Interview: A chat with Arsenal Twitter’s youth expert

Like many football addicts Jeorge Bird wanted to translate his thoughts and observations of his favourite team into something more tangible, something that he could share and produce as he likes: a personal shrine to Arsenal.

For years and years, as far back as 2006 in fact while still in college, Jeorge has spent countless cold mornings watching Arsenal’s youth teams play at Meadow Park and Underhill on the outskirts of London.

A year later his Arsenal blog ignited from the sparks of knowledge gained and his urge to write. And not long after that, he shifted his blog’s vision towards what it preaches today: Arsenal’s youth teams. It was a pond nobody were really fishing at. Information about the youth teams were scarse, and Jeorge saw his chance.

Watching the blossoming

“This might sound a little unusual, but sometimes I find youth games more exciting,” Jeorge says.

“There’s less focus on money and off-field issues and it’s a bit more old fashioned in that way. The players try really hard as they know they have to prove themselves and it’s really interesting to follow the journey of a player, especially when they get into the first team.”

Jeorge was lucky. His father, and his father’s father, were Arsenal fans, and so he was always going to be a Gonner. Living in Barnet in north London, so close to where the youth teams play, was very handy too. Additionally, dedicating so much of his time watching Arsenal’s youth teams, a pond that has produced many big fishes over the years, has been profoundingly rewarding.

Giving youth a chance in the big league is cemented in Arsenal’s recent history. Jack Wilshere, Alex Iwobi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Kieran Gibbs were all young boys down to the age of 6 when they joined Arsenal’s Hale End academy. Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott, Wojciech Szczesny, Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin joined as teenagers. More recently Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe have taken the big step up, all with a long past at Arsenal. It’s a mantra Arsène Wenger brought to the club and one that it seems Mikel Arteta wants to continue.

And Jeorge was there to witness their blossoming, while pursuing a career as a sports journalist.

“I’ve always enjoyed writing and I found it interesting seeing young players such as Fabregas getting chances in the Carling Cup. Eventually I started to go to Reserve games and they were of a good standard, with quite a few first team players being involved.

“I initially did it just for a hobby and to give people more information about the youth teams. But I always wanted to become a journalist and this helped me to achieve that aim.”

Today Jeorge works as a sports journalist at MailOnline and is a contributor for Arseblog, after bouts as a freelance journalist and time at Squawka.

His obsession with youth football is part of his identity now, certainly on Twitter where he has amassed almost 40.000 followers and been heavily active with over 30.000 tweets since 2010. It continues despite other commitments.

Why do you still do it? You’ve been attending and covering youth matches for 14 years now.

“I feel like I’ve been doing it for so long that I can’t really stop now!” he says jokingly.

“But I still have a real passion for youth football, and especially now with a lot of prospects coming through. I hope I can continue doing it for as long as possible, although it depends on my job.”

“Was there a player you thought would make it but didn’t?”

“Okay, let’s play a quick game of favourites but you’re the only one playing!”

“Sure!”

“Favourite memory of watching Arsenal’s youth teams?”

“I think my first game at Underhill, which was against Charlton, because there were a lot of first team players involved like Walcott, Adebayor and Flamini and it was such a good game. That really got me into going to youth games.”

“All-time favourite youth player?”

“Probably Jay Emmanuel-Thomas because I remember so many cold Saturday mornings watching the U18s when he would just dominate games. It’s a shame he didn’t make it but I think his physical qualities made him stand out at that age.”

“Any funny stories from watching the youth teams?”

“I remember one friendly against Leyton Orient at Brisbane Road when there was an Orient fan whose house was inside the stand where Arsenal fans were sitting and he kept coming out every so often to taunt the Arsenal fans!”

“Was there a certain player you thought would absolutely make the first team but didn’t?”

“Benik Afobe is one who I thought looked destined for the top. He scored so many goals at youth level and it’s a bit bizarre he didn’t make a competitive first team appearance for Arsenal. Injuries really disrupted his progress but he has still had quite a good career.”

What it takes to “make it”

Football fans, maybe Arsenal supporters more than others, are certainly guilty of over-hyping young players at times, effectively assigning unrealistic and unfair expectations, adding unnecessary pressure.

In addition to this added pressure, there are lots of other hurdles to overcome for young players to “make it” as a top footballer, Jeorge explains.

“For some it starts as early as four years old and then the aim is to earn a scholarship when they are 16, which is when they start training at London Colney. From there it’s about getting a professional deal and getting into the first team. It’s a very long journey and as well as talent you need resilience, a positive attitude, determination and also quite a lot of luck.”

Football has to consume their young lives. Sacrifices have to be made.

“I think a lot of people don’t realise how much hard work these players have to put in to make it. People don’t always see the journey from the U18s to the U23s and then into the first team as a lot of people just watch the first team. These players have to sacrifice a lot just to have a chance of making it.”

A changing academy

Arsenal’s youth teams have been among the best in their respective leagues lately. But there is a worrying development in form recently.

The U23s have only two points from their first five games this season. They placed second two years ago and won it three years ago. The U18s are currently sixth with 9 points in six games and placed ninth last year after smashing their league in 18/19.

The promotions of Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock to the first team is partly responsible, of course, and has drained Steve Bould’s team of all their best players. But Jeorge points his finger to a few more reasons why the results are declining.

“They’re not doing well at all but there have been a lot of changes. The U23s have loaned out most of their squad so it has been difficult for them to build up any momentum and I think quite a few first team players could play at that level this season. The U18s have a lot of talented attacking players but are quite vulnerable defensively.”

In fact, the U23s have loaned out 13 players this summer, most of whom were starters, compared to seven the year before and three two years ago. It seems finding loan moves for the U23 prospects is something Per Meresacker values over keeping them in the youth league.

Mertesacker himself is another significant change at academy level as their new manager since two years ago, making several changes in personel, including a new head of talent identification and more focus on mental health.

“It’s probably too early to tell but Mertesacker has certainly done a lot of good work in terms of changing the positions of some players and also focusing on aspects of the game away from the pitch, such as the mental health of the players. I’m not entirely sure about some of the players he’s brought in this summer but we will have to wait and see,” Jeorge concludes.

As for the next players in the U23s who he thinks could take the big step up to the first team, Jeorge has three players in mind.

“If it wasn’t for his contract situation I would say Folarin Balogun, but we will have to wait and see what happens with him. Otherwise, Ben Cottrell is developing well and Miguel Azeez will probably get promoted eventually.”


Further reading: “The final acts of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal – A long read

Twitter @ awoaken

Jeorge Bird @ jeorgebird

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