My first day at Arsenal? Yeah, that was the most daunting day of my life.
It all seemed like a bit of a whirlwind really. Just one month before I’d come off the bench for Cardiff City in the FA Cup final and now… now I was parking up alongside all these nice, flashy cars at London Colney.
Just looking at those sports cars made me realise just how far I was away from driving my lime-green Ford Fiesta around Caerphilly, but it really hit home when I went into the dressing room for the first time. I’d been at Cardiff my whole life and had only started playing regularly for their first team that season, but here I was at a Premier League training ground about to meet all these international players. It just felt so surreal.
I was only 17 years old at the time and the one thing that kept going through my mind was, ‘Are they even going to know who I am?’ because I’d only played a handful of games for Cardiff. To be honest, I doubt any of them would have heard of me, let alone seen me play!
It seems like a bit of a blur now, but I can just remember going into the dressing room and introducing myself to the likes of Cesc Fabregas, William Gallas, Robin van Persie and Tomas Rosicky. They were all these amazing, established players but I dread to think what they were thinking at the time. They were just looking at me like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’
I think I was aware of that at the time, so I just kept my head down for the first few weeks and just tried to train as well as I could to gain their respect that way. That was the key for me actually, I was quite quiet so I just got on with my work and tried to let my football do the talking. A lot of people might find it funny that I was so shy back then because of how vocal I am now, but back then it was all about keeping my head down and learning as much as I could from the players around me.
After all, I still had so much to learn. I’d been used to the pace and the level of training at Cardiff, and my first few sessions at Arsenal were a huge step up. In my first training session we did a load of mannequin work and one-touch passing routines, and I felt a long way off the level required for the Premier League. The quality, accuracy and crispness of passing was way above what I was used to, so I really had to focus and test myself.
At first, it was such a steep learning curve but I always kept one target in my head: to become the best player that I could possibly be. I realised I would have to work harder than I had ever done before but I knew that I would be given the opportunity at Arsenal to reach that level one day.
Not only that, this club gave me the chance to continue playing regular first-team football while I was still only a teenager. That was one of my doubts about leaving Cardiff, that I would have to take a step back from the action when I moved here, but thankfully that was never the case.
I’m obviously so grateful to the club for that opportunity and I also have to thank Arsène Wenger for giving me the platform to succeed, especially in those early days. In a relatively short space of time, I was able to learn so much from the boss and the world-class players that I had in the team around me. I would always watch them closely, especially our midfielders, and would try to take little bits from their games to make myself a more well-rounded player. Tomas’ burst of pace, Samir’s close control, Cesc’s one-touch passing… I was choosing what I loved from their games and trying to add them all to mine.
It wasn’t just about watching, though, I knew that I could ask them for advice whenever I needed it and, while all the experienced players would help me, Cesc was the player who would always stand out in training sessions for me. He played in my position back then and the numbers of assists and goals he would get, as well as his passing ability, was just brilliant.
Looking back at it now, I don’t think you realise how big an impact other people are having your career at the time. It’s maybe one of those things you take for granted, something that you don’t need to consider because you’re flying in the first team and you only need to focus on the next game. Well, that’s how it was until that evening in February 2010.
I remember what happened clearly. After the tackle went in I saw that my leg was broken and hanging at an angle. That’s when I was really fearing for the worst. I was still only 19, my leg wasn’t right and I didn’t know what would happen to me next.
The medical team ran on to give me gas and air, and then I was in the back of an ambulance. When I was on the way to the hospital, the doctor told me straight away that we would get through this, and that I would get back to where I was. I believed in it, and the medical staff and specialists believed I was able to handle it mentally.
They had to move my kneecap aside, put a metal rod through the middle of the bone and attached it with two screws up there. From there the new bone started to grow and then it was just about trusting the medical professionals around me to get me back to fitness.
I also had my fantastic family and friends around me, which helped me through that time. To be around them, and to see them more than I usually do, was really nice. They were a massive help. Besides that I had loads of support from all different types of fans, from all around the world.
I think there were 80,000 messages left on the club's website and I got a lot of letters – even from Tottenham fans – saying I was a really talented player, and that they were hoping I would come back as quickly as possible.
All that support helped me return to training that October, eight months after the injury, but I still didn’t feel right. I was just starting to run and jog but when I did some passing drills I noticed that not all aspects of my game were completely there, so the boss decided to send me to Nottingham Forest and Cardiff to get some minutes under my belt.
When I came back to Arsenal, it was all about regaining confidence in my body. Once I’d done that, things started to go really well. You see, as soon as you’ve experienced an injury like that, it takes a while for you to trust your body 100 per cent but after two seasons back with the club, I felt I could do that during the 2013/14 season.
The boss had loads of chats with me after my injury and always said: 'Never let it get to you, because I know what you can do’. I think I showed exactly what I could do during that season and it’s because I wasn’t worried about anything that had come before. I was blocking it out, focusing on giving things a go, going into tackles fully committed and for the first time in three years, playing with the handbrake off. I was fully committed to everything.
I did everything I could to make it the season where I could have no regrets. I set up nine goals and scored 16 more in 34 games that season – and there were some good ones in there, too! The volley against Norwich, the strike against Liverpool and the goal against Sunderland, but my favourite came at Wembley.
Ever since I was a young boy, I wanted to score an FA Cup winner, and to do so was an amazing feeling and something which will always be with me. I can remember the ball somehow breaking for Oli. I thought I’d make that run in behind and try to give him an option for a backheel. I didn’t even have to break stride, it was just one of those passes that I could run onto and hit first time. I managed to get a clean strike on the ball and thankfully it went into the bottom corner.
The immediate emotion was just overwhelming. It was a game that had everything and it was just a great, great feeling for me. Then when the final whistle went there was this sense of relief that we’d won a trophy that I’d dreamed of lifting when I arrived back in 2008.
That goal means everything to me and it’s right up there in terms of my biggest achievements. To be able to lift the trophy twice more since - and score in another final against Chelsea - is unbelievable.
See, so much has happened since I’ve been at this club. On the pitch I’ve played alongside some truly world-class players and have won trophies, while off the pitch I’ve got my own family now. My responsibilities are a lot different to what they were when I pulled into the London Colney car park all those years ago.
It's 11 years of my life that I have spent here and so much has happened to me on and off the field. I have really grown up here. I'm just grateful for the opportunity to have played for this club for such a long time.
The fans have always been there supporting me over the years. There have been a few lows but lots of highs and the bond has been so strong because I have been here for such a long time and they have been with me through thick and thin.
They’ve watched me go from a boy to a man, and they’ve always been good to me. I’ll miss so much about this wonderful club and now that I’ve said goodbye, I guess there’s only one more thing to say…
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