'I'm more proud of them than I am of myself' - Joe Willock interview
Written by Tom Easterby
His electric form last season helped make Joe Willock a popular permanent addition to the Newcastle United squad in the summer. It has been a tough start to his first full campaign at the club, but the 22-year-old is not lacking in self-belief. He sat down with UNITED, the club’s official matchday programme, for this interview ahead of Saturday’s visit of Chelsea…
The shop was in Crouch End and it belonged to Charles and Sarah Willock. It was a clothing store, a popular one, on Crouch Hill. Their youngest son, Joe, remembers its name: Under Grace. He is 22 now and the passing of time has made the circumstances of his parents’ sacrifice clearer in his mind. "They were really persistent on letting us live our dreams. They sacrificed so much, you know, my father and mother," he explains. "We had a retail shop and they gave it up when we were about five, six and seven, just to follow our dreams. They stopped working and gave everything to us at such a tender age.
"It's paid off, but I'm looking back at it now and it's just crazy to think that they did that. It's such a massive sacrifice for us to live out our dreams."
Newcastle United’s latest recruit has three siblings: Matty of Salford City, Chris of Queens Park Rangers and Candice, an older sister. It was apparent to their parents even in the early 2000s, when the boys were barely of primary school age, that they had talents that could take them a distance – and that would mean that they, too, would need to travel that distance alongside them.
"When you're young you don't understand, so I just thought, 'mum and dad are big into football, they sold their shop'. But when I got older, I realised that that's a crazy sacrifice to do for something that they didn't actually know the ending of," says Willock. "They put their full belief in us. It's something that I can only say thank you to my parents for.
"I'm from Walthamstow, East London. Not the best area. Mum and dad had to be there to take us to training every day. We couldn’t really travel on our own, and sort of just be out on our own."
The money from the sale of Under Grace helped with the practicalities of supporting three young sons, who all became Arsenal players while still infants. This summer, Joe became the last of the three to leave the Emirates Stadium when he moved to St. James' Park permanently. Those formative days shaped the calm, placid young man he is but it is Charles and Sarah's gentle help he speaks most affectionately of.
"It came to a point where my mum and dad had done everything for us for, like, so many years – I don't know how many, five to six to seven maybe. Then mum got a little cleaning job, and she was going from cleaning in the morning, dropping us at school, cleaning all day, picking us up and taking us to matches, then waiting for us, taking us to training and then taking us home," he explains. "We didn't have a car back then, so we used to just walk and do that every day.
"When you're younger, you're only in three times a week, but because there was three of us we were in every day. When I wasn't in, my brother was in. We all played for Arsenal, so we were all in, every day. Seven days a week, my mum and dad were doing that.
"Mum got that job while doing that, and my dad used to do night shifts. He'd take us home from training, then he used to go out to work and work for Tesco, doing night shifts, deliveries. And then do it all again, week-in, week-out for years."
Willock celebrates scoring against Sheffield United during his loan spell with the Magpies in 2020/21
It has all been worth it in the end. All three brothers are professional, the only trio of siblings all playing in the top four leagues in England. Willock is a "strong believer in God" and frequently refers to himself as blessed, admissibly so. But of late there have been tests, the likes of which he had yet to face in his short career to date.
"I mean, obviously it's been difficult for the team. There's a lot of things going on in the background, with the new transition we're making," he says. "Personally, I've found it difficult, really, to play at the level I want to play at. But I feel like we're sticking together and trying to work hard every day to push on."
Why has he found it difficult to reach the heights that became expected of him after his blistering loan spell earlier this year? "I'm not sure. I'm not really a person who has excuses. I know what I can do and I know I'm going to show what I can do, you know, and help the team in every possible way.
"There's so many different factors in football – there's a lot of things going on. As a team, we're not really playing how we were last season, or at the back end of last season, so that's a big factor. Also, I've had a few problems with my injuries, and not having a pre-season has really affected me with getting to the fitness levels I play at. My game's really based on having a high fitness level, to be able to get from box to box and create chances."
"I'm not really a person who has excuses. I know what I can do and I know I'm going to show what I can do."
Willock's seven goals in the final seven games of his loan spell helped transform Newcastle last term. They became a different team with him in the line-up, or coming off the bench; more energetic, more probing, more alive. The natural result of that was that when he returned on a permanent basis in August, the same impact was anticipated. Winless so far and without a goal since his return to the club, it is a trying set of circumstances he finds himself in.
"To be honest with you, I know what I can do, you know? I always believe in myself," he says. "I never once doubted myself to show what I can do. When expectation is high of me, I understand that, and I relish that. I know that I've got a lot to bring and I'm going to bring it.
"I try to take everything in my stride. It's not something where I looked at it and thought, 'oh, I've got a lot of pressure on me' and stuff. It is what it is. I try to take everything in my stride and do everything I can do to help the team."
He says he is adept at taking that narrow view, on focusing on the pressing rather than the peripheral, and undoubtedly there have been mitigating factors. A disrupted pre-season amid speculation about his future, a bout of COVID-19 and a persistent toe injury requiring regular injections may all have contributed to a clunky start to 2021/22 yet he speaks – very softly, quietly – of retaining self-belief.
"I have my goals. I have my goals that I want to reach and feel I'm more than capable of reaching. Just small little goals," he shrugs.
"But I don't try to put too much expectation on myself. I try to just believe in myself. In the past I've put expectations on myself and I feel like when you don't meet them, it gets you more down than you were before. I feel like it is good, sometimes, to have those goals, just so you know what you're trying to reach for."
Willock's last start came at the dawn of a new era for the club, against Spurs at St. James’ earlier this month. "It was crazy, man," he shakes his head, with a smile. "Our fans are the best in the world, you know. That just shows how much of a massive club Newcastle is, the history that we have and the fans here… it shows how much they support us. We can only say thank you for coming and showing so much support week-in, week-out. Hopefully we can give them something back, man. Hopefully we can start to give them something back, because that's what they deserve.
"This team… we have that amazing fanbase and that history. We want to give back to the fans what they deserve so much. If we can get there, if the team can get to where we can and where we were in the past, it would be an amazing place to be.
"When the takeover came about, there was sort of a vibrant feel, excitement and that, going through the dressing room. We all felt that this was something that needed to happen for the club and for the fans. I think it's given us a bit of an extra push. You saw it in the first 20 minutes of the Tottenham game, and even at Crystal Palace – we came away with a draw, but we all stuck in together. Previously, we've collapsed in those sort of situations."
Willock lining up alongside midfield partners Sean Longstaff and Isaac Hayden. "I never once doubted myself to show what I can do. When expectation is high of me, I understand that, and I relish that."
There is an obvious elephant in the room to address despite all the talk of positives, of building and pushing on, and that is that none of those things are reflected by the table. The win remains elusive and Willock admits talk of it is pretty redundant until it is secured. "We need to start winning games. I feel like I need to start helping the team to win more games, you know. And I feel like I can do that. The team has a brilliant set of staff members and players to do that, so when it clicks, it's going to click. Hopefully we can push on when it does."
Chris' QPR host Nottingham Forest in the Championship on Friday night and Matty's Salford face Exeter City in League Two this afternoon. Joe constantly speaks with them, "every day," he nods. "They're my best friends. We're always pushing each other. They play at competitive levels, and they're all trying to push on like me.
"It's good, especially when things are not going how you want them to go all the time in football. I have that sort of, that..." he takes a moment to think of the best word. "Space – where I can go to with my brothers and we can speak about it, you know. It's really good for me mentally, and I'm blessed to have that.
"To have two brothers who play football and do the same job as me – that's very rare. I try to use it all that I can, we try to bounce off each other, watch each other's matches and give each other advice. It sort of keeps me sane, really. I don't know what I'd do without them."
There was one game, in 2017, which saw all three share the same pitch. Joe and Chris lined up for Arsenal's under-23s while Matty, then of Manchester United, faced them. Charles and Sarah were in the crowd at the Emirates on what must have been a strange yet rewarding evening. It was a neat marker; the end of the trio's journey into the game, which owed much to their parents' selflessness, and the start of the 'real' stuff in the harsh and fluctuating sphere of professional football.
"I'm so proud, man. When I've got older I've realised how much it took to get to this point," says Willock. "When you're younger, you don't really understand – you think, 'I'm going to play football, go straight to the first team, that's how it goes', you know? You don't really realise.
"But when I watch my brothers and I see them play, I'm just so proud of them, man, because there's so many other boys who didn't make the cut. It's not easy to become a professional footballer. I'm just so proud of them really. I'm more proud of them than I am of myself."
The Willock brothers - Joe, Matty and Chris - pose for a family photo after that game between Arsenal and Manchester United Under-23s in May 2017
"When expectation is high of me, I understand that, and I relish that. I know that I've got a lot to bring and I'm going to bring it."