Mahlon Romeo interview: Cub Classics Vol. One – Flowing in time with the young Lion
Breezing through the Walsall backline to announce his first-team arrival in some style last season, Millwall right-back Mahlon Romeo has added fresh fervour to the fight as the Lions bid to break back out of the League One enclosure. While unmistakeably chief producer of his own life’s track, the 21-year-old is from a proud musical heritage, and on the Antiguan international’s playground, both ball and beats are indispensable.
Stepping into the breach left by long-time pros with Premier League and international experience might have left Mahlon Romeo feeling a touch of trepidation as he prepared to make his Millwall debut and only his second-ever career club appearance. Ex-Reading defender Shaun Cummings and one-time Sunderland standout Carlos Edwards had been the more familiar names taking up the right-back station for the Lions, but with neither available for the League One clash at Walsall last February, Neil Harris gave the former Gillingham youngster his introduction.
As well as helping take care of business at the back – Millwall kept three clean sheets and won three of Mahlon’s first four appearances – he also managed to throw some memorable attacking enterprise into the equation, skipping between two Walsall defenders and sweeping home a right-footed finish with ease in a 3-0 win. Since that archetypal dream debut, he has continued to make his way, proving himself more than worthy of the esteem he is held in by those in and around the South London club.
In a squad boasting emerging players alongside a helping of characters who’ve long trodden the hard land of English football, the ability and personality Westminster-born Mahlon possesses has made him right at home. Diving that bit deeper than just the outside cover of players’ personas is the way on here, with music talk the signature key to hearing what makes them spark.
That also includes putting them in the figurative booth as they come up with suggestions of a teammate or two they’d choose to get on a track cover with. The defensive aspect is naturally paramount for someone in Marlon’s position, but when flashes of off-the-cuff expression bring attacking reward it’s exactly what people love to see. Together with another of Millwall’s leaders of the fresh and new, he explains how he’s also not shy of letting it flow with some deadeye vocal accuracy, as he names his cover choice.
“This one’s easy, because me and Fred (Onyedinma) when we’re away, there’s a song called ‘Look Out’ by Giggs and Skepta, and me and Fred have got it word for word, bar for bar, down to a tee. It’s a sight as well, it’s pretty impressive if you ask me!”
Whether it’s grime, hip-hop or whatever else, there tends to be plenty of UK flavour in the EFL dressing rooms around the country. Although there are some huge enthusiasts in the game, Mahlon is arguably that bit closer connected to the homegrown scene than perhaps your typical footballer.
His DJ/producer (plus fashion entrepreneur/youth football coach etc.) father, Trevor Beresford Romeo OBE, aka Jazzie B, was a major player in helping shape the black British music landscape we see today, hitting prominence as frontman of the group Soul II Soul in the late-80s and into the 90s. He will always sit among the upper reaches of his field’s credibility stakes, though Mahlon is of course a performer and professional in his own arena.
Often watching Arsenal with his parents as a kid, Mahlon has been infatuated with football since he could remember, but he also speaks authentically about the other side to his life’s passions.
“I’d say music’s most of what I do outside of football; listening to it, studying it, it takes up all of my time really. There’s not a day where I don’t go through at least a few hours of listening to it.
“I love finding music, whether it’s old or new, music that’s been sampled. I just enjoy it; always before and after games, just in general.”
Approaching the final reckoning of their second campaign in League One since relegation from the second tier in 2015, Millwall do have that precious last play-off place in their possession at this moment in time. Four games remain before the end-of-season ‘lottery’ the Lions are desperate to secure a ticket for, with a point separating them from 7th-placed Southend United.
Northampton Town are the next visitors to The Den (Friday April 14th) and Mahlon names the attacking talent and lively personality in the ranks responsible for setting a vibe the players can feed off as the seconds and minutes ebb away before kick-off calls.
“Aiden (O’Brien), he’s DJ and to be fair, it’s a tough crowd! There’s old and there’s young; there’s a lot of types of music people, so it’s a tough crowd to please.
“I’d say the safe option would be old school garage, maybe; I think everyone’s pretty happy with that, to an extent. The more modern it gets, the more controversial it gets, especially with lyrics and things, but Aiden’s the DJ so I just let him get on with it.”
Alongside the hard work each week at the club’s Calmont Road training ground, Mahlon is never too far from engaging in the lighter side with his counterparts. He also regularly shares on Twitter a glimpse of what he’s enjoying from a listening standpoint, the next big album he’s waiting for, or even the odd Balkan mix of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s ‘Still D.R.E.’!
Just recently, we’ve seen a highly notable crossover between the respective music scenes over here in the UK and across the Atlantic, with Canadian rapper Drake collaborating with the aforementioned Skepta and Giggs, as well as Sampha and Jorja Smith on his ‘More Life’ project, released last month. You see a similar cross-Atlantic connection in Mahlon’s current most-favoured selections.
“At this moment in time, it’s hard to say, I could go on for ages. I’m always on the lookout for any A$AP Rocky music; I’m a big fan of him.
“There’s a group called YGG, from Camden; they’ve done a few bits with AJ Tracey, so I’m a big fan of them on the UK side. Also, most recently, a guy called Lil Peep, from America; he makes some pretty cool music, so I’m a big fan of Lil Peep at the moment.”
A number of those in Mahlon’s family used to run sound systems back in the day and his heritage encompasses Finsbury Park, Camden and a whole lot of reggae and soul along the way back to his grandparents’ village life in Antigua. In June 2015, he represented Antigua and Barbuda for the first time, featuring in a memorable two-legged tie with Saint Lucia as the Benna Boys contested the second round of the CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
In the first leg, he came on late in a 3-1 loss, but would play the entirety of the second leg as current Gillingham man Josh Parker levelled the tie three minutes into stoppage time before Aaron Tumwa completed the turnaround by making it 4-1 on the night on 95. They were beaten 2-1 in the next round against Guatemala, although they had won the first leg 1-0 in front of 7,000 at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium.
Along with Mahlon, several British-born players have been involved of late, including Rotherham United striker Dexter Blackstock, Wycombe Wanderers forward Myles Weston and ex-Hull City winger Calaum Jahraldo-Martin. With its twin-island population of around 93,000, Antigua and Barbuda may be relatively modest in terms of size but there is currently no shortage of promise and optimism surrounding its football team.
Referencing the likes of 18-year-old forward Javorn Stevens, who is with Seattle Sounders FC 2 of the United Soccer League (USL), Mahlon gives his assessment on some of the Benna prospects, as well as reiterating the strength of feeling he enjoys each time he reports for international duty.
“I’m very proud, it doesn’t really get better. I know Antigua’s a small island but when you go there and you’re playing and you’re wearing the kit, you can really feel what it means to the country.
“There’s a few talented players; a few of the young boys. I guess all the English players have already got a career over here, but yeah, there’s a few young boys who’ve gone to the States to play in some of the MLS academies, so I reckon there’s a few.”
Less than two years ago, Mahlon officially joined Millwall, having been given permission by Gillingham to trial with Justin Skinner’s Under-21 side towards the end of the 2014/15 season. Ultimately, he did win a contract with the Lions, signing an initial one-year deal in May 2015.
Although seen as a development player, he did actually arrive with first-team experience to his name, owing to his Gillingham debut as a 17-year-old. That came at the end of the Gills’ League Two-winning 2012/13 campaign as Martin Allen handed Mahlon a start in a 3-2 loss at Burton Albion.
Signing on a two-year scholarship in summer 2012, his debut came in the same season he had represented Dover Athletic on loan in the Conference South and he lined up on the last day for the Gills alongside former Lions defender and coach Andy Frampton. Frampton was also one of Martin Allen’s players at Brentford when they were chasing promotion from League One over a decade ago, as was ex-forward Deon Burton, who rolled back the years to score 13 for Gillingham en route to that 2012/13 success.
Reading-born but a national hero in Jamaica as they qualified for the 1998 World Cup, Burton covered all angles of his music and football story on here three years ago, recalling along the way how one of his international teammates would always grab the microphone on the team bus on the way to a game and hype up the players. Jamaica are of course the Reggae Boyz, while Antigua’s Benna Boys nickname also derives from the island’s native music.
One aspect Mahlon has pointed to before about his trips away with the national team is the humidity that has to be contended with, although there is no lack of rhythmic heat and energy either.
“Music’s massive, really massive. The carnival atmosphere, it’s just crazy; pulling up to the stadium, leaving the stadium after the match.
“The atmosphere’s everything, that carnival vibe. The music’s massive, it’s a real big part of the game.”
Spending time in the youth setups at Arsenal and Wycombe, Mahlon’s love for the beautiful game was always evident and he had the freedom to identify his own path growing up. The sound of a beat or a melody was easily accessible, though, and an especially catchy 1999 hit sticks in his mind from his youngest days.
“I’m not really sure I can remember the first exact one, but I do remember having ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’ by Shanks & Bigfoot, and having the single on CD. I grew up around the garage era, so it was all that sort of music.”
Continuing on the garage vibe, the career of one of the smoothest vocalists out of the UK in the past couple of decades had UKG beginnings, before his move much more toward an r&b sound. The Southampton native in question always maintained popularity and acclaim, which has never been more evident than with his recent sold-out shows around the country on his very long-awaited arena tour.
When Mahlon was called to step up to the stage on pre-season during some evening downtime with his teammates, he showed himself why he was ‘Born to Do It.’
“I did Craig David ‘Fill Me In’ and we were in Portugal. Luckily, it was on the night out and there were quite a few other people that had to sing as well, so mine sort of went under the radar.”
After making 18 appearances last season, Mahlon is well on course to at least double that this time around, while he also notched up another superb goal to fit nicely on the career highlight reel for when he hangs up those boots, one hopefully very distant day in the future. That strike was a match-winner to knock Southend out at the FA Cup first round in November, as he moved in off the flank to drive a right-footer into the far corner after a one-two with David Worrall.
There have been examples of teams stumbling over the line into the playoffs and then going all the way, but it certainly helps to feel like you’re still moving swiftly up through the gears as you reach the pivotal last checkpoints in the season. For Mahlon, the focus and drive to push the team to go one better than last year’s Wembley defeat to Barnsley is perfectly apparent, particularly as he had to sit out the 2016 playoffs following a red card in a last-day victory over his old club Gillingham.
Millwall historically haven’t been strangers to a big occasion at Wembley (or the Millennium Stadium) in the last 18 years and Mahlon would love to be there when they clear that final League One hurdle. Who knows, maybe he could pull out a Paul Robinson or Gary Alexander moment as well?
As amazing as the celebrations can be if it goes well, when the big days come around, players could be forgiven for feeling a tinge of jealousy that they don’t get to be at the heart of the build-up and atmosphere with the fans. Although uniquely different in many ways, when live music is at its best, it provides its own version of that euphoria for everyone involved.
After he’d spent time with the national team last summer, Mahlon got to sample some of that.
“We haven’t really got time to go to festivals because when they start it’s our pre-season, but I’ve been to both the Culture Clashes that have been in London and they’ve been pretty cool. If I could see anyone, I’d probably say Kid Cudi; I’m a big fan of him, so I’d probably see him live.”
Mentioning his love for films, Mahlon says he can’t rule out trying his hand at some acting one day, and of course if he needs it, his sister Jessye can give some professional pointers. For now, though, the plot plays out exclusively on the pitch for an undoubtedly talented footballer from a highly creative family.
Last March, Mahlon signed a new Lions contract until 2019 and he has kept hold of the advice given to him by his manager after that delightful debut – keep training hard, stay humble, don’t change. He was admittedly put on the spot for this closer, and certainly with his potential you’d expect there to be many more to choose from if he was asked this a fair few years from now.
For the past few years, each of the interviewees on here has been asked to finish up by picturing the 5-a-side scene, with four current or former teammates eligible to fill the line-up.
The players are not asked to name any kind of ‘best four’, with the focus instead just on a fun sample of the many they could choose, whether for reasons of friendship and personal connection, small-sided ability, or indeed whatever else they decide to base their choices on. After a little bit of deliberation, these were the ones Mahlon went with. If you didn’t make the starting list, double-check with Mahlon to make sure he pencilled you in for his subs’ bench!
“That’s a hard one. I’ll say my old youth team keeper when I was at Gillingham – Luke Nalder, he’s playing non-league now.
“He’d take up most of the goal, with all due respect, so he’d be good in 5-a-side. Another boy called Josh Staunton, he’s at Dagenham now.
“He’s just versatile, will do everything; defend, attack, cultured player. I’ll probably say Aiden (O’Brien), because 5-a-side’s his game – he kind of plays 11-a-side like he plays 5-a-side!
“I’m joking, but I’d say Aiden, he’s got good feet. Lastly, Kane Haysman, another one of my Gillingham buddies.
“He’s got really good feet and he’s strong, massive calves, so yeah, I’d choose him.”
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