A deafening crowd, a raucous atmosphere – it’s all just part of the job for Bukayo Saka. “Big crowds don’t faze me,” he says as he looks back on silencing opposition supporters, playing behind closed doors and inspiring his own fans.
Anyone who’s been to Emirates Stadium this season will have felt it – a buzz in the air, renewed hope, even a sense of expectation, not necessarily that Arsenal are going to conquer the world just yet, but that this club is just starting to build something special.
Young players are key to that. They exude energy, and that energy feeds the crowd, which in turn gives those young players the confidence to express themselves on the pitch. They represent the future of the club – a future that, thanks to its youth, is unencumbered by failures of the past – and you could reasonably argue that no one player represents the hope and expectation of this coming Arsenal era more than Academy graduate Bukayo Saka.
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If that’s a burden, you wouldn’t know it from hearing the 20-year-old speak. He doesn’t appear to feel pressure.
“I wouldn’t say I’m fazed by big crowds,” he says as an example, before recalling one specific foreign trip that was instrumental in his footballing education. “When we went to Frankfurt away in the Europa League I’d say that was one of the most crazy atmospheres I’ve been in. Even before the game my ears were ringing, it was so loud. I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ and I went and had a good game. I actually enjoyed it.”
That was September 2019, and Bukayo was sensational that night. First he set up Joe Willock to open the scoring on 38 minutes, then curled home his first senior goal from 20 yards on 85 minutes before still finding time to supply the pass from which Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang added a third to complete an impressive 3-0 win. A new star was born, but it was only a matter of months later that Covid-19 struck, football was suspended and when it did return matches took place behind closed doors.
“I can’t imagine doing that again,” he says. “The fans complete the atmosphere – they make the whole day feel complete – and the energy you get from the fans makes a big difference. I don’t wish to do it again.
“I don’t feel the pressure playing in front of a big crowd,” Bukayo adds. “However many people are in the stadium, you know that the game is being streamed and there could be millions of people around the world watching you. For me, I’d say I’m my own biggest critic so before anyone else criticises me I’ve already done it myself and told myself to do better. Big crowds don’t faze me.”
This would also explain why the youngster was so at home on the Wembley stage for England during last summer’s European Championships, and it speaks volumes about him that rather than dwell on the manner of England’s defeat in the final, he focuses on what it meant to get there in the first place.
“Wembley is probably my favourite stadium,” he admits. “If I remember correctly my England debut was behind closed doors, but it was still special because I grew up near Wembley and I always used to see it from the car driving past, so to make my debut for my country there was amazing.”
He does remember correctly, by the way – Bukayo’s England debut came when he started a 3-0 win over Wales at an empty national stadium in October 2020, little more than a year after he had lit up the Frankfurt Stadion. You get the sense that his memory is the sign of a sharp and analytical mind that, as well as being self-critical, stores away all of the highs, and all of the moves that come off, as well as the lows.
“I think Wembley at the Euros was one of the best atmospheres,” he adds – and that’s all he will say about a tournament that could have destroyed his confidence heading into this season – before making a point of praising our own supporters: “But this season the Emirates has been special as well.”
One match obviously stands out in his own mind, and it’s one of what he says are the relatively few number of games that he’s watched back later on. “I’ll only watch myself back or watch a match again if we’ve had a really good game. For example the north London derby – I watched that back a few times. But I wouldn’t normally say I go and watch myself back again and again.”
This is another hint that all the self-analysis Bukayo needs goes on in his head, and that the memories are locked away for future reference. He doesn’t need the ego boost of watching himself on television, because for him there are always plenty of other footballers to watch.
“It’s hard to say exactly how much football I watch during the week because it depends on when we’re playing, but if I’m free I’ll definitely watch the two live games on a Saturday,” he says. “I mostly watch the Premier League but if there’s a big game on in LaLiga, the Bundesliga or the French league, I’ll watch it.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, for someone who grew up idolising Thierry Henry and later, as a young professional, Alexis Sanchez in his Arsenal prime, the young Bukayo’s first experience of live football came a long way from north London.
“I’m not sure I should really say this, but probably the first big game I remember going to was when my dad took me Old Trafford when I was little,” he says. “I have to say, though, it was really nice because there are some special players that have played there in the past so it was nice to go and watch a football game there with my family.”
It was also the ground where, famously, Arsenal clinched the league title in 2001/02, although Bukayo says that if he could be present at any match in history it would be a different title celebration. “If I had to choose one Arsenal match I’d probably want to watch us win the league at White Hart Lane in 2004. That would be so sick to watch, I think, and the vibes after must have been amazing. So I’d pick that game for selfish reasons, but I have to say that if I could be present at any game purely entertainment it would be Barcelona vs PSG in the Champions League from 2017.”
This isn’t the sort of game that anyone who saw it is ever likely to forget. This was when Barcelona, trailing PSG 4-0 after a first-leg thumping in France, completed the unlikeliest of comebacks to win 6-1 on the night, despite still trailing 5-3 on aggregate in the 88th minute. Two goals in three minutes from Neymar and a 96th minute winner from Sergi Roberto created Champions League history.
“That’s probably my favourite game ever as a football fan – a fan of the game, rather than a club – because it was a really entertaining game and such an amazing comeback,” Bukayo adds.
Nights like that are a reminder of why football is the greatest sport in the world, and our No7 clearly feels little need to look beyond the beautiful game. “I don’t really watch other sports away from football,” he says. “If there’s a big basketball game on I might watch, but the problem is that the games are on so late I don’t really get to watch them.”
Much better, then, to go and watch them in person, and Bukayo can’t help but get excited when he looks back on his last trip to a sporting event that didn’t involve the day job. “I’ve been to an NBA game before, when I went to America, and that was really good. I really enjoyed it.
“I saw the LA Clippers vs the Dallas Mavericks because I was in LA at the time. I actually wanted to see the LA Lakers but they were sold out, so I went to see the Clippers instead and there were still some great players on show: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Dirk Nowitzki. It was a good game.
“In terms of sporting events I’d like to go to one day, I’m not a big fan of the Superbowl or anything like that, but I’d like to go to the NBA finals, courtside,” he adds. “I think that would be the most crazy sporting experience you could have.”
The atmosphere at big NBA games can certainly get heated, especially the closer to the court you are, but in football terms Bukayo can’t see anyone matching English fans for their loyalty and passion.
“Obviously I haven’t played in any other leagues, but I’ve played abroad for Arsenal and England, and I think you realise wherever you go, both here and overseas, just how passionate English fans are and how much they love football. It’s really evident when you go to any stadium how much the fans want their team to win.”
We know that level of support can have its downsides, for example when passion oversteps the mark on social media and becomes something much darker, but Bukayo has long impressed the players and coaches around him with his maturity and calm authority. He is well educated, well brought up and it shows. As a result he is comfortable meeting fans, even when it’s least expected.
“I actually met a fan yesterday when I went to my local shop – a kid who wanted a picture,” he recalls with a laugh. “Then his dad came over to me afterwards and told me we need to step up because we lost the last two games! Normally it’s positive when I meet fans but this one was a bit different!”
Thankfully he says it with a smile and the message appeared to be one of mostly polite encouragement rather than abuse. And thankfully fans do appear to be respectful in person, because there’s no hiding place.
“I think the strangest experience I’ve had with a fan must have been before the Covid restrictions were eased,” he says. “I was wearing a hat down past my eyebrows and a mask all the way up over my nose, so literally the only thing you could see was my eyes, and a fan came up to me and said, ‘Hi, Bukayo.’ I’d done everything I could to hide my face and cover my mouth so I could go out in public, and he still spotted me. I don’t understand how he could possibly have known it was me!
“I didn’t realise until recently what sort of effect it had on people – how happy they are to see me – so when I do see fans I try to give them some time, be respectful and say hello, have a conversation,” he adds.
Supporters really do appreciate that sort of approach from a player, and word does get around, but ultimately it’s what you do on the pitch that will determine the strength of the bond you create with your fans, whatever club you play for. Bukayo should feel satisfied that he already has his name immortalised in song.
“Definitely!” he agrees. “It sounds funny but it has always been one of my dreams to have my own song – when I was growing up and coming to the stadiums there were lots of special songs and I always wanted to have my own. It’s nice when I hear fans sing my name and it definitely gives me that boost to play even better.
“I obviously share the chant with Emile but I don’t mind that – it’s nice to share it with someone who’s come up with me from Hale End. The fans support us both and we just want to give our all for the team.”
Those young players, with your support, are expressing themselves in style. Long may it continue.
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