Know Kieran Gibbs just a little bit, and you’ll be aware that attention seeking is the least of his concerns. The Arsenal left back has never been one to court the limelight, his unassuming nature remaining exactly as it was when he passed through the Gunners’ academy midway through the last decade. Now, though, it’s getting harder.
While he may not want to shout about his growing list of achievements in an Arsenal shirt, the back story that led to it is well worth telling - and Kieran gladly held court to the Official Arsenal Magazine this month.
“It was just all about football since I was young, really,” smiles the 23 year-old. “My grandad, a lifelong Arsenal supporter, and dad both loved the game. "We must have started when we were about five, my brother Jaydon and I, playing in the garden, over at the park, out on the streets, anywhere we could. We lived in a council estate called Waddon, just off the main Purley Way in South Croydon - everyone knows each other around there and you’re well looked after. There were loads of kids in the area and people were always up for a game.”
Most people can remember battles of wits with their parents when it came to spending too much time at play, and Kieran is no different.
"It was all about football since I was young, really"
“Mum was quite strict - well, she tried to be! She didn’t want us playing outside too late, but we were always quite resistant. I remember being in the house one night with Jaydon, sitting and watching from our bedroom window while kids outside set up goals where two of the drives were in our road. Literally the whole street was out there playing, and there we were, stuck indoors. It was quite late, but eventually mum gave in and told us we had half an hour - so out we went, and she didn’t see us for quite a while! It was just what we loved to do.”
The closest of twins, Kieran and Jaydon have been a double act since day one. “It’s been that way from the moment we were born, I reckon,” he says. “We were always quite competitive with each other too, although it was a bit of an unspoken thing. It’s just in our nature. We’re different in some ways, though - he’s always been the louder one, and he’ll tell you exactly what he thinks. He was always known as the cheeky one and has a bit of a wit about him. Jaydon’s a bit of a character, always has been.”
A characteristic common to both was genuine, stand-out footballing ability - something that would carry them a long way together in their early years.
“We played for our primary school - I remember moving up to the year five team when we were in year three,” says Kieran. “Then we joined Purley Panthers, our first real team, when we were nine. I remember those days so clearly. We trialled for their ‘A’ team at first, they were all older than us, but I didn’t realise that at the time and wondered why everyone was so big. We fitted better into the ‘B’ team, and that was where we started.
"It was quite a strong league - the Tandridge League - but we dominated it and eventually ended up in the same division as the ‘A’ team. It meant we had to play against them, and the build-up felt amazing at the time, it was just the biggest game you could play in. We knew all their players. In fact they had one guy called Gary Pride who spent a year or two up at Hale End later on. On the day we won 5-2, delighted scenes in front of a massive crowd of 20 on Purley Playing Fields, imagine it!”
The Gibbs twins were, of course, at the forefront of their team’s successes, but Kieran admits it was his brother who stood out during their early years. “He was always known as the speedster. He was a striker and would get most of the goals. I was just a midfielder, the assists man. He’d probably argue about this, but I had a bit more skill while he definitely had the flair.”
During three years at Purley Panthers, the pair’s promise was no secret in local circles. How did this go down at home? Kieran explains that he was never pushed along the path towards football stardom.
“Mum was always there for us at the games, but I don’t think she was really aware of how good we were. Dad? Yeah, I think he knew. Mum has always been very protective of us, and just wanted to show her support. We had different influences from them, but neither of them ever put any pressure on us. From the very start, they just wanted us to do what felt right for us.”
The influence of both parents is clear, but Kieran believes he takes after one more than the other, and wants to explore the heritage of that side of his family.
“I think I’m more like my dad,” he says. “I see me as my dad and my brother as my mum. Dad’s family are from Barbados - I’ve been there once, when I was 11 I think, and plan to go out there again this summer. I speak to my grandparents over there pretty often, and it’ll be nice to visit. I’m told we have family all over the place, in Canada for example, but I haven’t met many of them yet. I was mainly raised by my mum, so I’ve had more contact with her side.”
Kieran and Jaydon continued to develop pretty much in tandem, and the step they took from Purley Panthers at the age of 11 proved a defining one.
“I think we’d been scouted for about a year,” he recalls. “Neither of my parents were interested in us going to play for an academy because they didn’t want us to take it too seriously, but after a few trials - I remember one at Millwall - we decided to join Wimbledon because it was our local team.
“That was quite a shock, I can tell you going from Purley to Wimbledon. You go there and you can’t quite believe it at first, all these flashy kids with their personalised boots and training gear, tape on the shinpads, all the rest. It was surprising enough to see the coaches handing out bibs, because we’d been used to wearing whatever football shirts we had at home.
"So it took us a while to settle, but as time went on we developed some really close friendships. James Dunne and Abu Ogogo, who both ended up here as well; Lee Hills, who’s now at Stevenage; Jack Page, another good mate of mine. It became a really good, close-knit couple of years and I enjoyed every minute. Training twice a week and playing on a Saturday, you start to really learn about the game.”
There were some early brushes with stardom alongside the hard work. Kieran and friends would attend games at Selhurst Park during the back end of Wimbledon’s pre- MK Dons existence, often undertaking ballboy duties for a side whose days of Premier League overachievement had recently come to a close.
“I remember going to the training ground seeing all the first-team players training and thinking, ‘wow, this is crazy’,” laughs Kieran. “People like Nigel Reo-Coker, Neil Shipperley, Mikele Leigertwood, Jobi McAnuff: they were the ones to look up to. We used to go and watch the games every weekend, and it felt quite inspiring.”
In 2003, things changed, famously for Wimbledon and decisively for Kieran. The club made its long-mooted move to Milton Keynes that September, having entered administration, and within months the disbandment of its academy set several careers spinning in new, and exciting, directions.
"You should see some of the team photos from back then, it’s a joke. I’m like a kid next to young men!"
Kieran remembers: “I didn’t really understand what ‘administration’ meant at 13, so none of that really interfered with my football. I actually played in a few games up at Milton Keynes, which was a bit too far away from Croydon, before leaving.
“We just went along with what was going on. I remember playing at Arsenal one day and hearing a few days later that they were interested in me, James and Abu. I didn’t really take it seriously, but then mum asked Jaydon and I if we wanted to go along and see what Arsenal were like, and it went from there.”
It was at this point that Kieran and Jaydon’s previously intertwined paths began to diverge. Kieran is at pains to stress that it wasn’t a matter of talent, and pinpoints the period in which their destinies started to become clearer.
“It was only towards the end of our time at Wimbledon that things changed really. I was growing a lot and he stayed exactly the same. That’s a problem in your teens - especially at a club like Wimbledon where, no disrespect, they did like big players. His ability never changed at all, he’s a really good footballer, but that was the issue. It was simply that I began growing at a different rate to him.
“Jaydon came along to Hale End as well, though. He trained with the younger lads like Conor Henderson and Henri Lansbury. Then he trialled at places like Brentford and Leyton Orient, but then I think he had to make a decision. He was trialling at all these places, and eventually you have to decide whether you’re going to stay on at school or whatever else. In the end he got an apprenticeship as a site manager in London after leaving school, and at around that time I signed here on a scholarship.”
If Purley to Wimbledon felt like a giant leap, leaving the Dons to join Arsenal was another. Again, Kieran describes his progress as something of a slow burner. “We’d travel up after school twice a week, sometimes I’d get the train but most of the time one of my parents, my mum’s partner or my aunt would drive us. I was lucky, I always had someone to take me to places and support me at games, wherever they were played. At the time you don’t quite understand the sacrifices that are being made for you.
“But again, I struggled at first when I arrived here. Coming to Arsenal from anywhere else is going to be a big thing. It took a while to know people, know the area, and north London’s completely different to south London - I thought I had grown up in an urban area, but this was something else!”
On the pitch, though, he started as he meant to continue - in surroundings that couldn’t have been more memorable. His eyes light up. “My very first game was actually at Highbury. I joined towards the end of the 2003/04 season and all the age groups would play their final home game on the pitch at that time of year. We were playing Southampton, I came on and scored four or five minutes later. I just couldn’t believe it, scoring a goal at Highbury. It feels weird to think about it now!”
It was a moment that set him fair for steady progress, even if patience was very much required as he strived to win that all-important scholarship. “Even though I was bigger than my brother, I was still really small. You should see some of the team photos from back then, it’s a joke, I’m like a kid next to young men! The other lads all seemed more developed than me, and while I played for the under-16s a number of the other lads - James for example - would see their names up on the board at Hale End saying they were in the under-18 squad.
“All I could do was carry on. I really wanted to play for the under-18s but I wasn’t stupid - I knew I was pretty small and that the step might be too big. I was patient, and eventually I got the call-up. When that happened, it was an absolutely massive moment for me.”
From then on, a scholarship to further his career at London Colney seemed a sound bet, but, as you’d expect, the wait still felt fairly agonising. “I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I just wanted to know what my future was going to be, because I was studying and had plenty of schoolwork to do. I wanted to stay, but had to wait. When Liam Brady told me the good news, it just set things up for me.”
From there, things moved rapidly. There was a reserve-team debut against Boreham Wood, in pre-season of Kieran’s first year with the under-18 setup. There was also the small matter of goals at both Emirates Stadium and Old Trafford, as a richly talented side was eventually edged out by Manchester United in the last eight of the 2006/07 FA Youth Cup.
“That whole era felt really exciting,” he says. “We had a really strong team and I was convinced we were going to win the Youth Cup. We were destroying people in the league and I used to think ‘who’s going to beat my team?’ But they beat us 4-2 at Old Trafford after I’d scored the winner at the Emirates in the first leg - it was so disappointing at the time, but we knew we had some real talents.”
That cup run effectively signalled the end of Kieran’s involvement at junior level. In July 2007 he found himself debuting for the first team in an Emirates Cup game against Inter Milan (“A huge step, I just hadn’t expected it and had no idea I was playing until half an hour beforehand. It felt like pure luck”); two months later he was signing his first professional contract and, a month after turning 18, making his competitive debut in a Carling Cup tie at Sheffield United. With the latter, there was a small catch for a winger who had been likened to Ryan Giggs after that clash with the Italians.
“There were a few injuries, so the manager told me he’d like me to play at left back. I’d never played there before, it was totally new to me. The game went ok, I set up a goal for Eduardo, and Neil Banfield said I’d be playing there from now on. People ask if I was disappointed, but I honestly wasn’t - it was hardly as if they were letting me go or something that. I just took it for what it was, and was happy to get used to it.”
The subsequent period of acclimatisation, which included a decent loan spell in the Championship with Norwich City, involved playing understudy to Gael Clichy, who was arguably at the peak of his Arsenal form. Even at that age, was it frustrating to a player who had become accustomed to rapid progress?
“I had no choice. I just had to study the players that were playing. Gael never really gave me a chance, he had a really strong run when I first came through and didn’t really have any injuries or lapses in form. All I could do was watch him closely and learn the role through him. It was frustrating at times, because I got to the stage where I’d only played a few games and wanted to feel more comfortable, both at that level and with the new role. The only way to do that was to play more, but eventually that came.”
"The period after that was probably my worst time. I really suffered, thinking I’d let the team down. But after a while you do start thinking about it differently - it wasn’t a technical mistake, a bad back pass or anything like that, it was something that could just have happened to anyone"
The second half of the 2008/09 season saw Kieran thrust towards the sharp end, making a Premier League debut at White Hart Lane, featuring in a Champions League win over Villarreal and starting at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea. Then came a moment that could have brought far-reaching consequences. With Arsenal a goal down on aggregate to Manchester United in the Champions League semi-finals, and Emirates Stadium awash with expectation for the second leg, an unfortunate slip just eight minutes into the game handed Ji Sung Park the chance to effectively put the tie beyond the Gunners. Such a moment can devastate a young player, but looking back, was it the kind of incident that just goes with the territory as you develop?
“I think you’re right, but maybe on different scales,” says Kieran. “At the time it seemed as if I was only playing in big games - the FA Cup semi final, the Champions League. These things do have to happen, but this was at a pretty high level. The period after that was probably my worst time. I really suffered, thinking I’d let the team down. But after a while you do start thinking about it differently - it wasn’t a technical mistake, a bad back pass or anything like that, it was something that could just have happened to anyone. In the end I had a choice: let it affect me, or get on with it. We still had three league games to play, so there was only one option.”
Bounce back he did, becoming an England Under-21 regular in the bargain. By August 2010, he was debuting for Fabio Capello’s full England side against Hungary. But things hadn’t come easily in between. A succession of injuries began when a tackle by Standard Liege’s Eliaquim Mangala broke his metatarsal in November 2009, ruling him out for the rest of that season. He would play only 30 times for Arsenal in the next two years. The phrase ‘injury prone’ began to float around the mouths of fans and media, and he admits that there was a time when he feared his career was on the edge.
“Breaking my foot triggered quite a lot of my injuries,” he says. “It took me eight or nine months to get over that injury, which turned out to be really serious in the end. I remember the doctor ringing me. He said he had bad news, and I thought he was going to tell me I wouldn’t be able to play again. In fact, he told me I needed to have more surgery, and funnily enough the boost that gave me was massive. Coming from a moment when you think that’s it, you’re finished, to one where you realise you can carry on is such a great feeling, a massive relief, and I used it as motivation to approach my recovery positively.
“Before that I’d never really had injuries, but in the next couple of years I had quite a few and it was really frustrating. I did my knee and rolled my ankle, and later on I had a hernia. I just got on with it and never really listened to any comments. I just knew the most important thing was that I got back and let people judge me on my football.”
He’ll have plenty of time to show it further, a new long-term contract having been freshly penned in December. It’s something he couldn’t have imagined a decade ago when fighting for his future at Wimbledon, and something he certainly won’t take for granted.
“I don’t take it lightly. It just increases what I want to give back to the team and the people who’ve given me the chance to represent Arsenal. I feel very privileged and determined to do well for this club, and repay the faith they’ve shown.”
And if he ever did need bringing back down to earth, Jaydon’s still very much on hand. Now a useful semi-professional player at Guildford City, he’s also Kieran’s long-standing flatmate - and, as ever, the twins are quick to share in each other’s sporting successes.
“He moves between our family place and my place up here, but he’s with me most of the time,” says Kieran. “I go and watch him whenever I’m not playing. My best friend plays for them too, Jack Guilford - ‘Guilford plays for Guildford’, that’s what we sing! Jack went to my school, and played for Purley in the age group we should have been in. It’s great that they’re playing together now.”
It’s this combination of enjoyment and loyalty that, you strongly sense, is more important to Kieran than anything else.
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