By Chris Harris
Craig Eastmond has been at the vanguard of a new wave of Arsenal talent this season - and he believes there is plenty more to come.
The young Londoner has always craved a midfield role but had to settle for a right-back slot in Steve Bould's Youth Cup-winning side last season while Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong occupied the 'engine room'. But a year is a long time in football and Eastmond has pushed ahead of his peers to make seven first-team appearances in his preferred position.
Eastmond has surprised even himself with his progress since he made his debut in the Carling Cup last October. And he believes he is one of many Youth Cup winners who can make their mark on Arsène Wenger's team next season.
"You do need experience, someone to show the young players the way, but we have youngsters who are good enough to come through," Eastmond told Arsenal.com.
"Hopefully we will see Conor Henderson, Emmanuel Frimpong, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Sanchez Watt, Jack Wilshere and others. Everyone is looking at how others have made it into the first team and are trying to take the same path.
"Some of them have gone out on loan and that's the best thing for a youngster because you can get experience and then come back to Arsenal to show how much you have progressed. The lads have told me it is very hard on loan because you have to be the best player all the time, but you can only improve because it's a different environment, a different atmosphere."
While many of his mates have tried their luck away from Emirates Stadium, Eastmond has been in the right place at the right time to take his chance when injuries and absentees opened the door to the first team. He followed that impressive debut against Liverpool with a solid Premier League bow at Bolton and is now a regular fixture in Wenger's matchday squad.
"I am surprised [I have played so much]," the 19-year-old admitted. "I set a target just to play in the Carling Cup but I got a taste of that and thought I was ready to get into the squad regularly for the Premier League. I have had some starts and now I want to stay around the first team because I have more targets to achieve.
"It all started from the African Cup of Nations when certain players were away. The boss gave me a chance and I think I have taken it. I stepped in for Alex Song and I am progressing in that role. I just have to look at his good points and adapt them to my game. I speak to Alex a lot and he gives me a lot of good tips.
"My first priority now is to travel with the first team in pre-season and then stay around the squad for the pre-season friendlies. The summer will be important for me because it will allow me to show what I can do."
Eastmond's last start came at Wigan - a defeat which sounded the death knell for Arsenal's title challenge. The teenager admits that 3-2 defeat at the DW Stadium hit the squad hard but he believes they can make amends next season.
"I'm not too sure why the season has gone downhill so quickly but at the training ground we are all trying to keep our heads up and look forward to next season," said Eastmond. "There is a little cloud over the place because we were very close to being top.
"Wigan was a real low point. Everyone went into the game on a high and we should have won even though Wigan were fighting for their lives. It was a missed opportunity because we wanted to take advantage of the other teams dropping points.
"We are progressing though. Most people thought we would struggle this season but we have proved we have big players."Copyright 2013 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 27 Apr 2010