Not many can say they have had a tougher route to professional football than Tom Bolarinwa but the forward has just enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career with Sutton United having returned from four years in Thailand only a few years ago.
The 28-year-old was forced to fend for himself in London alongside his brother, Hull City defender Moses Odubajo, from the age of 15 after the passing of their mother. The pair lived on Bolarinwa’s wage from Barnet but the brothers have gone from strength to strength since. Whilst Odubajo was receiving a call-up to the England U20 side, his older sibling was scoring goals in Thailand.
“I literally was working and playing football part time and I received a phone call from my agent asking if i wanted to play abroad full time in Thailand,” he says. “So I snapped up the opportunity to develop as a full time footballer.”
The winger had started his career with Barnet before dropping into non-league football with Dulwich Hamlet, Croydon Athletic, Billericay Town and Kingstonian. In 2011, he was given a second chance in professional football by Muangthong United, the side which Robbie Fowler had just signed for.
However, despite spending four years in Thailand, Bolarinwa never played for Muangthong as he was loan out on four separate occasions to teams across the Thai football pyramid.
“I wouldn’t call it a big step up up because I always felt it was different to English football,” he says. “It was not as physical or quick as English football but it was a lot more technical to what I was used to in the Ryman Premier League at the time. It was a really big learning curve for me.
“Funny enough, I did pick up the language as well and it’s always stuck with me!”
Bolarinwa’s first loan spell came with second-tier side Suphanburi before spells at fourth-tier clubs Nonthanburi and Nakhon Nayok before finishing his spell with third-tier club Udon Thani. Despite the varying levels he played at, the winger is the first to say how much the Thai love their football.
“Football is such a big thing out there and the amount of fans clubs had were like 6,000 per game. Being away from the club you were always bound to be noticed.”
After a successful spell in Asia where he counts himself as lucky to always receive his full wages on time, the winger was looking for a move back home after watching his brother’s progress from a distance.
“I always felt that once I was a lot more confident in my ability, I’d like to give English football another try and seeing my younger brother progress through the leagues whilst I was in Thailand tempted me even more to want to play in England again.”
Odubajo had moved from Leyton Orient to Brentford and then on to Hull City commanding total transfer fees of over £4 million during his older brother’s time in Asia. Bolarinwa was now keen to make his own impression on English football but is very proud of what his brother has achieved and rates him as the best player he has ever played against.
“I’d have to say playing against my brother wasn’t easy as he got a goal and the man of the match award that game. I also watched him gain promotion into the Premier League with Hull so for me it has to be him.”
Back in the UK, the former Barnet man initially joined Cray Wanderers before he signed for Sutton United in National League South. Eleven goals in 37 games in the 2015/16 season saw him earn a move to League Two side Grimsby Town. After a season with the Mariners, he rejoined Sutton initially on loan before making the move permanent earlier this year.
“I signed for Sutton in January and for me it’s like I never left,” he says. “They are one club I can say that myself and the management team have a good understanding. He (manager Paul Doswell) brings out the enjoyment side of football for me.”
“Of course we will always try [to earn promotion to League Two] and next season we will see were we end up.”
This season, Bolarinwa scored seven goals as Sutton made the National League playoffs, only to lose 3-2 to Boreham Wood in the semi-finals, despite a goal from the 28-year-old.
He is now focused on his future with Sutton but does he think a move abroad would be beneficial to other Englishmen?
“I feel for players who are leaving academies and are no longer in the pro set up but still struggling to find a team to play regular football. I definitely would recommend a move abroad. It will definitely help develop you as a player overall.”
Bolarinwa has had to come over a lot of adversity in his life but he hasn’t let that stop him from fulfilling his football dream and because of that, he can provide aspiration to many other aspiring footballers across the country.