His public image may be that of the joker of the pack, the world’s foremost practitioner of all that is ‘dench’, but there is another, more serious, side to Emmanuel Frimpong. And when his close friend and team-mate Benik Afobe was at his lowest ebb, the time for fun and games was over.
It all started on a Tuesday night in March, as Afobe - on loan at Millwall at the time - ran to close down a Wolves defender 10 minutes into a match at The Den. A momentary slip, an awkward landing and a shooting pain stopped the talented young striker in his tracks. His game, and season, were over.
"Having family and good friends around you is the most important thing, other than the rehab"
In the days immediately following the diagnosis of his anterior cruciate knee ligament injury, Afobe was understandably low. Having already experienced a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a serious hip problem in 2011, he was facing up to further hours, weeks and months of bed rest, rehab and solitary gym work. He had been deprived of his greatest joy, football, and it hurt badly.
It was Frimpong - having recovered from two cruciate injuries himself - who helped him in his hour of need. “People see Manny and think he is always laughing and joking, but he sat me down and told me that it was not going to be that bad,” the 20-year-old says. “He pointed out that he had managed to come back and it really helped me a lot. Jack [Wilshere] was also a big help. He was out for 18 months, and he knows what it is like. Some days I would say to him that I felt a bit down or was experiencing some pain, and he would reassure me that it was normal, that it doesn’t click straight away, that I had to keep working hard on my rehab and talk to the physios.
“Those two were so important, not just because of the injuries they had but also due to the fact they are two of my closest mates at the Club. Having family and good friends around you is the most important thing, other than the rehab. If you have negative people around you or your mind is not right, there is no chance of you getting back to your best.”
Speaking at the training ground back in November, just days after his successful comeback for the Under-21s against Aston Villa, Benik’s dazzling smile is back. Eight months have passed since that fateful day at The Den, and his love for football and Arsenal is undimmed. He talks of his comeback game as if it were the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro, rather than on a freezing cold night in Boreham Wood. But his enthusiasm is entirely understandable.
“When you’re injured, all you think about is coming back - you don’t think about how you are going to be when you return. You just want to be playing with your mates again. I have seen a lot of young players do well and the team is obviously doing really well, and while I was so happy for them I wanted to be out there and be part of it. So to be back now is just the best thing that I could ever want. I’m so happy.
"I’d missed matchdays; preparing with the whole team, travelling to the stadium, listening to music on the coach. I just thought to myself, ‘This is it’"
“I think the moment I thought, ‘I’m back’ was when I put on my tracksuit [at the training ground before the Aston Villa game] because it was the first time I’d worn it for a long time. I had played a [behind-closed-doors] friendly against a Nike XI team, but for that we just came in wearing our normal gear. But on the day of the Villa game I put on my tracksuit, had the pre-match meal, and I thought, ‘This is what I’m meant to be doing’. I’d really missed matchdays; preparing with the whole team, travelling to the stadium, listening to music on the coach. I just thought to myself, ‘This is it’. I don’t normally get nervous but I did for that game. It had been a long time coming.
“I’d missed being around the team and laughing and joking about on the training pitch. Even the hard stuff, the running and the fitness work, I missed it all. I like scoring goals and claiming assists – that is what I live for.”
Some players who are sidelined for an extended spell retreat from football, not wanting to be reminded of what they can no longer take part in, but that was not an option for Benik. A student of the game, he used his time wisely, watching games from around the world closely and studying the best players on the planet. It’s an attitude a certain French manager would approve of.
“I watched a lot of football; I’ve learnt a lot,” he smiles. “I’ve studied a lot of strikers around Europe, like Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo. I know he’s not a traditional striker, more a forward really, but I think in the modern game you have to be able to play as an attacking midfielder or winger as well so I watched a lot of attack-minded footballers.
“The three players I like a lot are Luis Suarez, Ronaldo and Lewandowski. Olivier Giroud has also been fantastic this season, the way he brings people into play and holds the ball up is so impressive. He has been playing with much more confidence. Last season was his first in England, but he still scored a lot of goals and he has started this year brightly. He is a real team player, which is something I really admire about him.
“Ronaldo should win the Ballon d’Or all day long - he is my favourite player in the world at the moment. Chuba [Akpom] loves Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and we were having an argument about who is better: Lewandowski or Ibrahimovic. I said ability-wise maybe Ibrahimovic is better, but in terms of work rate and who brings more to the team, it’s Lewandowski. Me and Chuba always have these kinds of debates, because we both love football and we get on really well.”
Akpom has perhaps benefited most from Benik’s enforced absence as he has been handed the first-team chances his more senior team-mate might have enjoyed had he been fit, but there is not a trace of jealousy from the forward. “Football is like that - you get unlucky at times and someone else takes their opportunity. I obviously have nothing against Chuba, that’s just how football works. We’re good friends, and when he was doing well and scored on the Asia tour I was the first person to text and congratulate him. I have never been a jealous player. If I had my way we would play up front together, but there’s some way to go for that to happen still!
“I’m not stupid, I know it’s going to take time to get back but after playing with the Under-21s I would like to play with a first team this year. If it was here, that would be perfect, but if it’s somewhere else on loan then so be it. I want to be playing first-team football by the end of this season. That’s my aim.”
As we are finishing up, I ask Benik what he feels he has learned from his spell on the sidelines. He pauses, takes a moment, and gives the kind of thoughtful answer we should expect from this intelligent, deeply driven character.
“A long time ago, an ACL injury would have been career threatening, but with medical advances and the surgeons we have today, and the rehab we have in place at the Club, I knew I could come back even sharper. I’ve done my speed tests and I actually have quicker times than I did before my injury! Strength wise I have bulked up a bit, plus I have been eating healthily and have lost a bit of body fat. It could be a blessing in disguise in some ways.
“I have definitely got much stronger mentally. I know people say that sometimes you go through ups and downs with your rehab, but I have to be honest, I was never on a down. I was upset in the first week maybe, but after that I have been positive. “I’ve learnt that a lot of things in life come down to your mentality. If that’s right, you can’t go much wrong.”
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