Chuba Akpom is “buzzing” - and with good reason. The 17-year-old had just spearheaded the Arsenal attack that claimed a superb 1-0 win at Inter Milan in the NextGen Series, and the adrenaline was still coursing through his veins when he sat down to talk.
With a wide grin plastered across his face, the young striker has every reason to be pleased with his lot. Aside from his European exploits, he has become the go-to man for the Arsenal Under-21s and has taken England Under-19s by storm, scoring five goals in his last four matches. Not only that, but he was named on the bench for the Champions League trip to Olympiacos last December. Big things are expected for the rangy forward.
But then Chuba is used to being ahead of the curve. He joined the Club at six, started playing for the under-18s when he was three years younger than his team-mates and his prodigious progression shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. But as he admits, there was one man who predicted it all some time ago.
“When I was 13 or 14, a coach called Steve Leonard had so much confidence in me,” he explains. “He could see my potential and he actually mapped out my future, telling me that when I was 16 I would do this, when I was 17 I would do that – and it has all happened! He said that when I was 15 I would play for England, and then at 18 I would play for the first team, so hopefully that will happen! I turn 18 in October, so I have a few months to get myself in there!”
Sounds good! But first of all, tell us about your background and how you got into football...
I grew up in Canning Town in east London, which is known for not being the nicest of places. I lived there almost 15 or 16 years, before moving to Borehamwood last year. Canning Town is a tough place, there’s a lot of gang crime, but the young people love football. I played in the streets and in ‘the cage’, while the park was two minutes away from my house so I was there every day. I hardly did any homework, I just played football!
Is it hard to stay on the straight and narrow in that environment?
There are temptations but you just have to stay focused. I chose good friends, they motivated me and all we thought about was football: they really helped me. But I know my life could have gone the wrong way. When people see you starting to do good things, they envy you and don’t like what you’re doing. The best thing is to stay humble and keep working hard. That is what I have done.
You must feel you have come a long way...
It feels a very long way! The way you progress is so fast, time just flies. When I joined the Club at the age of six, I never thought I would end up on the bench for the first team. But it happened and it shows that anything is possible.
So how did you end up at Arsenal?
I played for a team called Rippleway FC in Newham, near where I grew up. I was with them for two seasons, and scored so many goals, like 100 or something! I was always a striker and played with [another Arsenal youngster] Alex Iwobi all the way up. I got scouted for West Ham first, and went on trial there but they took too long. Then I went to Arsenal, signed for the Club and have been here ever since.
If you are young and playing up a level or two, it just means that someone trusts you. That gives you the hunger to prove that you should be there and that they’re rightChuba Akpom
Who has been the biggest influence on you?
My family, particularly my dad. My parents are both Nigerian and my dad has always been there. He took me to the park, to training sessions every day; we practised independently, he took me to tournaments in the summer. He has always been there to support me.
Did he play himself?
Yeah, both him and my granddad played in Nigeria at a decent level, in fact my granddad played for a team in the first division. They were both strikers – it is a family tradition I suppose! My mum’s family also played serious football in the top league, too. They are really excited by how I have done at Arsenal, some of them follow me on Twitter. They are always telling me to come to Nigeria! They love Arsenal over there, they love the history of the Club and it is massive. Arsenal is like a family and the people in Nigeria really like that.
So who would you represent at international level?
I get asked that a lot, but it’s hard. At the moment I’m staying with England because I have been with them since I was 14 or 15 and I am on track. But you never know what could happen in the future.
Going back to Arsenal, you have always ‘played up’ age groups. How have you found it?
I am not the type to get nervous about it. If you are young and playing up a level or two, it just means that someone trusts you. That gives you the hunger to prove that you should be there and that they’re right. I always see it as a good opportunity.
Has there been a moment when you have thought, ‘I could make it’?
I think it was this season. I was expecting to play regularly in the under-18s this year, and maybe have one or two games for the reserves. But it has actually ended up the other way around. It’s been really good. I’ve kind of exploded and shown how much potential I have. I am confident, the coaches are giving me lots of feedback on how I can improve and hopefully next season will be big.
You also had the chance to go with the first team to Olympiacos...
That was amazing, probably the stand-out moment of my career so far. Just being on the bench, the noise was amazing. Being a part of that and experiencing what the first team go through makes you more hungry to get there yourself. Being there will also help me in the long term, because I will know what to expect and I’ll be able to deal with it better.
Read the interview with Chuba and more in the latest edition
With everything happening so fast, it is hard to keep your feet on the ground?
It is not hard to stay humble because that is how better things come. The coaches keep you on your toes as well. They always tell me that it is all about your attitude, because you could be good at a young age but then fade away. You want to be like Jack Wilshere, who was good at a young age but just keeps on getting better and better. There is a next stage after the under-21s, and I know it is a big step so I just need to keep working hard.
Is Jack an inspiration to all the younger guys at the Club then?
Yes, 100 per cent. He was at the Club at a young age and has played up and up and up and progressed really well. Now he is one of the main players in the first team. If he has done that, you think why can’t you? If you have the same spirit and work as hard as him, you can do it as well.
So how would you like your career to develop over the coming years?
I would like to be an established Arsenal player and also playing regular international football – but no, I still don’t know if that would be for England or Nigeria!