Looking back on winning the FA Youth Cup as a teenager, Cedric Evina has conflicting emotions. He remembers the tingling excitement of the build-up, the booming crowds and the sense of being part of something significant. “I remember it being a bit surreal really, because the atmosphere at those youth cup games was completely different to when we played in the league,” he says. “We were playing against some huge clubs. I remember in the semi-final against Manchester City thinking: ‘This is big.’”
Arsenal won the double at youth level that season but, as Evina remembers it, their FA Youth Cup triumph felt like the ultimate destination on the journey through academy football. Having joined the club age nine, come 2009 he had been playing with many of his teammates for the best part of a decade and witnessed, in his words, a “golden generation” in the making.
Evina was one of the younger members of a squad that now feels like a familiar roll call: Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong would go on to make the biggest impressions at senior level, but Sanchez Watt, Craig Eastmond, Henri Lansbury and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas also flirted with the first team. “Obviously Jack was one of the stars, by then everyone could see that he was world class,” says Evina.
“There were others, too, obviously. There was Gilles Sunu who I thought, at the time, was absolutely amazing. He was unbelievable. Then there was Jay. I enjoyed playing with him because you always knew that he was going to do something special.”
In the quarter-finals, Arsenal travelled to White Hart Lane and were given a reception which was a far cry from the echoing instructions and quiet concentration of London Colney. “That was quite a game,” Evina recalls with a sharp intake of breath. “Spurs were a good team, they had the likes of Dean Parrett, John Bostock and a few others. It was a pretty big thing when we were drawn against them and we were – not scared, obviously – but wary of them.
“I remember that game well and it was very, very fiery. It was intense. We were 17, 18-year-old kids and the crowd was really hostile.” That didn’t stop Arsenal from winning 3-1, though Evina watched on from the bench.
When Arsenal met Liverpool in the final, Evina would find himself watching from the sidelines once more. Despite being a regular in the league that season, he was behind Mission Impossible pun magnet Thomas Cruise – eight months his senior – in the cup team. Whether because Steve Bould knew he, unlike Cruise, would get another crack at the cup the following season or whether it was just a straight judgement call, only Bould can say.
“I was really disappointed that I didn’t start… to be honest with you, I wasn’t very happy at all,” Evina laughs, when asked how he felt going into the final itself. He did at least make a cameo off the bench in the second-leg decider at Anfield. “Coming on, I think Steve Bould knew that [I was disappointed]. Normally you don’t substitute a left-back, it’s a position where you either play or you don’t play. But he knew and I think, deep down, he thought that possibly I should have been playing. That’s why he put me on in the final, to make sure that I was part of it, because obviously I had been a big part of that team and that squad for many years. He did the right thing in making sure that, even though I didn’t start, I played some part in that game.”
Arsenal demolished Liverpool 6-2 on aggregate, winning both legs, but Evina was not the only one whose celebrations were tinged with disappointment. Injured in the first leg at the Emirates, Frimpong was forced to watch from the stands as his teammates lifted the trophy. “He was a player who maybe didn’t get much of the limelight at the time but, for me, as a defender, he was brilliant because he would always cover for you,” says Evina. “He’d win the ball back, he’d always shield you, so he was one of the unsung heroes of that side even though he went on to make it to the first team.”
Evina, who is still close friends with Frimpong, helped to make sure his teammate wasn’t forgotten at Anfield. “David Price, the Arsenal photographer, actually contacted me this week and sent me some pictures of the final. There’s a team photo of all of us and we’re pointing at someone in the crowd. We’re actually pointing at Emmanuel. People think that we were just posing or something. But we were pointing at Emmanuel, because he was watching.”
Evina went on to captain the side the following season and, though they failed to retain the cup, they became the first under-18s team to defend the Premier Academy League title. “Obviously, after that final, the following season when Steve Bould came to me and said that I was going to be captain it was a very proud moment. We had some very good players but, with that team, we just didn’t quite click like we did the previous year. If you look at the players we had, a lot of them went on to do really well. You’ve got Ozzy [Ozyakup], Benik Afobe, Ignasi Miquel, Nico Yennaris, so we had a good side.”
It was around then that Evina started training with the first team. “I remember the first time, I reported to training as normal and Neil Banfield came over to me and said: ‘Cedric, you’re going to be training with the first team today.’ I had butterflies, I was like: ‘Oh my God. I’m not prepared for this.’ Literally, I was told half an hour before training.
“When you trained with the first team, you were given a different kit. Dennis [Rockall], who was the kit man at the time, he came over with the first-team training kit and I just remember being so nervous. I had butterflies, I was excited, I just couldn’t believe it.” Evina was so buzzed that, although he was joined by one of his academy teammates, he has blanked them out of his memory. “We were first out, then the boss came out, [Arsene] Wenger, and he said hello to us. It was like: ‘Hi Cedric’, ‘Hi…’ to whoever else was with me. It was just normal. He didn’t put any pressure on us.
“I do remember Neil Banfield being like: ‘Do me proud.’ We were like his kids and us making the step up was big, so he just gave us the look,” he laughs.
Despite his obvious nerves, Evina wasn’t made to feel out of place in the senior squad. “Being a left-back, I looked up to Gael Clichy quite a lot. He was a good mentor as well… he gave me a lot of advice and he was always very supportive. So was Armand Traore, he was another player who I looked up to and was quite close to.
“Obviously you had to admire Cesc [Fabregas] and players like [Andrey] Arshavin, who were just unbelievable. Literally, you would just be like: ‘Woah.’” Then there was Alex Song, with whom Evina bonded over their shared Cameroonian heritage. “Every time I went up to train with the first team… I automatically raised my game to make sure I was up to standards.”
In 2010, Evina went on loan to Oldham and impressed in League One. That December, with his contract running down, he was called back to Arsenal to discuss his future. To his dismay, he was told that he wouldn’t be offered an extension. “It came a bit as a surprise, as a shock, because I thought that I had done well enough on loan,” he says. “I was very disappointed because all I had known was Arsenal. But I picked myself up and signed for Oldham.”
Since then, Evina has played for Charlton, Doncaster Rovers, Crawley Town and Notts County. Having left Meadow Lane at the end of last season, potential moves to Macclesfield and Stevenage fell through over the summer and he went into this season without a club. After a couple of training sessions with non-league Romford in January, he decided it wasn’t for him and extended his hiatus to work on projects outside of football. He’s now “50-50” on a return in the near future, not least because the coronavirus crisis has disrupted any plans to make a comeback this summer.
Evina often thinks back to his time at Arsenal, however, and not only because he maintains several lasting friendships from his academy days. After the Europa League defeat to Olympiakos in February, he tweeted: “70 per cent of my youth team would have played in this Arsenal team #Fact”. Asked whether that was a heat-of-the-moment thing or whether he really meant it, he pauses to think. “Maybe not 70 per cent, but I reckon 60 per cent of my youth team if they’d stayed at Arsenal.”
Wilshere, Emmanuel-Thomas, Coquelin and Frimpong all get the nod. “I’m not going to put myself in there, because you just don’t do that,” he laughs. Then he remembers another academy graduate who would be in with a shout. “I forgot one: Wojciech Szczesny.
“I’ll tell you something interesting about Wojciech. When we used to play five-a-side, Wojciech was the first person that we picked. The reason why is because you knew you wouldn’t lose. Not many people know this but when we played five-a-side we used to call him Tec-9, because he was a robot.
“No-one scored past him in training. He was unbelievable. That’s how good Wojciech was. He was a bit crazy, but he was very good. That was one of Arsenal’s biggest mistakes, selling Wojciech.”