This story first appeared in the November 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
"No matter how many people are there, there’s always someone important in that ground watching who you have to impress"
On this particular evening, more than 3,000 travelling Arsenal fans were packed into the away end at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, ready to find out who would be the next youngster to follow in Alex Iwobi’s footsteps by making a name for themselves in senior football.
The familiar names of Emiliano Martinez, Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Chuba Akpom were listed as starters on Arse?ne Wenger’s team sheet, while some of those involved with the first-team’s pre-season tour of California – Krystian Bielik, Gedion Zelalem and Chris Willock – were named on the bench.
Almost in keeping with the narrative of Arsenal’s Academy products having a point to prove, two even lined up for Forest. Henri Lansbury and Nicklas Bendtner were looking to cause a major League Cup exit on their first starts against their former side since leaving the club permanently in 2012 and 2014 respectively. Perhaps the youngster most eager to impress, though, was going about his business quietly and efficiently, playing in an unfamiliar role at right back.
Naturally a central midfielder, Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ blistering pace resulted in him spending much of his youth playing on the wings. However, it was not until a first-team training session in September that he realised he could have a future at full back too.
“I found out that I would be starting the game at Nottingham Forest a couple of days before in a training session,” he tells the Arsenal Magazine. “The boss tried me at right back and said, ‘You might have a place here in the future. Just make sure you keep working hard.’
“Actually starting that game was such a good experience. Even if it was at right back, I still felt comfortable in that position. It’s a case of me learning more about the defensive side of the game. Sometimes I’ll play at right back but then I could be playing in midfield in the future. It doesn’t matter where I’m put though, I just want to play for the first team.”
Although the 4-0 victory was Ainsley’s first senior start for Arsenal, it was not the teenager’s first time playing for Wenger’s side. Less than two months after signing his first professional contract alongside his good friend Stefan O’Connor, the duo were thrust into Champions League action, with Ainsley becoming the second-youngest player to represent Arsenal in the competition after Jack Wilshere.
The midfielder made his Premier League debut four days after that promising 45 minutes in Turkey, again coming on as a substitute, this time in added-time for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in Arsenal’s 4-1 win over Newcastle United at Emirates Stadium.
“That was a life-changing moment,” he recalls.
“You see the players we train with step out on the field in front of 60,000 people and you just hear the roar as well when their name is called out. For that to be me, it put a huge smile on my face and I just had to thank my family and God for every opportunity I’d received.”
For some, walking out at Emirates Stadium after only playing in front of under-21 crowds would be intimidating. However, thanks to some wise words from his childhood, that’s never been the case for Ainsley. “When I was a kid my dad always told me, ‘No matter how many people are there, there’s always someone important in that ground watching you who you’ve got to impress,’” he explains.
“Being young and learning that, I’ve always played my best whether it’s in front of 60 or 60,000 people. I’m not fazed by how many people are watching me.” He can back that up too. After impressing in his brief cameos, Ainsley was rewarded with a season-long loan to Championship side Ipswich Town in 2015/16, where his quick feet and direct runs were such an instant hit with the fans that they named him their Player of the Month after his first few appearances for the club.
“It was a great confidence boost, that’s for sure,” he smiles. “It started very, very brightly. I didn’t get to play as much as I wanted to at the end of the season but I still got to play regularly in the Championship so I can’t be sad about it. It changed the way that I’m thinking now, and I’ve grown up as a person and a player too. “Football can be ruthless so you’ve got to learn to be a man quickly.
“You don’t see a lot of 17 or 18-year-olds playing week in, week out in the Premier League so you have to grow up fast and take things as they come. You can’t moan about things because they’re not going your way – you’ve got to find a way to change it.” Although the end of last season did not match Ainsley’s characteristically high standards, there were still plenty of highlights during his season in Suffolk, including his goal against Rob Holding’s Bolton Wanderers and a sensational strike at Portsmouth in the FA Cup. “They’ve been the biggest moments in my career so far,” he recalls. “To be able to score at that level, and one in the Championship as an 18-year-old as well, is something everyone dreams of. “While I was at Ipswich I was always working on my shooting, cutting in from both sides and working on producing a deadly shot with both feet, so I probably score more goals with my left foot these days! “Against Portsmouth I just thought that I should shoot and it went into the top corner.
I was really happy with it and it was crazy to do something like that in front of 20,000 fans. The noise inside Fratton Park made it feel like we were in the Bernabeu!” While playing at the Bernabeu may seem like a distant dream for a 19-year-old, Ainsley’s good friend Alex Iwobi proved that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough when he made his Champions League debut at the Allianz Arena before starting at the Nou Camp while still only a teenager. “It was quite surreal because you don’t expect so many people who are your age or even a year older to play first-team football,” Ainsley says. “At Arsenal we’ve got me, Chuba, Alex, Gedion Zelalem’s in the same boat and there’s also Chrissy Willock who’s not far away from playing first-team football either. “There’s a few of us trying to push through and we’re all in the boss’ eye line. Me and Alex talk a lot because we’ve been friends since we were young, so seeing him do it just makes me even hungrier to do it as well. “I’m now training regularly with the first team which helps too. Alex sometimes pulls me aside and says, ‘Look at what we’ve got in our team. We’ve got Alexis, Mesut, Olivier’ and so on. “They’ve all played in World Cups and the likes of Per, Mesut and now Shkodran have won the World Cup too, so there are a lot of players with international experience in our team. It just shows how good Arsenal really are, and how good you need to be to break into the team.” In addition to the established players and the next generation of young talent, there are also Premier League newcomers in Granit Xhaka and Lucas Perez, who Ainsley has to compete with on a daily basis for limited first-team places.
“There’s a lot of new faces back here, a different type of football to what I became used to at Ipswich,” he says. “Mick McCarthy was very old school and liked to play a certain, direct way like most teams in the Championship, but he also maintained a very high standard. If you weren’t up to that standard, you were out of the team, regardless of who you were.
“In that sense, playing Under-23s is really different to first-team football. Now, it’s about me using that experience, applying it to under-23 football, and also sharing those experiences with team-mates. It’s now my responsibility to show them what’s right from wrong and help them push on in their careers.“
Given the size of Arsenal’s squad, there was a chance Ainsley could have spent this season away from north London too but, after a pre-season meeting with the boss, the midfielder decided to wait patiently in the wings for his opportunity.
“The boss told me, ‘If you do stay then I will look to play you because I think you are more than capable of playing, but there are a lot of players here at the moment,’” Ainsley recalls. “I thought about it and decided that if there are injuries, then I could be in the first-team squad at some point. “It’s hard because at first I thought, ‘What am I still doing here after playing a season in the Championship? Now I’m playing under-23 football.’ But, if the boss sees me doing it in an Under-23s game after seeing me do it last season, he’s going to remember me and I could be one of his first-choice picks for a cup game.”
One thing that will have certainly caught Arse?ne Wenger’s eye is Ainsley’s ability to find the top corner for 30 yards. In addition to his stunner against Portsmouth, the teenager also scored from just inside Stoke City Under-21s’ half in 2015, and recently became an overnight sensation after his screamer against Brazil Under-20s for England Under-20s. “I’ve still not had the chance to watch it back yet so I’m not 100 per cent sure what happened,” he laughs. “I just remember the ball fell to me about 30 or 40 yards out and I just took it first time. “I saw the ‘keeper off the line and put it in the top corner. It’s just about confidence. If you don’t have the confidence to try those things then you’re never going to find out whether it works or not. I had the confidence and the execution and look what happened.“
Despite arriving on the international scene after many of his team-mates, Ainsley’s consistent and exciting performances have seen him establish himself as a key part of England’s youth set-up and, most recently, be named Under-20s captain. “I have worked on my leadership a bit but I’ve always been a talker on the pitch because I think communication is key,” he begins. “You need to be talking to players and telling them what you need from them. They tell me what they need from me at all times, so it’s only right that I repay the favour. I do the same in senior football too. When I first made the step up to the first team, I thought I was going to be a bit quiet, but I’ve grown into the atmosphere and now I’m just myself around all the players. I’m now just laughing and joking around with them on the coach to games.”
So, does Ainsley believe he can be the next youngster to follow in Alex Iwobi’s footsteps?
“If I’m honest, my biggest target this season is to start a game in the Premier League or Champions League. But for now it’s just about me pushing to cement my place first. “Alex didn’t just get one start and then continue starting games, he got introduced to first-team football slowly. It’s just about taking your time on the pitch and becoming the most effective player you can to show the boss what you can do. Hopefully then I’ll get the game time.”
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