By Kevin Affleck
Dante Baptiste described the feeling of saving four penalties in a shootout as “surreal” after he underlined his potential with a remarkable performance for Hendon on Tuesday night.
The 17-year-old was only playing for the Southern League Premier Division side for the second time, but emerged as a new hero for The Greens after saving 40 per cent of the spot-kicks he faced in a 13-goal decider in the Southern League Cup tie with Hayes & Yeading.
“It was surreal,” said second-year scholar Baptiste. “I’ve never felt anything like it. Playing men's football is completely different to Academy football and to save four is a great feeling.”
It turns out Baptiste is a bit of a spot-kick specialist. He had saved seven of the ten penalties he had faced with a well-honed technique he trusts.
“I try to get into the mind of the taker,” he said. “I stand next to them when they pick the ball up and try and make them change their mentality. As they run up to take it, I look at their body shape, look at their eyes and follow the ball. I largely know which way they are going to go once they look in a certain direction and I just follow my heart. Most of the time I get it right.”
It was actually a penalty save in a game against Arsenal when he was on trial that helped land him a scholarship after he was released by Norwich. He was in the system at Carrow Road from Year 8 to Year 11 and then Danny Dolan, the then Head of Academy Recruitment, got him into Watford and linked him up with Graham Stack, the Academy Goalkeeper Coach.
“The improvement has been massive in Dante,” said Stack. “He's improving all the time tactically and technically, but his athleticism is astonishing. He can jump 54cm from a standing jump and that's superb. He's quick learner, listens and is very respectful with his teammates. We thought we'd get him out on loan as he needs to learn the psychological game and be around a dressing room where points are at a premium and where a defeat is going to cost people money.”
Baptiste is already loving life at Hendon.
“I was nervous as you are going into a men's dressing room, but it's been a great experience,” he said. “We lost 2-0 to Swindon Supermarine on Saturday so that was a tough game. But Tuesday night was great. All the lads ran towards me and congratulated me after the shootout and were superb with me in the changing rooms. I called my parents after the game and they were really proud of me. It's a great feeling.”
Baptiste first rose to prominence with an astonishing display in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final win over Leicester City at the King Power last season. In front of Brendan Rodgers, he pulled off save after save in a super-human display that helped secure a 2-1 extra-time win.
“The saves in the shootout comes close but that nothing beats that game against Leicester,” he said. “I felt unbeatable that night and could save anything. I’ve never felt anything like that.”
Born and raised in Notting Hill, Baptiste has Marc-André ter Stegen as his hero but feels working with an ‘Invincible’ in Stack is more beneficial than watching clips of the Barcelona No. 1.
“Without the confidence Stacky has in me I wouldn't be where I am now,” he said. “It's always good to lean on someone with that sort of experience. I learn off him every day. He just tells me do my best and be myself.”
Stack was at the Hendon game to watch his protege in action.
“What he did doesn't surprise me,” Stack said. “If Dante goes the right way, he's got a great chance of saving it because of his athleticism, power and coverage of the goal. He's getting in good habits but the most important thing is his character. He's very much a team player, very humble and very down to earth. He's not flash and is committed to his education. He's dedicated and doesn't cut corners.”
Stack is “surprised” England youth scouts haven't taken a look at Baptiste following his exploits in the run to the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup.
“I definitely have aspirations to play international football at any level,” said Baptiste. “To have that experience would be great. I qualify to play for Jamaica through my grandparents. I've not been to Jamaica for a while, but I love it there and it's a country that means a lot to me. I’d love to one day follow in the footsteps of Mariappa and win as many caps as possible.”