The world of elite youth football in London is, according to David Court, one of Arsenal’s senior figures in youth development over recent years, like a village. Everyone knows everyone. Young players, coaches, families, scouts – all come across each other in schoolboy football, district matches and academy games. So when Eddie Nketiah was released by Chelsea at under-14 level, word travelled fast.
Bob Arber, the head of Arsenal’s academy recruitment at the time, called in the youth midfielder Joe Willock to check on the surname of the Chelsea striker called Eddie who was being let go. “He’s being released?” came the reply. “He’s sick! Every time he plays against us he scores.” Arsenal invited Nketiah for a trial and included him in a match against West Ham. Naturally, he helped himself to a goal. The staff watching on looked at each other and nodded. Willock was not exaggerating.
Liam Brady was the head of youth development at the time and Nketiah’s characteristics soon won everybody over. “It is a Premier League rule – and a good rule – that when you take a boy on loan it is for a six-week period,” Brady says. “That gives ample time for the boy and the club to make a judgment. He just grew on everybody. It is not easy when you are told you have to leave a club but he has guts and seized a new opportunity. We signed him and he hasn’t stopped scoring since.”
It was quite the moment on Tuesday when Willock and Nketiah were among the eight graduates of Arsenal’s Hale End academy celebrating on the pitch at the end of one of those sudden footballing explosions that occur when a young talent announces himself as if casting a magic spell.
At midday this Monday the young group of Arsenal’s next generation, including Nketiah, Willock, Reiss Nelson and Josh Dasilva, went to Tottenham’s training ground to watch their under-23 team-mates play. Ordinarily they would be in that team, that environment, but within 36 hours Nketiah’s world was transformed. He made his home debut in the Carabao Cup against Norwich, equalised within seconds, scored a brilliant and brave winner, and showcased to a crowd of 60,000 the finishing qualities that are his speciality. Out of nowhere he was trending on Twitter, his name sung to the rafters, receiving messages from Thierry Henry, complimented by Arsène Wenger, and mischievously renamed on Wikipedia as “Edward Keddar Pelé Maradona Ronaldinho Kaka Nketiah”.
It could go to a young player’s head but Court is hopeful Nketiah is grounded enough, and surrounded by a loving, supportive family, to resist the temptation to get carried away. “I don’t think I have seen a debut like that where the crowd have warmed to a player so much,” Court says.
“But he has not made it yet. He needs people around him to look after him. He is a great kid and his family go everywhere to watch him. Hopefully he can stay level-headed.”
A few months ago Nketiah’s father saw Court at a youth game at Borehamwood, and went up to say he had never had a proper chance to thank the Arsenal staff for giving his son another opportunity after the release by Chelsea. The general feeling in the game was that Nketiah was too small, and there were doubts he would develop enough physically. Also Chelsea had Tammy Abraham impressing as a forward in the same group. Abraham, an excellent talent, has grown up to be a good seven inches taller than the 1.75m (5ft 7in)Nketiah.
Brady remembers sizing up this pocket rocket. “You could tell straight away he is a very clever player but physically he was behind boys of his age,” he says. “But the other thing that stood out was that he nearly always scored.”
Although by no means a giant he is big enough now and it was notable that Wenger was impressed to observe Nketiah outjumping two hulking Norwich defenders to glance in with power and accuracy to send Arsenal into the next round of the Carabao Cup. Although Nketiah has a reputation as a natural finisher (his record is 48 goals from 63 games between under-18 and under-23 at Arsenal, with seven goals from four England under-18 and under-19 caps) there is more to Nketiah than pure finishing. “He is a goalscoring machine,” says Court, “and the beauty is he can score with both feet and his head, but he also has great movement. You see other things in his game.”
Obviously delighted by the impact he made against Norwich, Court sent Nketiah a text the morning after his match-winning heroics: “You did us proud,” it read. “Now keep listening and learning.”
His phone soon buzzed with a reply: “Thanks for believing in me.”
Fans’ group oppose Keswick and Kroenke Jr re-election
The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust will vote against the re-appointment of the club’s chairman Sir Chips Keswick and Josh Kroenke to the board of directors at Thursday’s annual general meeting in a bid to show “significant corporate governance change is needed”.
As part of each AGM, one third of the directors must retire on rotation from their position and seek re-election. Despite opposition from the AST, Keswick and Josh Kroenke, son of the American owner, are highly unlikely not to be re-appointed to the board.
Nevertheless, the AST believes their opposition will provide an opportunity to air their grievances. “All of the non-executive directors have been in office for far too long and are not regarded as independent under the corporate governance code. There is therefore no independence from the controlling shareholder, no-one free of conflict of interest, and not enough diversity on the board or people with relevant professional skills, such as football expertise,” said the AST in a statement.
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