By Rob Kelly
Today is the day Jack Wilshere will have been dreaming of for months. It is a day certain to live long in the memory of the England international for years to come. For today is game day - and Jack is back.
It has been a lengthy, at times tortuous, journey for the 20-year-old. A stunning breakthrough season in 2010/11 saw him anointed as the outstanding English player of his generation. His breathtaking display in the 2-1 defeat of Barcelona at Emirates Stadium spoke of a glorious future for both club and country.
But then disaster struck. An ankle problem sustained in the Emirates Cup game against New York Red Bulls on July 31, 2011 halted his progress - coupled with a later knee injury - and he has not been on a pitch for 14 months.
But that all changes this afternoon. Wilshere has done the hard yards, he has worked tirelessly in the gym: now it is time to do what he does best, play football. It may not be the Nou Camp or Wembley, but The Hawthorns will feel as good as anywhere he has played because it means that the nightmare is over.
The wider world will be watching on closely, but none more so than Arsene Wenger. Wilshere is the jewel in his crown, and the Arsenal manager is certain he will come back stronger than ever.
“He will be a better player because if you have this kind of injury at the age of 20 you will take off again and move forward normally,” he said. “If you have the injury after the age of 25 it is different. At his age it is no problem.
"It's difficult to predict [how long he needs to find his best form]. You want people to be patient. After three months of competition for sure he would be back. It takes a while to find the little burst again.
“He has had ups and downs and many downs because he had a few setbacks. He dealt with it very well, especially in the last three months. He was highly focused every day, he was in every day very early and worked all day through. He is rewarded now with a good condition.
“When you are so young and out for 14 months that is a good test for your mental strength. On that front he has been absolutely brilliant.”
This afternoon’s game is about more than Wilshere, though. Terry Burton’s under-21 side will also be bolstered by the addition of Emmanuel Frimpong, back after a seven-month spell on the sidelines with a knee injury.
The Ghana-born midfielder made a 17-minute cameo in the Capital One Cup victory over Coventry, but is expected to feature more heavily this afternoon against West Brom. Indeed, Frimpong hopes to be on the end of some bruising challenges, if only to prove his long-term fitness to his manager.
“I don't think for either of them that you would fear them not going into challenges,” Wenger said. “That is not the case for Frimpong or Wilshere. They are two boys who like contact.
“We have to be a bit cautious with both of them. They had serious injuries and were out for a long time. They have good basic fitness, now the final part of the comeback - it is not always the easiest one - is to find a competitive level again through competition. Sometimes that can take time.”
Elsewhere, Burton will be hoping for a better performance from his team after their disappointing 4-1 defeat to West Ham United last time out. After such a positive start to the season, it was something of a surprise - but with Wilshere and Frimpong strengthening the team, hopes are high for a swift return to winning ways.
- We will have live tweets throughout this afternoon's match at the Hawthorns on the @ArsenalLive account from 1.55pm (UK time)
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