LAGOS, Nigeria (VOICE OF NAIJA) – The youngest player in Premier League history, 16-year-old Nwaneri could yet leave the Gunners this summer as associate top clubs fight for his services.
Ethan Nwaneri jumped on the pitch at Brentford earlier in the season to play for the final three minutes of Arsenal’s 3-0 win, and he instantly wrote his name into the Premier League history books.
Basically, no player under 16 had ever played in an English top-flight game before, yet when he replaced Fabio Vieira in the closing stages of the London derby, Nwaneri was just 15 years and 181 days.
The attacking teen midfielder went from teenage unknown to Premier League history maker in a blink of an eye with amazing performances.
Suddenly, Nwaneri was attracting attention from all over the world. Who was this 15-year-old who had caught Mikel Arteta’s eye? Where had he come from?
The answer of course was Hale End. Arsenal’s academy system which has produced so many top talents over the course of the past decade.
“The first time I met him, I looked into his eyes and I had that feeling. I really liked what I saw,” Arteta explained, when asked why he had decided to give such a young player a league debut.
“Per Mertesacker [Arsenal’s academy manager] and the staff are giving me really good information, Edu [Arsenal’s sporting director] as well.”
‘We all hope he stays’
That brief showing in West London remains Nwaneri’s only appearance for the senior side. The teenager has returned to more familiar surroundings since, and on Tuesday he will be one of the star names looking to make an impression when Arsenal host Manchester City in the FA Youth Cup semi-final.
But he will do so with lots of speculation surrounding his future.
Nwaneri, who only turned 16 last month, may only have one senior appearance to his name at Arsenal. But could that be it? Could he be wearing another team’s colours the next time he is seen in a Premier League game?
However, Jack Wilshere couldn’t give any assurances, when quizzed on that very prospect. “We all hope he stays because he’s an exceptional talent,” Arsenal’s Under-18s coach said.
“But as coaches, we don’t get involved and we don’t talk about that. Our job is to develop Ethan to help him when he goes with the first-team.”
A Talent in Demand
Nwaneri, like so many of the top young talents in England, is a wanted man.
Chelsea would love to take him, as would Manchester City. It’s an open secret that both those clubs are doing what they can to lure him away from Arsenal before he can sign his first professional contract at the age of 17. Arsenal remain hopeful he will stay, but it’s far from a foregone conclusion.
It would be a huge blow for the Gunners to lose a player they have developed since he was nine, but right now there is very little they can do apart from continue to guide him in the same way they have and hope that will be enough to convince him to stay.
“I don’t get involved in that,” Wilshere said, when discussing Nwaneri’s future. “It’s not for me, it is one for Per or Mikel. All I care about with Ethan is when he goes over to the first-team, how can we help him?
“Mikel says ‘he gets it’ and that’s why it’s so important that we align with the first-team, that we have the same football language. If we don’t and Ethan goes over there, Mikel says to him ‘right, do this’, Ethan would be saying: ‘what?!’
“So us as coaches, that’s what we focus on with Ethan, trying to give him the best platform, a clear head.”
A Big Future
Nwaneri still has to balance his football and school. He may be the Premier League’s youngest-ever player, but he will still be taking his GCSE’s later this year, just like any other 16-year-old.
That is something that Arsenal have to carefully manage, and it’s something that Mertesacker especially places a lot of emphasis on. At Hale End, it’s not just about football. Education is viewed as equally important.
“Better people, better players. Per really believes in that,” said Wilshere. “Ethan does well at school, which is important.”
Arsenal have been aware of Nwaneri’s talent for some time. As he progressed through at Hale End, he was always someone who played in the higher age groups. As a 12-year-old, he scored for the U14s. Then, when he was just 14, he scored twice on his debut for the U18s.
“He has a big future,” Granit Xhaka said after the game against Brentford in September. “I am doing my coaching license and I have trained the U16s. You can see a big difference with him and the other guys. He is very, very special.”
Youth Cup Dreams
Despite all the speculation about his future, Nwaneri has got his head down and continued to perform at youth level this season, whether it’s been for the U18s or the U23s.
He has been one of the star performers in the run to the Youth Cup semi-finals and will be looking to impress against City, one of the clubs battling for his signature, at the Emirates on Tuesday.
Nwaneri, who trained with Arteta’s senior squad last week ahead of the game against Leeds, scored in the quarter-final success against Cambridge last time out.
“He’s been exceptional with what he’s been doing, how he’s managed school, his GCSEs,” said Wilshere, who was part of the last Arsenal side to win the prestigious trophy back in 2009.
“Obviously it is a new world for him. He has people talking about him on social media, will he stay, will he go? To manage that as well and still perform in the Youth Cup. He’s been exceptional.”
Nwaneri is not the only Arsenal talent who is attracting attention from rival clubs. Myles Lewis-Skelly, who will also be in action against City on Tuesday night, is another, although the Gunners are understood to be growing in confidence that they will hold on to the midfielder.
Competition for the best young talent just comes with the territory of being a top club.
Sometimes you win the battle, sometimes you lose, as the Gunners found out when Omari Hutchinson surprisingly left for Chelsea last summer.
Arsenal will be hoping history doesn’t repeat itself when it comes to Nwaneri. But even if it does, you won’t be hearing anything negative coming from Wilshere.
“Whatever he does, I wish him all the best,” said Arsenal’s U18s boss. “He deserves it because of the sacrifices he’s made.”