William Troost-Ekong's Premier League dream coming true after years of graft

William Troost-Ekong will make his long-awaited debut in the Premier League this weekend, when Watford go up against Aston Villa, and the Nigeria defender is keen to prove himself in England's top division.

He has taken a roundabout route to making his oft-stated dream come true, via eight years of football in Holland, Belgium, Norway, Turkey, and Italy.

In that time, Troost-Ekong helped Dordrecht secure promotion to the Dutch top flight, represented Holland at under 19 and under 20 levels, made his international debut for Nigeria, played at the Africa Cup of Nations, won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Rio, and competed at the World Cup in 2018.

Still, his dream of playing in the Premier League remained out of reach. Then he signed with Watford in September 2020, finally playing in the right country to realise his ambitions.

Troost-Ekong, who was pivotal to the Hornets' promotion campaign, told ESPN: "It took me all these years just to get to where I wanted to be.

"Now the biggest challenges ahead of me is actually playing in the Premier League and hopefully enjoying myself here. Because that's something that I have wanted to do all my life.

"It has taken having a lot of perseverance to get here. And now, I feel like I'm just getting started."

It is one thing, of course, to get in the Premier League. Staying there is a completely different kettle of fish.

Last time the Hornets were in the top flight they lasted five seasons, from 2015 to 202, their longest stint in the Premier League era. Their best stint in the top division was when they spent six seasons in the old First Division between 1982 and 1988.

Despite the increasing gap between rich and not-so-rich clubs, the ambition this time is much the same, according to the Nigerian.

He said: "Being in the Premier League, we want to stay in the Premier League. That should be everyone's main aiming point, everyone's main target.

"After that, we'll see what happens. And staying in the Premier League is my personal goal with Watford. Of course, the better we can do, the better."

To meet those ambitions, Watford have added aggressively to their squad, including bringing in a slew of fellow Nigerians as fortification. International team mates Oghenekaro Etebo and Emmanuel Denis, along with junior international Tom Dele-Bashiru, have been signed.

Despite those additions, which also include the likes of Danny Rose and Josh King, Watford have not exactly enjoyed a happy pre-season. With just days to the start of the season, things haven't gone very smoothly for the team.

They have lost each of their three pre-season games against Premier league opposition, the last being a 3-1 loss at Crystal Palace.

Not to be discouraged, Troost-Ekong says the young side has a strong desire to prove critics wrong: "For any team that gets promoted from the Championship to the Premier league, they need some quality injections, and we have those.

"The good thing about the team we have now is that it is relatively young and we have a lot of players that are hungry to prove themselves in the Premier League, of which I am probably one of them, if not the most keen to prove myself.

"So we have a real great amount of desire which I think is going to count for the season."

Beyond Watford, Ekong is also thrilled about the performances of Nigerian players in Europe last season.

Paul Onuachu emerged top scorer in Belgium, while Victor Osimhen overcame a bad start to finish the Serie A season strongly for Napoli. He has carried on from there in pre-season, already getting his goal tally started.

Kelechi Iheanacho was a player reborn at Leicester City last season and carried on this season when he scored the winning goal to hand the Foxes the Community Shield over his former club Manchester City.

For Troost-Ekong, it is a sign that Nigerian players are making huge progress as they prepare to make another run at the World Cup.

"It's a really exciting time to be part of the Super Eagles," he said. "We've got a healthy rivalry between the players that are playing for the same positions within the team.

"Everyone wants to make sure that they are contributing and holding their own. And I think there's so much credit due to Paul, Kelechi, Victor, and all of the boys, in all the top leagues in Europe.

"They have all had their moments where people have questioned them. And I can remember that maybe only two years ago, there was a lot of conversation about who's going to score the goals for Nigeria.

"And here we are, we've got goals coming from every angle. So yeah, it's all credit to the boys. I think that's one of the most exciting things about this team, that I'm really happy to be part of.

"We have a lot of young players who are really eager to prove themselves and they have the best part of their career still ahead of them."