Park, I was just facing forward, thinking about Delaney’s advice. I said a prayer. I was nervous, man. I hate the waiting.

I remember thinking, “This is gonna be a long game. The fitness ain’t gonna be nothing like the Under-23s.” This was Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Son….

As we stepped out of the tunnel I just took in the whole stadium, 25,000 people, the noise, the colour ... I've never experienced anything like that. That’s when I realised: This is it. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for.

William Early/Getty Images
William Early/Getty Images

The next thing I remember was that first tackle. It was on Ben Davies. He came driving forward towards me with the ball.

But he didn’t know about the length of my legs. Back then no one did.

I lunged in, took it off him and we broke on the counter.

The crowd roared like I’d scored a goal. They were backing me!

We lost the game 1–0, but I played well. I’d made my debut as a Premier League footballer.

My dad messaged me after the game.

“This is where it starts.”

The Passport

The first thing you notice at Manchester United is how big everything is.

I remember when I went up to sign the contract at the training ground in the summer of 2019, we just kept driving past farms and woodlands, like middle of nowhere. I’m thinking like, “Where are we? What is this?”

Then suddenly there it was and I ain’t seen anything like it before … the pitches, the buildings, the size of everything. It’s on another level. Everywhere you go you see the club’s history, with pictures and references to players, trophies, success from before.

It’s massive. The biggest club in the world.

It didn’t kick in at first. I’d only made my Palace debut not that long ago.

I’m not gonna lie, I was nervous about the move. Was I ready? I felt like I had unfinished business at Palace, that they could still help develop me, before I moved on. I had always planned on staying longer.

After being so eager to break into the first team, this felt like such a jump to a new life away from home, away from my parents and my family.

I felt like I had unfinished business at Palace, that they could still help develop me, before I moved on.Aaron Wan-Bissaka

But … it’s Manchester United.

These offers don’t come around every day, you know what I’m saying?

If you say no, you might never get another chance. United tend to sign players for the long haul. They might not need another right back for a long time.

After I signed, I went on holiday to Ibiza for a few days with some friends to relax, before the transfer was officially announced.

I celebrated out there once it was all public, but it still hadn’t sunk in…. “I’m a Manchester United player now?”

But the biggest reality check actually happened shortly after, when my passport went missing.

The next day, I had to leave Ibiza to meet up with the squad for the first time and fly out to Australia for the preseason tour.

This was the first time I would meet my teammates. The first time I would represent United. My first day of work, basically.

But my passport was gone.

Just gone.

I started to panic. I searched the villa everywhere. I was just thinking, “How is this gonna work? I gotta be in Australia on Sunday! I haven’t even met my teammates yet…. What kind of first impression is this!”

In the end, my agent called United and explained what had happened. Let’s just say … they had my back. I don’t know how, but they sorted it.

Within a day – a day – they got me a new passport.

That’s Manchester United, I guess!

When I finally did meet up with the squad. I was worried they might look down on me, you know, coming from a “smaller” team. This is the club of Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, David de Gea. Superstars.

But really it was the opposite.

Everyone was so nice and welcoming, making sure I was O.K.

I struck up a bond with guys like Axel Tuanzebe, he’s from the Congo too and he helped me a lot at the beginning. So did players like Marcus, Mason and Brandon. There’s a good group of boys around my age. We’re close. There’s also plenty of French speakers in the dressing room. I just need to learn Spanish now!

I didn’t have to wait as long for my United debut.

It was 11 August 2019. Manchester vs. Chelsea at Old Trafford.

Chloe Knott/Danehouse/Getty Images
Chloe Knott/Danehouse/Getty Images

That whole day was a dream come true. I remember it hitting me that these are the kinda teams my brother and I would pick first on FIFA ... except I’m playing in it in real life!

At United, the shirts in the dressing room go in order of position, so mine was there hanging between De Gea and Lindelöf. Number 29, WAN-BISSAKA. It’s still surreal.

It took me back to my Palace debut 18 months before and everything that led up to this moment.

Those long journeys with my dad.

Switching to right back.

The talk with Delaney.

Just like at Selhurst Park, I’ll admit the nerves kicked in as I stood in the tunnel. But once I’m out on the pitch, I’m not nervous at all. I’m not shy. I never have been really.

The moment I step out, I just focus on my game, it’s like I just know what I need to do. I might as well be back on the green in New Addington again playing with my mates and dodging dog poo.

We beat Chelsea 4–0.

It was a great attacking performance, but for me getting that clean sheet meant everything.

The feeling of 70,000 cheering you make a tackle, singing your name is … honestly, I can’t put it into words.

The only way I can describe it is to say, I feel like I’ve made it.

I feel like I’m home.