Per Mertesacker says Mikel Arteta sent a powerful message to Arsenal’s academy hopefuls when he handed 15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri his debut against Brentford.
The midfielder was given a brief run-out in the closing stages at the Community Stadium which secured his place in the record books as English football’s youngest ever top-flight player.
While Arteta’s decision has been questioned in some quarters – many wondering how someone so young is supposed to deal with the subsequent media spotlight – Mertesacker spoke only in positive terms.
“Mikel gave everyone a powerful message,” the BFG told Arsenal.com.
“I have to say how much it trickled down. I’ve seen videos of the under-9, under-10 squads cheering Ethan on at Hale End when he came on. Players that would start the same journey as he did, in the grassroots academy, were cheering him on. So all of a sudden he has been escalated to be a role model and a positive influence for young players.
“It’s just brilliant to see, that’s what we are proud of, that we can show progression, that we can show pathways. It was a very proud moment, first of all for himself and his family. It’s a reflection as well of what this club is about, what the academy is about.
“A lot of youngsters entering the academy have the dream of playing for Arsenal Football Club and he made that dream come true. It was a proud moment for us as an academy.”
It remains to be seen whether Nwaneri gets further chances with the first team this season. At such a tender age he still needs to find his feet at under-18 and under-21 level and it’s likely that’s where he’ll get most of his minutes.
Looking over his shoulder will be Jack Wilshere, the new head coach of the under-18s and the man who up until this month held the record as Arsenal’s youngest ever player.
He more than anyone will be familiar with the pressures that Nwaneri now faces.
“One thing that I learnt pretty quickly – maybe not quickly enough but looking back now I realise it – is there are a lot of people at the club who have his best interests at heart,” said Jack.
“He has to listen to them. He has to somehow block out the noise. I know he has a good family around him, which was important in my case as well. Keep his feet on the ground. But he is the type of kid that will do that. He’s a really driven boy.”