Sky Sports exclusive: AFC Wimbledon striker Ali Al-Hamadi on leaving Wycombe to become the Dons’ No 9, his stunning year in front of goal, his Premier League ambitions, representing Iraq at the Asian Cup in January and more.
Before he signed for AFC Wimbledon in January, Ali Al-Hamadi had played just 26 games in professional football.
Take away the 13 games he played on loan at National League Bromley in 2021/22 and he had played a grand total of 13 times for Wycombe under Gareth Ainsworth, including just one start in Sky Bet League One.
Now, at the time, he was only 20 and at that point in a young player’s career, minutes are often limited. But Al-Hamadi was hungry and certain he was capable of mixing it with the best on a regular basis.
“I had to go in and have an honest conversation about my playing time, though I recognised there were very good strikers there at the time,” he explains in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports at the Dons’ training ground, just off the A3 in New Malden.
Image: Al-Hamadi signed for AFC Wimbledon in January 2023
- Free-to-watch League Two highlights | League Two table
- Stream the EFL and more with NOW
- Get Sky Sports | Download the Sky Sports App
“There was Brandon Hanlan, Anis Mehmeti was ripping it up at the time and Sam Vokes had been there and done it at the highest level.
“Personally, I thought I was doing everything I could in training and games. That’s what happens in football sometimes; you just have to go and make a decision. I wanted to go and prove myself as the main main.
“When I spoke to the gaffer [Johnnie Jackson] here, I saw the plan they had for me. I can’t say how grateful I am to him because I just needed a manager to really trust in me and my ability. The manager’s trust gives you the confidence and freedom to go and perform to the best of your ability.
Twitter Due to your consent preferences, you’re not able to view this. Open Privacy Options
“That gave me the confidence to go ahead with the move and become the main No 9, which is what every striker wants to do.”
Over the course of the last year, Al-Hamadi – who was born in Iraq, but moved to Liverpool at the age of one after the start of the Iraq War – has proven his own beliefs to be overwhelmingly correct.
After his goal and assist in AFC Wimbledon’s 5-3 win over Colchester on Friday, in 47 games in all competitions for the club, he has scored 26 goals and provided eight assists. It is an astonishing return.
Naturally, he is brimming with confidence.
“I’m very confident – I’d say I’m always confident, to be honest,” the 21-year-old – whose next target is 20 this season – says.
“I think confidence is a choice rather than something based on results and something that I don’t think you should let be determined by other people or what’s happening around you and I’ve always had that in abundance.
Highlights of the Sky Bet League Two match between AFC Wimbledon and Colchester United
“In the period at the start of the season where I wasn’t hitting the back of the net, I was getting in good positions and it didn’t faze me one bit. I knew I was doing the right things, so it was just a matter of one of them going in.
“As a striker, I’d say you need to have a different mindset to others on the pitch as a lot of the time, you are judged on goals as it’s such a numbers-driven game now. But you also have to make sure you perform and, if you’re not scoring, what else are you doing to help the team out in the meantime?”
Al-Hamadi, despite his tender years, is refreshingly mature. He speaks with clarity and sense and, what’s more, he is clearly a team player. Collective, not personal, success is at the forefront of his mind.
“There was a period last season where I was scoring a lot of goals, but it wasn’t really amounting to much on the pitch. Though it was nice to be scoring, I’m not just a young player who is happy to be scoring and get my job done.
“I won the FA Trophy with Bromley and I want to win things in my career. I’ve shifted my mindset and I want to score goals to help the team. It’s nice to see the goals helping us stay higher up in the league and through in cups.
“Every striker wants to lead their team to victories and success and hopefully we get promoted because that’s our target.
“We’ve got a very good group of players. Even in the games this season when we’ve not won or been unfortunate to lose, I’d say we’ve been better than most teams in every game we’ve played.
“I’m really excited. I think the squad is capable of a lot, so it’s just a case of keeping everyone together and hoping for an injury-free season and hoping we can do something special.”
In a matter of days, though, the Dons will lose their star man at a crucial time when he travels to the Asian Cup as part of Jesus Casas’ Iraq squad.
On January 6, the Lions of Mesopotamia take on South Korea in a pre-Asian Cup friendly in the UAE and nine days later, they face Indonesia in their first group match of the tournament in Qatar.
If they go the distance, Al-Hamadi could be away for up to a month.
“The timing is not ideal as it’s the middle of the season and we’re on a play-off push,” he says. “But I’ve got no doubt the boys have got enough to carry on the form we’ve been in.”
It is testament to his talents that he has been part of the senior national team setup since he was 19, having made his debut in a 1-1 draw with Syria in November 2021 – and the value of the honour is not lost on him.
“It’s been massive for me and my family and it’s an honour and a privilege every time I go away with Iraq. I don’t take it for granted as not many people get to play for their country.
Image: The 21-year-old started his professional career at Wycombe
“The country has been through a lot of tough times, so football has always been people’s escape from that world and, for a lot of people, the national team is their only sense of hope.
“You definitely do feel that pressure when you go away and though it’s a nice pressure, it’s also one that carries a lot of weight and you want to be able to live up to it.”
On November 16, he scored the fifth in a 5-1 World Cup qualifying win over Indonesia in front of a crowd over 64,000.
“That was a mad moment, something I’d always dreamed about. You’d have to experience it to know what I’m talking about.
Iraq's Asian Cup group stage fixtures
- Indonesia vs Iraq – January 15, 2.30pm UK time
- Iraq vs Japan – January 19, 11.30am UK time
- Iraq vs Vietnam – January 24, 11.30am UK time
“The energy and the intensity of the fans over there is… I don’t think I can even describe it.”
He suggests playing on the international stage has been the catalyst to such a blistering start to his professional career.
“When I was at Wycombe – and towards the end of my time as Swansea – game time was limited, but when I went away with Iraq I was able to deal with the quality and the speed of play.
“It just gave me the arrogance – in a good way – to come back and say I was ready to play. It’s always helped me and been something that’s aided my career.”
Image: Al-Hamadi made his senior Iraq debut in November 2021
Whether it is playing in front of an energised home crowd in Basra or as the main man in front of 8,000 at Plough Lane, Al-Hamadi is equally as comfortable.
The ability to perform at both levels – or “in two different worlds”, as he says – will no doubt make him a very attractive prospect for teams higher up the footballing pyramid. Time is very much on his side, too.
“For me, the sky is the limit,” he adds. “I want to play in the Premier League; I want to play as high as I possibly can. These are the things I visualise and what keep me going every day when I’m working hard.”
AFC Wimbledon fans will just be hoping to have him come back, pick up where he left off and guide them to promotion before there is any more talk about that.