sport news Joe Aribo didn't make his senior debut until he was 20... now he's flourishing ...

Joe Aribo is Rangers and Nigeria's 24-year-old central midfielder, a mainstay of Steven Gerrard's Scottish title-winning side and figure central to his countries present and future.

And his story makes Aribo even more on top of that. An inspiration to scores of youngsters hoping to make their way in the game.

Proof that the academy route is not the only one into football. Proof that if you believe you can achieve, no matter how unlikely it can at times seem.

Joe Aribo has become a vital cog in Rangers' Premiership-winning side under Steven Gerrard

Joe Aribo has become a vital cog in Rangers' Premiership-winning side under Steven Gerrard

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The midfielder has 17 goals in 88 games since arriving at Ibrox from Charlton in June 2019

The midfielder has 17 goals in 88 games since arriving at Ibrox from Charlton in June 2019

Londoner Aribo was approaching his teens and part of Fulham's Kicks community project when he first dreamed of becoming a professional.

'Seeing Fulham, the team, first-hand, going to the training ground, was just amazing,' Aribo said, reminiscing. 'It was like 'yeah, this is where I want to be playing.' Being close to it, seeing it but not really being in it, you want it more.

'I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to get to a level where I can say I'm a professional footballer.'

Though it was not until Aribo was 19 that he joined his first professional club, Charlton, and 20 that he made his senior debut.

And there were many points before that when Aribo feared such milestone moments would never be reached.

Nowadays, though, he is rubbing shoulders with players he watched growing up like teammate Jermain Defoe, receiving priceless guidance from 'father figure' Gerrard and his No.2 Gary McAllister among others, and has helped Rangers end their long title wait and Celtic's dominance of Scotland's top division.

Avoid defeat in their final three games – starting with Sunday's Old Firm derby – and they will end the league campaign as Invincibles too.

'I honestly thank God,' a grateful Aribo said. 'Without God I don't know where I would be. Sometimes I just literally think 'wow, look at how far you've come' and there are still places you are going to go. This isn't the end of it.'

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Though when he was still playing under-16s Sunday League football, a few years after his informal association with Fulham, Aribo was concerned that it might be the end for his professional hopes.

Aribo first dreamt of playing professionally when he was at Fulham's Kicks community project

Aribo first dreamt of playing professionally when he was at Fulham's Kicks community project

'This was the age where you've got to get into an academy otherwise the dream is fading,' he said.

When that season did not really come to anything 'I thought I might stop playing football because I didn't know where to go next,' he said.

Rather than an academy it was on to Kingston College, where one of his former Sunday League teammates suggested he go on trial at non-league Staines Town who had a tie up with the college.

'I thought 'I've got nothing to lose so I just went there,' Aribo said.

He was successful, impressed in Staines' youth setup, crucially catching the eye of first-team manager and former Wimbledon forward Marcus Gayle.

Following Gayle's final game before he left in December 2014, he and Aribo were part of a dressing room conversation the youngster will never forget.

Staines boss Marcus Gayle believed Aribo could make it - and the dream came true at Charlton

Staines boss Marcus Gayle believed Aribo could make it - and the dream came true at Charlton

'We lost the game 5-3 but I actually played so well and he said, in front of the whole team, 'just make me a promise that you're going to be a professional footballer.' I said 'yeah, I definitely am.'

'We joke about it nowadays but having that in my head made me think 'I've made the promise and I have to back it up.'

Though when things did not go to plan and he was struggling to get in Staines' squad under Gayle's successor, former Reading and Brentford striker Nicky Forster, it was again difficult for Aribo to see how he could.

'At this point I was even going to [South Bank] uni and I thought 'why am I even still playing football?' he said.

'That season came to an end and I actually said to myself, 'you need to start thinking about what you're going to do next because football is not going to work for you.'

'I stopped going to uni because I hated it as well so it was like

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