by Will Magee @W_F_Magee
The kids who won the FA Youth Cup final in 2009 would go on to have some memorable moments for Arsenal. Jack Wilshere, and that famous night against Barcelona where he outshone Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Henri Lansbury, and the improvised finish which set in motion a 4-1 rout of Tottenham at White Hart Lane in the Carling Cup. Francis Coquelin, and every one of the 30 yellow cards which made him one of the most mischievous players of the late Wenger era.
And then there was the energetic teenage forward who scored twice across two legs to clinch the final: Sanchez Watt.
Arsenal won a league and cup double at youth level that season, though winning the FA Youth Cup is arguably the pinnacle for academy footballers. Watt has mixed memories of the first leg at the Emirates despite scoring against Liverpool in front of over 33,000 people.
“It was hard because, before the final, I scored two [against Manchester City in the semis] but I got benched for the final,” he says.
“I had all my people coming, they’d come to the game before where I’d scored, so that was a setback for me for the first time in my young career. It was one of the biggest stages at a young age, I had everyone coming to the game and it was like: ‘You’re on the bench’.
“I was so eager to play. I was … not jealous, but just like: ‘I wish I was out there, I can’t wait’. Thank God, anyway, that I took my chances. To score at the Emirates then go to Anfield and score was amazing. Especially the one at Anfield… when I scored it kind of settled it.”
Watt’s opener in the second leg made it 5-1 on aggregate and, before they knew it, Arsenal had their hands on the trophy. At a time when the ‘x number of years without silverware’ millstone was beginning to weigh heavy around the necks of the first team, winning the FA Youth Cup made a big impression. Watt, along with the likes of Wilshere, Lansbury, Coquelin and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, started to get game time with the senior side. Watt has his own memorable moment from his brief first-team breakthrough, having scored against West Brom in the Carling Cup on his debut.
“Winning the FA Youth Cup was basically leading up to it. From the final, then I did well on pre-season, then I just got told on my debut: ‘You’re starting’.
“I was like: ‘What?’ You know how people get like five minutes, two minutes, maybe come on in the last minute? This was like: ‘You’re starting and you’re playing up front’. I was just like: ‘Rah!’”
Watt remembers that as a time of endless opportunity. “I’m not even gonna lie to you, there was so many [good players in the academy at the time],” he says. “In my eyes, I had a feeling that – a bit like the [Class of] ‘92 Man United squad – they was going to push most of us through together and have a core of Arsenal youngsters.
“When everyone talked about ‘Young Guns’, they knew we had players. Henri Lansbury, Kyle Bartley, Luke Ayling – he’s doing well at the moment at Leeds – James Shea, Emmanuel Frimpong, [Francis] Coquelin, Jack Wilshere… there’s too many to name man! It was just like a perfect group really.”
Before long, Watt was training with the senior squad on a regular basis. His talent didn’t go unnoticed among his teammates, with Cesc Fabregas calling him “a great prospect for the future”. Asked for his assessment of Watt around the time of his senior debut, Arsene Wenger said: “I like him because he is a little bit of a street player… he’s very close to the first team and I believe he will really be a threat [as competition] for the strikers.”
Having made his breakthrough in the midst of the mainstream bassline boom, Watt even had his own chant to the sound of “You Wot” by DJ Q feat MC Bonez. It may not have been the most creative word association in football history, but it worked.
Meanwhile, he and his fellow youngsters were dubbed the “golden generation” in the press. Did he feel the pressure after bursting so quickly onto the scene?
“Because I was at Arsenal from such a young age I’d always had that limelight and pressure to do well,” he says. “When you’re in the youth teams, they’re always trying to bring in players that can take your place. But you had good people there obviously, like Steve Bould and the older players who would teach you the ways of the club. Not just about football, but about being a human being.”
Watt also singles out youth team coaches Steve Leonard and Roy Massey and former academy director Liam Brady for keeping him and his fellow academy graduates grounded. Eventually, though, Watt became tired of flitting about the fringes of a team in which he was competing with Theo Walcott, Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner and Carlos Vela, to name but a few.
“My situation at first was that everything was too comfortable,” he says. “It became that everything was the same day-to-day.
“I would be in the reserves, score, win, then train with the first team but not be on the bench. So I would do the same thing week in, week out, and it’s not that it became easy but that it was normal, so that if I did well it was like: ‘Yeah, that’s fine’. A lot of players in my [Arsenal reserve] team, they didn’t really want to go on loan. They wanted to stay at Arsenal. I was one of the first to just go out and play. I just wanted to play proper football.”
Watt went on a short loan to Southend United in 2010 and he recalls a strange new reality of players arguing over late wages and washing their own kits. “In the team meetings people were angry about mortgages and all that, and I was just a young player watching it all,” he says. “It was a different world.”
That was followed by two spells on loan at Leeds, where Watt started to gain serious experience despite several nagging injuries. “Wenger said to me: ‘It’s a big club. There will be high expectations to do well, but it’s a good place to do well because it will echo,’” Watt remembers.
Promoted from League One in his first season at Elland Road, he then had a full season in the Championship and even played against Arsenal – with Wenger’s permission – in an FA Cup tie which went to a replay. Leeds were interested in signing Watt permanently and, in the first sign that his future might not lie at Arsenal, the two clubs entered talks only for disagreements over a fee to torpedo the move.
To his surprise, Watt was offered a year-long contract extension and took it eagerly. After short-lived loans at Sheffield Wednesday and Crawley Town, it was then that injuries started to become a serious problem for him. During his final loan with Colchester United, he got a bad hamstring tear which sidelined him for six months at the worst possible time.
“I had to get an operation and I was at the end of my contract,” he says. “Arsenal looked after me to the fullest, they got me back sharp, maybe even sharper. But at the end of my contract I was still coming back from injury so there was no way of even negotiating another contract. So I signed with Colchester.
“At the same time as I was recovering and I was on crutches, I was expecting my first baby, my son. It was like everything came at the same time: ‘I’m on crutches, I can’t walk, I’m at the end of my contract and my little one’s coming along’. That was the first panic of thinking: ‘Oh my God, I need to get back fast.’”
Watt had two good seasons with Colchester, before going abroad to play for Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League. “I loved it there,” he says. “They had a big fanbase, there was like 60,000 at games and it was a carnival, World Cup kind of vibe, just loud. They worship football, they love football. Coming out to games: fireworks. You score: fireworks. Plus maybe, like, a Bollywood show. It was crazy.”
In a stroke of even worse luck, however, Watt picked up another serious hamstring injury of the sort which so often affect players with his burst of pace.
“I was taking care of it out there as well and, how it went, I don’t have a clue,” he says.
“So that’s what killed me. When I came back I couldn’t just walk into a team, I had to go and get physio again. I’m not even signed to a club in England and I’m having to go to clubs to do my rehab. When that happens your name goes quiet because you’re not active. You know how the game is.”
Still only 28, Watt has since dropped down to non-league and, after spells with Billericay Town and Hemel Hempstead, is now with Wealdstone at the summit of the National League South. Asked whether he had any reservations about playing non-league football, he says: “I just wanted to get back into the game. Some of the places I could have gone, the money they were offering… I couldn’t take it, kind of thing.
“Being certain places on low wages – every day around young players who are making more than you, while there’s still a possibility that you can get injured – I just thought that I didn’t want to be in that state of mind. You know how some people fall out of love with football.”
Thankfully, Watt hasn’t fallen out of love with the game. While he’d consider playing in the Football League again if the right opportunity came along, he’s enjoying what he calls “the non-league lifestyle”, the extra time he gets to spend with his family and planning for the future.
“With non-league, you do have time to prepare for stuff after football,” he says. “When you’re in every day you’re thinking: ‘This could last forever’. But I’ve had so many injuries that I’ve had to think about life after football. I can’t let football go, I need to keep playing football or I’ll lose my mind.”
Watt is working towards his coaching badges and, in the summer, found himself on the same UEFA B course as Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole.
“I want to go back to Arsenal and work with the youngsters,” he says. “I’ve been in there a few times but I needed to pass my course first before I could work with them properly.”
Having experienced the heights of academy football as well as the lows which have come with his injuries, Watt feels his story is worth telling.
“I’ve been abroad, I’ve played in the first team, I’ve been at different clubs and that. I feel that players can relate more to me,” he says.
So what is it about Arsenal that makes him want to go back? Simple.
“It’s a blessed place.”
Main image via: MontImageMedia