Feature

'I scored and the goals kept coming'

Alex Iwobi - Strikes it lucky

This interview first featured in the September 2015 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.

 

The September edition of the Arsenal Magazine is out now

The September edition of the Arsenal Magazine is out now

 

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With the 2014/15 season drawing to a close, Alex Iwobi was still an unfamiliar name to the majority of people outside Arsenal Football Club.

However, by the end of the campaign, he had established himself as one of the most clinical finishers in the Under-21 Premier League.

The 19-year-old winger had been a regular for Steve Gatting’s side and captained the Under-19s to a last-16 finish in the UEFA Youth League, before being named as an unused substitute in Arsenal’s Champions League victory at Galatasaray.

It was all shaping up to be another good season for Alex in the Gunners’ Academy set-up, but a small slice of fortune transformed that good season into a great season.

Chuba Akpom’s loan departure to Nottingham Forest had left Arsenal Under-21s short in attack for the final eight games of the campaign and, despite having played the majority of the season on the wing, Alex soon found himself deployed as the young Gunners’ first-choice No 9.

“There was one training session where we didn’t have a striker,” he recalls as he walks through the players’ car park at Arsenal’s London Colney training base.

 

Alex Iwobi and Chuba Akpom

Alex Iwobi and Chuba Akpom

 

“Chuba had just gone out on loan and we were having to call on a few of the Under- 18s to cover, so the coaches looked at me and thought, ‘We might have to give Alex a go up front.’

“They played me as a striker for the rest of the session and I was getting a few goals, so I started the next game up front. It was a friendly against Brentford at the training ground and I scored twice. Then the goals just kept on coming.”

He is not exaggerating either. A hat-trick against Stoke City for the Under-21s at Emirates Stadium followed, before goals against Middlesbrough, Brighton, Bolton and Wolves propelled his tally from four to 11 in just five games.

“When you start scoring you’re just buzzing. You can’t wait to get into another game and score another goal. The more goals you score, the greater you feel,” he says.

“I’ve proven I can score goals now. Playing on the wing, I always used to aim for assists but when I’m playing up front it’s all about the goals. I’ve got a few tricks in my locker as well so hopefully I add a little bit of flavour to the team.

“I guess in a way I owe Chuba for the chance I got up front,” he laughs. “It’s sad to see someone leave on loan, especially such a good friend, but him going to Nottingham Forest gave me the chance to play and I feel I took it.”

Alex’s scintillating form caught the eye of Arsène Wenger, and the manager involved him in pre-season training sessions alongside Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott before including the teenager in Arsenal’s Singapore tour squad.

 

Dan Crowley, Chris Willock and Alex Iwobi head to Singapore

Dan Crowley

 

“At the start of pre-season I was training with the first team and then at the end of the week there was a small squad announced,” Alex recalls. “I had my hopes up and then the squad was revealed and I was absolutely buzzing.

“We travelled a day later and it felt weird, but in a good way. The lifestyle is different, going on an Emirates plane all to ourselves with every first-team player you watch on TV or play as on FIFA, but as the days were going past I got used to it and really enjoyed myself.”

Alex had to adapt quickly. Many Arsenal fans were surprised to see the teenager’s name in the starting line-up against a Singapore Select XI, and the forward admits that Arsène Wenger’s decision caught him off guard as well.

“He let me know the day before the game. We had a little meeting after dinner and then I just saw my name. First I was looking at the bench to see if I was making the substitutes, but then when I saw my name on the starting line-up I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’

“To make my debut was incredible, especially in Singapore where there are so many fans,” adds Alex. “I knew the club had supporters all over the world but it was crazy in Singapore.

"We couldn’t even get onto the bus without them banging on the sides of it and shouting for Ozil and Cazorla. Then I heard one person scream my name and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know that I had a fan!’”

"It makes me believe that if I can do it against a really good team like Lyon I can do it in the Premier League"

Alex Iwobi

Sixty thousand more Arsenal supporters would be screaming Alex’s name one week later. The forward’s exciting display in Singapore resulted in a starting place against Lyon in the Emirates Cup, and it only took the youngster half an hour to finish in the same goal that he had scored a hat-trick in five months earlier for the Under-21s.

“Walking out of the tunnel and seeing everyone roaring was just a mad moment,” he recalls. “The fact that I scored and played quite well made it even better. I’m going to cherish that moment for the rest of my life.

“I can’t even say what was going through my head when I scored, I just saw the break, Chambo had the ball and started running. I thought, ‘I could get a chance here,’ but then it got played out wide and I thought the chance had gone, so I was just focusing on staying onside.

“Then Chambo passed to Ramsey and I thought, ‘I’m free in the box,’ and then he gave me the ball. There was pressure coming from the right and I knew I had to take the shot first time. Luckily it went into the top corner and I couldn’t believe it.

“It could have been even better because I put the ball in the net again a few minutes later and I was about to celebrate, but then I saw the linesman’s flag and I was gutted.”

Wenger was certainly impressed after the game, hailing Alex’s team attitude, power and goalscoring efficiency, and the forward was delighted to receive such glowing praise from the boss.

“It’s a massive motivation just to be able to be with him and train with him every day,” says Alex. “He’s done enough for me already but for him to then say those things is a massive confidence boost.

“It makes me believe that if I can do it against a really good team like Lyon I can do it in the Premier League. Hopefully if I get the chance this season I’ll be able to take it, but I’ll have to wait and find out.”

"It’s great to play on an amazing pitch in front of so many fans. I enjoy playing at Boreham Wood as well and I like that there’s one fan called Maria who is always singing Arsenal songs really loudly. She’s not given me a song yet but I hope she will this season."

 

Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide

Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide

 

It's not inconceivable that Maria might be able to launch into an Alex Iwobi song when the Gunners join thhe Capital One Cup in October, where the teenager is hoping to impress the first-team manager as much as former Under-21s team-mate Hector Bellerin did in 2013.

“I’d like to play a few games for the first team here and there. Hopefully I’ll be involved in the Capital One Cup, so it’s just about getting minutes for the first team now.

“Hector made his first-team debut in the competition before he went out on loan to Watford, did well there, and then took his chance against Borussia Dortmund last season.

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"He’s played very well since and the rest is history. He’s just doing his job really well and he’s a real inspiration for me."

Another of Alex’s influences is his uncle, legendary Nigeria midfielder Jay-Jay Okocha, and the 19-year-old revealed how growing up alongside a world-class footballer has moulded him into the player he is today.

“I remember one time he was playing for Bolton and I was lucky enough to go and watch with my dad,” he says.

“Then we were just having a kick around and he came over, showed me something and then I’d be like, ‘How on earth did he do that?’! Then I would go away and spend the next few days trying to learn it.”

Like his uncle, Alex’s entertaining displays have generated plenty of excitement in his birthplace of Lagos. The talented forward has already represented England at under-18 level but Nigeria are keen for him to declare his international future to the Super Eagles, giving Alex a tough decision to make.

“Right now I would say I’m pushing to play for Nigeria,” he says. “Playing for England was a good experience but Nigeria gave me a great opportunity to go and play for my home country, and also follow in the footsteps of my uncle, so I think that is going to be the pathway for me.

“He told me that if I played for Nigeria I could become even better than him. To hear that was massive because he was a great player. He’s given me a challenge and I might have to accept it.”

For now, though, Alex has his feet firmly on the ground and is focused on continuing to develop with Arsenal Under-21s. We can’t wait to see how he gets on.

 

Alex Iwobi

 

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