Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent.
I’ve heard that saying so many times, the coaches and players always remind us – especially the young players. First of all they’re trying to teach us to be professional on the pitch, because obviously we represent Arsenal and we need to be a team and a unit.
We need to be professional, whether that means being punctual or your attitude on and off the pitch. Growing up, I’ve always had respect for the club. I always wanted to do my best for the club, so I try to be professional.
Arsenal’s standards are very high so I’ve always tried to reach that. Arsenal have always been one of the best clubs in the world, so to even be a part of the club from a young age I’ve always had to give my best, show why I’m here and prove myself. Arsenal has always been like that.
My family moved from Lagos to London in 2000, when I was just four years old. Because I’m from a football family, I started playing from young and was spotted by Arsenal when I was at Rippleway with Chuba Akpom. Back then it was simple: I’d look for Chuba and he’d score. We were only six at the time so after we’d been scouted, we spent two years at the club’s developmental centre before signing and moving to Hale End when we were nine.
I have a lot of memories of that place. It’s changed quite a lot since when I was there, but I still have memories of going on to the astroturf and having Steve Leonard as my coach. He always used to remind us to give 100 per cent and that’s the main thing that I’ve held with me ever since.
The day that I found out that I was getting my scholarship was a bit tense, because there were I don’t know how many boys left, but only three of us got the scholarship and I never thought I would be one of them. I was almost released at 14 and again at 16, so I wasn’t feeling very confident about it.
We usually found out in December who might be kept on but I kept on getting the question, ‘Is he good enough?’ So they extended it to see if I could do something and it went to March and then April. Luckily I did enough.
Then at 16 I had the option to leave but I always felt at home at Arsenal and that was where I wanted to be. At 16, there were a lot of good players, a few internationals in the team at a young age so it was difficult for me to stand out. They always want the best and I wasn’t really up there at that age. The fact that I kept getting chances made me feel lucky, so I couldn’t believe it when I was given a scholarship. But then I came straight back down to earth again when I left Hale End for London Colney.
You have to become a man really quick, and that’s what I had to prepare for; for being in a man’s environment. There were people like Sanchez Watt, Craig Eastmond, Jernade Meade, Chuks Aneke and Benik Afobe – there were a lot of players there. It was a talented group, especially as most of them came from Hale End, so I watched them play for the reserves to see how they got on and how they carried themselves. It gave us the belief that if players like them could do it, why couldn’t we?
We just had to apply ourselves like they did. It wasn’t easy, though, it’s a different environment. I was training every day compared to the three times a week that I was used to. You have to get yourself physically ready, mentally ready and there’s a lot of obstacles in the way. You just have to psych yourself up every day for training and even in matches.
Obviously when I first arrived I wasn’t really starting under-18s games, I wasn’t even playing in the FA Youth Cup much until my second year. My family and friends always gave me the belief, saying that I had to just prove myself and show my ability and that I would make it to the top. If you have that belief and confidence, you always do well.
But then I met one of my biggest heroes and my confidence went through the roof. I couldn’t believe it when I was told that Thierry Henry was going to come and coach us, and I will always remember this one thing he said. He would always say that a lot of people play well, but if you haven’t impacted the game or done something that people recognise, then you really go unnoticed. Basically for an attacking player, you have to get that goal or you have to get that assist.
People would be like, ‘What did Alex do in that game?’ I would score a goal or get an assist, that was the main thing for me. I was happy and excited to work with him because he’s a legend at Arsenal and because of the way he used to get his goals, the way he used to play, the way he used to create goals or score solo goals. It was just an honour to work with him.
At the end of that season I was training with the first team quite a bit and played a couple of cup games, so I was getting used to training with them. When I went to Singapore with them in the summer of 2015, I knew I had the opportunity to break into the first team but I never expected to play as much as I did during my first season.
After making my debut in the League Cup against Sheffield Wednesday, Arsene Wenger told me that he wanted to keep me around the first team and give me some gametime in the Premier League. To hear that from such a legendary manager was one thing, but just four days after playing against Swansea, I was playing against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena.
By the end of the season, I’d scored two goals for Arsenal, two goals for Nigeria and had started a game against Barcelona at the Nou Camp. It was crazy to play against the best players in the world. It's a young man's dream, especially at the age of 19. I never thought I would be playing against the likes of Messi, Suarez and Neymar.
When I think back to it, it still feels mad. At the time I didn't know how to feel, I was just buzzing, I just wanted to go and prove to the world what I could do. We lost 3-1 in the end but when I came off the pitch, I remember thinking that I was going to go on loan at the start of the season and now here I was, playing against the world’s best at the Nou Camp.
Everything changed that season. I was training with the first team every day and I started to feel more like I belonged in the first-team dressing room. It was the longest walk from the reserve changing room to the first-team changing room, but to actually accomplish it was just amazing.
I’d also started playing for Nigeria much more and had the maddest experience when I scored the goal to help us reach the World Cup. I didn’t know what to do when the shot went in, I just ran off to the corner and I was almost crying, I couldn’t control it. To see how the fans were reacting, to see my mum and dad… it was just an amazing feeling. It was almost like everyone had won the lottery, they were just jumping. To reach the World Cup isn’t just the players’ dream, it’s the fans’ dream as well and for me to get the goal for us to go through made me so proud.
Although we didn’t make it through the group stage, playing at a World Cup is something I always dreamt of doing, but I never knew if I would. To be where I am today, I’m just grateful but there’s a long way to go and I’ve still got to give 100 per cent. I still have to continue as I did as a kid. Arsenal has been always been a big club in my eyes and I’ve seen them win loads of trophies. To be a part of it is just amazing, I just want to make history with the club. I want to win trophies, titles - anything! I want to win as much as I can with Arsenal.
As a kid, even when I was going to school, to say I played for Arsenal was an honour. To actually wear the Arsenal shirt and walk out at Emirates Stadium and see all the fans is an amazing feeling. The very first kit that I had was an Arsenal shirt, and I’m still as honoured and proud to wear the shirt today. I can’t wait for that to continue.
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