Town’s in-form forward Sam Folarin believes a licence to express himself has been key to his strong start to the season. This start has saw Town’s number 12 elevate himself to become one of the first name’s on Simon Weaver’s team sheet.
Reflecting on his time with the club so far, Folarin said: “Last season was my first playing in front of a crowd and that is a completely different experience for me. There is more of a mental challenge there because there is a group of people that are doing everything they can to see their side win.
“I was coming back from injury when I signed, I hadn’t enjoyed the best of loan spell and I was low in confidence. The gaffer and Thirs are great people to work with. They showed faith in me from the first day I walked in.
“They’ve told me that they want me to excite fans and hearing that gave me that confidence to prove what I have. I am grateful for that faith from them to give me that freedom.
“It was a tough end to the season last year. We were playing to stay out of a relegation fight. I remember I got a start against Walsall and as I walked down the tunnel I was thinking that it’s now or never for me.
“That was a good win and I scored to help the team, that was a great feeling and from there I felt like I started to show what I was capable of.”
In discussing this ‘now or never’ mindset, Folarin revealed this is something which grew on him after signing for non-league side Tooting & Mitcham United.
“When I was younger, I definitely played football for fun. I always had a few people telling me that I was good enough to make a career. However, I still didn’t really take it all that seriously.
“That is probably why it took some time for me to make it to the professional game. Going to Tooting & Mitcham, the coaches there helped me to get my head screwed on.
“I’m forever grateful to the coaches I worked with there. They changed my mind set and helped me stay on the path which got me to where I am today.
“It was in my second season there, I was speaking to my coaches and in that I recognised that I could potentially change my parents life by playing football.”
While enjoying life in South London, the forward believed it was time to head further afield in pursuit of this aim.
“I had a trial at that age with Millwall who were my local team. I didn’t really enjoy it there and didn’t finish the trial. I was also at Reading for a couple of weeks. For me, the distance between London and Reading was just too much.
“I really enjoyed living in South London. However, if you have the chance to better yourself, you don’t want to stay in the same place for the rest of your life. That motivation drove me and still does to this day.
“Knowing that those chances had been and gone, in that second season with Tooting & Mitcham it definitely felt like it was now or never. I remember speaking to a Chelsea scout after one of our games that season.
“Obviously, I wasn’t offered a trial there but he pulled me aside and gave me words of encouragement. He reiterated the fact that I could have a career from football and that kind of shocked me.”
As Folarin began to find his way in the game, the then midfielder quickly realised an attribute which very few could match, his pace.
Looking back on his earlier career, the 23-year-old believes this gave him confidence to stand out from the crowd.
“I think I was about 11 when I realised just how quick I was. I was playing in central midfield for my district and I would get the ball from deep and drive forward.
“That definitely gave me confidence. Every time I have gone up a level, I’ve believed that no one at that level can match me for pace.
“Having pace, you go out knowing it’s going to be a bit of a mental game there as well. Your opponent is always going to try and stop you but I always have belief that eventually I will get my opportunity.
“When that time comes, you’re either through on goal or have an opportunity to make something happen.”
Having set out to forge a career with Tooting & Mitcham United, Folarin soon crossed paths with someone who he would later share a professional dressing room with.
When asked about Abraham Odoh, the winger believes Town’s number 9 added to the belief he had in achieving his ambitions.
“It’s crazy how things like that come around. Abraham was playing for the first-team there and I was playing for the U23 side. Seeing him have trials with Charlton and the likes gave me even more belief.
“I watched him and knew that I was capable of achieving that as well. To be back on the same team now is crazy. We knew each other when we were starting out and now we are playing together at this level it’s strange how these things work out.”
Soon, the offer of a two-week trial with Middlesbrough would arrive and in making the long trip North, Folarin wouldn’t look back.
“I was there for a two week trial and being that far away from home was a bit of a struggle to be honest. I was living in Darlington and didn’t know the area so that was a culture shock.
“When I signed permanently, I knew it was a sacrifice to leave home but it was one which I was willing to make. The first year I was homesick and used to go home a little bit.
“After a while, I was able to adapt to it and within our group, there was team mates who were from London and in a similar situation to me and that definitely brought a bit of home feeling.
“Comparing non-league to playing at Middlesbrough, there was so much more to the game than just talent. Making the move improved my understanding of the game, the manager gave me more responsibility and it was a lot to learn.
“Physically too, going into full-time football my body felt like it was in bits at first. It’s not an easy thing to go from playing part-time to doing it every day. There was a difficult transition because I was training from Monday to Sunday but it was a bigger picture than that
“I was young and learning how to be a professional away from the pitch too. I wasn’t just turning up and playing football, I was learning how to prepare both mentally and physically to be at my very best all the time.
“I managed to train a couple of times with the first-team as well, the manager at the time was Neil Warnock and he gave me a couple of opportunities to play during the covid season and that was great.
“That was another step up in quality. Every training session felt like a match setting because everyone involved was so desperate to play.”
The winger wouldn’t have to wait long before he was given his debut for Boro and soon after scored his first goal for the club.
“That covid season was definitely tough away from the pitch. I was living in Darlington and because of restrictions, I couldn’t go home. That was probably more of a mental challenge but I had to stay strong and make sure it didn’t affect my football.
“During that season, I made my debut for the club in the Carabao Cup against Barnsley. Obviously, there was no supporters in the stadium and my family couldn’t come to the game so that was hard.
“Without the fans, the game just felt like another U21 game because there was no atmosphere. I actually think my League Two debut last year felt better because I was playing in front of fans.”
“I started the match on the bench and just before half-time there was an injury and I got brought on to play. It was a surreal feeling because within 10 minutes of coming on I had scored which felt great.
“I couldn’t believe that I had scored, even after the game got going again I felt like I was in a bit of a day dream but unfortunately we lost the tie so it was a bit of mixed emotions.”
With momentum on his side, Town’s number 12 was keen to captialise on these experiences by heading out on loan. However, fate would ensure this was not to be.
“After that, there was a chance that I could have gone out on loan to play regularly. However, for whatever reason, it didn’t happen in the January transfer window.
“I was playing with the U23s and waiting for the summer window. It was always in the plans to go out on loan from that but unfortunately towards the end of the season I picked up an injury.
“That stopped me from playing for four or five months. I ruptured the ligament in my ankle and that meant I couldn’t get out and play somewhere.”
“It was probably one of the toughest spells of my career so far. I was desperate to play and eventually got myself back fit. However, about eight weeks later, I picked up another ligament injury in my other ankle.
“That stopped me from playing for about a month. However, thankfully I got back just in time for the January transfer window. A couple of weeks later, I ended up joining Queen of the South on loan in Scotland.
“Looking back, I still feel like I was trying to overcome the injury so it wasn’t the best of times. I didn’t play very often and it was a completely different ball game up there. It was a very physical level, I found it hard to stay fit but it was a spell which I learned a lot from.”
Having returned to Teeside, the forward would soon be on the move once again. However, this time permanently and looking back to the Deadline Day deal, Folarin recalls the hectic nature of the transfer.
“I went back to Middlesbrough and knew I needed a fresh challenge. I went from academy football to men’s football which is one of the biggest steps forward you can take.
“I heard of the interest but it was a late one on deadline day. The later it got, the more I began to think that I would be staying at Middlesbrough. I remember I was playing Xbox with my mates at 6 and I got a phone call from my agent.
“He told me of the interest and the fact that the club wanted to sign me permanently. That was a tough decision to make in less than an hour but life is about taking risks and looking where I am today, I am really pleased with the choice I made.”
A year on, Folarin believes the support of the club’s backroom staff has given him a platform to improve so far this season.
“I was trying to make sure I came back from pre-season stronger than last season. We play a lot of games over the course of a season and it’s about being as fit for as many of them as is possible.
“It’s been a good start to the season for me. I haven’t played up front very often but playing that role I am learning all the time about myself. I took a lot of confidence from the Carlisle game because they are a League One side.
“We are doing a lot of work away from the pitch too. Ben our S&C Coach is helping me to make sure I’m eating and fueling my body properly. Rachel & Emily are our physios and they are always testing our strengths every week and helping us to stay in the best possible shape.
“With a lot of competition for places, it’s important that we do the small things to make sure that we stay at the top of our game and show the coaches what we can do in training.”