Proving people wrong is something Eddie Nketiah is used to by now. When Gabriel Jesus went down injured in Brazil’s World Cup clash with Cameroon, many questioned whether Hale Ender would be able to lead the line and keep Arsenal’s title hopes alive. With five assists in nine starts, he more than answered them before his own injury limited his run in the side.
Silencing doubters is a habit the 24-year-old has had to do from almost the beginning of his career. At just 14, he was released from Chelsea’s academy. It was only a brief setback in his fledgling career, but the disappointment Nketiah felt is something he admits was still hard to take.
“As a 13/14-year-old boy, especially when you’re used to doing something… You go to Chelsea every other day, you’re known as the boy who plays for Chelsea,” he says. “It’s part of your identity.
“Accepting that being away is hard to take. Fortunately for me I have a great family around me who have always supported me and I think what was really good for me was that the distance between being released and having an opportunity to go to Arsenal was not too long.
“It was probably four or five days, so it allowed me to not be down too long and be able to refocus and know that there’s another challenge that can be even more beautiful. That’s how I looked at it. I had to have a lot of maturity, I had my down days.
“It’s your dream, to be scouted, you’re accepted, grow a part of the academy, you want to go all the way. But sometimes this is life. I’m a very religious person, I believe in God. I know everything happens for a reason.”
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Released on the same day was none other than Nketiah’s future Arsenal teammate Declan Rice. It has taken a decade for the pair to reconnect, but Nketiah believes the early disappointment the pair suffered has been key to getting them where they are now in their careers.
“It’s just about knowing that this is the path that was chosen for you,” he says. “Unfortunately it wasn’t this way, but there are other ways to the top. There are players who stayed there (Chelsea) and didn’t reach the levels that myself or Declan have now. This is just life, it’s not always going to go your way. Having that experience has really shaped me as a person and how I’m able to deal with those disappointments and that look again and how I can try to deal with the mental thing again in life.”
That mentality will be key as he looks to prove more people wrong this coming season. With Gabriel Jesus firmly established as Arsenal’s number nine and Leandro Trossard impressing in the role at points last season, Nketiah faces another battle on his hands for regular game time. This has led many to suggest that the 24-year-old may have taken the easy way out by opting to stay at Arsenal rather than seek more regular minutes elsewhere. However, Nketiah could not disagree more.
“No, I don’t think I’ve accepted (being back up) and I never will,” he says. “That’s not my mentality. That’s not why I signed here to sit and be second best. I want to be the best, I want to play and that’s the mentality I have. I’m aware that I might not play every game and that’s the manager’s decision, but it’s never going to be my mentality to accept not to play and I’ll always push in training to get the opportunities to play, which is why I think the manager should have a headache.
“There are ways to do it. It’s no use sitting and moaning every day. The manager’s door is always open so you can have talks, but you have to show it on the pitch, it’s no use sitting off the pitch and complaining. You have to show it when you get on the pitch and that’s what I tried to do last season. I did the same and I will continue to do that.”
“I want to play as much as possible so I can help the team. It’s about accepting when you can’t play, how can you help the team and how can you contribute. The way to show it is to show it on the pitch rather than making noise about it.”
Nketiah’s path is interesting to compare with the man following in his footsteps. Folarin Balogun has also made the step up from the Hale End to the Arsenal first team via a loan spell elsewhere, but it seems the American could be looking to go another way. soccer.london understand it Arsenal will listen to offers of around £50m for Balogun which has interest from, among others, Inter Milan. While Nketiah does not want to be drawn too much on the intricacies of his younger teammates’ situation, he is willing to admit he has confidence Balogun will make the right decision this summer.
“He will do what is best with the club and his family for his future,” he says. “He’s a good player and I’m sure whatever decision he makes – as long as he’s happy and committed to it – he’ll do well. He’s contributing to our pre-season so we’re happy to have him here. I wish him the best. He’s a great guy off the pitch. Hopefully he can be here and help us.”
For now, Nkeitah’s main focus is on succeeding at Arsenal. The Gunners get their American pre-season tour underway with a match against the MLS All-Stars on Thursday morning and hope to build on the kind of early momentum that helped them launch an unexpected title charge last season. After falling short last season, Nketiah admits the goal this time around is undeniably clear in the group.
“We just want to focus on ourselves and improve,” he says. “We see it (pre-season) as an opportunity to improve, grow closer together. We are focused on preparing so we can have a big season and go one better than last season.”