This interview originally appeared in the October 2015 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
There have been two phone calls – some seven years apart – that have helped define Francis Coquelin’s career.
The first resulted in him leaving France, bidding au revoir to his family and friends and taking a step into the unknown. The second, somewhat less welcome, call launched him into the big time – although he did not know it at the time.
But to start his story, let’s head back to 2007 when a 16-year-old Francis was still in school and studying for his baccalaureate.
A keen student, he had found school “quite easy” up to that point and his language skills and literacy had been noted by his teachers, who encouraged him to consider a career in sports journalism. It was a natural path for the teenager, who had excelled at both judo and then tennis before turning to football.
It was here that Coquelin found his calling. Having played on the streets throughout his childhood, he was soon a star at Stade Lavelloise and later selected for the French youth teams – where he would catch the eye of Arsenal’s French scout, Gilles Grimandi.
"It was a difficult decision because I had to leave my family"
He was soon invited for a trial in London where, despite a thigh injury, he did enough to impress.
“When I left Arsenal I wasn’t sure whether I would come back,” Francis reveals to the Arsenal Magazine. “I remember my first training session with the first team and it was war. I said to the boss at the door when I left, ‘This is different!’
“I remember seeing two players fighting in training, and I had an argument with Jens Lehmann as well and I was thinking, ‘Wow, where am I?’ Two weeks later we had the European Under-17 Championship and I was more worried about whether I would be alright to play in that.”
Unfortunately the injury ruled Francis out of the competition, but there was a pretty sizeable consolation on the way. A few weeks later, he was sitting at the back of the classroom when his life suddenly changed.
“I can’t remember what the lesson was, but I could feel my phone vibrating in my pocket and I had a quick look when the teacher wasn’t looking and saw a weird number,” he says. “I left it but in the break I saw I had a voicemail and it was the boss.
“He said he was really pleased with what I had done [on trial] and would really like me to come to the club.
“In France, everyone recognises his voice because he commentates on the national team’s games, so I made my friend listen to the message and they said, ‘Yes, that’s Wenger! This is crazy!’ It was something strange. Everyone came and listened one at a time, and that message was probably played a good 30 times!”
London was calling and, despite his initial reservations, he could not turn down the opportunity to cross the channel. But he admits those early days in a new city, with new team-mates, speaking an unfamiliar language, were tough.
“It was a difficult decision because I had to leave my family. But I thought it was time for me to go, so I went,” he says. “It was tough at first. When you’re young, staying in a hotel room and not doing anything, not seeing your friends, not speaking the language, eating different food... it’s hard.
“Then I was straight in training with the first team, so I wasn’t really in with the reserves who were my age, and the only guy I could talk to was Gilles Sunu. He was injured at the time so the first month was difficult for me.
“But what helped me a lot was when I moved in with my first lodging family in Enfield – the Twitchings,” he adds.
“I’m still really close to them now and actually feel like part of the family. It really helped because I was talking to them every day so it felt a bit like home. On the pitch I felt much better too, and then I got to speak the language. My first year was unbelievable to be honest.”
Coquelin played a key role in the Arsenal side that won the 2009 Youth Cup – although he is amazed that only him and Jack Wilshere remain at the club.
“We had so much talent in the squad so to see only two players here now shows how hard it is to make it at Arsenal, because it’s such a special club. There were a few players who I expected to be in the first team, like Henri Lansbury who was really good, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas who was a real talent, as was Sunu.
“There were loads of players like Kyle Bartley, even Luke Ayling, who were terrific when we played at that age. The whole squad were really good. When you see that on the bench we had players like Oguzhan Ozyakup, who recently played for Turkey and scored against Holland, you see that the whole squad was really strong.”
Coquelin and Wilshere’s career trajectories took wildly divergent turns. While the latter was drafted straight into the first-team squad, the French midfielder had to bide his time.
He had made his mark on the international stage, being named in the team of the tournament as France won the Under-19 European Championship in 2010 before they finished fourth at the Under-20 World Cup a year later.
But opportunities at Arsenal were harder to come by, and despite impressing in a variety of roles he was sent out on loan, firstly back to France with Lorient and then to Germany with Freiberg.
He appeared to be no nearer a breakthrough at the start of last season, and it began to dawn on him that he might need to seeks pastures new if he was to make good on his early promise.
“It crossed my mind to leave in last year’s transfer window, but I didn’t want to leave just to leave – if I was going to go I wanted it to be for a good thing and it didn’t come,” he says.
“After that I was really focused on Arsenal but I knew I was pretty low down the pecking order so I was focused on working really hard even if I wasn’t in the squad. “I had a few chats with the boss and he was happy with the way I was training. After three or four months I said I wanted to go on loan and he said it was a good idea so I went to Charlton.”
It proved to be a far happier experience than his previous loan spell in Germany. Coquelin had missed the thrill of regular first-team football, and he thrived in the Championship. But with Mikel Arteta facing an operation on his ankle after a series of calf problems, Francis received another fateful phone call last December.
“Before coming back it was probably the best time I’d had for a year and a half because I had a really difficult experience in Germany and at Charlton they gave me the taste for football,” he says. “I really felt wanted there and the boss of Charlton really wanted me.
“I could see my team-mates really trusted me even after a short period of time so it was a good feeling to get that back.
“Then Dick Law called me to bring me back to Arsenal. It was really weird as a week before I saw that we had a few more injuries and my contract at Charlton was finished, but I was told Arsenal had given them the green light to extend the deal.
“So I thought, ‘Stay focused on Charlton, as it is finished with Arsenal,’ but then two days later I got the call to come back. That’s football – you never know what to expect.
“After playing every game and then suddenly coming back and being on the bench in the same situation I was in a few months ago, it was hard,” he adds.
“But I spoke to the boss and he said to keep working and that I would see, and in the end he put me in against West Ham [on December 28].”
Coquelin’s impact was as immediate as it was unexpected. Always known for the timing of his tackling and his high-energy game, he instantly provided the steel to the rest of the team’s silk – bursting into challenges, breaking up play and forming an almost telepathic partnership with Cazorla at the base of the midfield.
The results just kept on coming – the Gunners won 15 of their next 17 games – and Francis was at the heart of it all, patrolling the space in front of the defence, winning the ball back and doing the ‘dirty work’ that needed to be done.
The highlight was the 2-0 victory at Manchester City in January that helped change the narrative surrounding an Arsenal side that had previously struggled on their travels against their biggest rivals. Coquelin was a force of nature in midfield, and he admits that even he was surprised at how quickly he had hit the ground running.
“I always believed in my qualities and the other players around me made me look good on the pitch and I tried to make them look good as well,” he says.
“We got some very good results away and the second part of the season was really good. The team spirit was great and I was just enjoying it. I always thought I could do good things. Did I think it would be this big? Maybe not,but I always had confidence in myself.”
Never has that been more clearly expressed than in the FA Cup final. Aston Villa had been tipped by many to spring a surprise at Wembley, but within the first 15 minutes a series of crunching Coquelin tackles had set the tone – this was to be Arsenal’s day.
"I saw all my family watching me win the FA Cup"
Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez may have dominated the post-match headlines, but supporters across the world were quick to praise their midfield enforcer.
“I knew it was the last game of the season so at the final whistle I was thinking that it had been a crazy six months and you have just won the FA Cup,” he says with a smile.
“You just don’t know where you are and I saw all my family watching me win the FA Cup and that was just an incredible feeling. I look back at it now and it was a crazy moment so hopefully there will be more to come.
“For the future, I’m definitely making my targets smaller than making Euro 2016. Everyone is talking about it, and obviously it is a massive thing but I’m focused on Arsenal. We have a great squad but there are still a few people doubting us and I’m focused on clearing these doubts. I hope we can do something special this season.”
It will be hard to top last season’s drama, but Francis has a habit of defying expectations.
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