In last season's matchday programme we featured an exclusive long-read article with Eddie Nketiah, as the striker remembered special nights at Emirates Stadium early in his career. Having recently signed a new contract at the club, we have reproduced the interview here...
It was in the Carabao Cup fourth round, four years ago, that Eddie Nketiah first shot to prominence in an Arsenal shirt. Aged just 18 at the time, the striker had already started to carve out a growing reputation as a natural goalscorer at youth level, and now he was going to be given his chance with the first team.
With 24 goals in each of his first two seasons in the academy, he was fairly hammering on the door of the senior side. His debut came as an 89th-minute sub away to BATE Borisov in September 2017, and four weeks later he was named on the bench again, this time for the Carabao Cup fourth round tie at home to Norwich City.
Going into the closing stages, the Gunners heading out of the cup.
“We were losing 1-0 and there were about five or six minutes to go,’ says Eddie, taking up the story. “I had been warming up for a while, and was still warming up.
“I could see the time was running out, I kept looking up at the clock and I was gradually edging closer and closer to the bench while I was doing my warm-ups. I was thinking ‘come on, please!’ The time was running out.
“Then the manager called me to come over and I just sprinted over so fast like ‘get me on quick!’” he laughs.
He didn’t stop running. Straight onto the pitch and straight into the penalty area as Theo Walcott stood over a corner. Francis Coquelin flicked on the cross and there was Eddie to stab home from close range with his very first touch and draw us level.
Six minutes into extra-time he scored again from a corner – this time with his head – to give Arsenal a memorable win.
“I think it was something that was just meant to be, “ he beams. “I thank God for the opportunity. Sometimes you come on as a substitute for five minutes or so, and people don’t realise that you might not even get two touches of the ball. You can’t do anything if you don’t get a chance. But honestly for that game, I wasn’t thinking about anything other than I just wanted to get on the pitch.
“It was my home debut so all I wanted to do was play. I wanted to show what I can do, and then obviously when I did get on, my thoughts changed to ‘I want to help the team now’. I’m an Arsenal fan, so I didn’t want us to lose! We had to get back into the game. Being a player and a fan as well means you really care about the results, and I was desperate to do something when I got on.”
Only a fine save from Alex Gunn later in extra-time prevented Eddie from scoring a hat-trick but it didn’t matter. The Emirates faithful had found a new star, and at the final whistle, it was his name that was ringing round the near sell-out stadium.
“Yeah it was a perfect introduction to the fans. Perfect. To come and score with your first pitch, it doesn’t get any better than that. Well that’s what I thought, but then to go on and get the winner as well – it did get better! It was just surreal. I have to say, in terms of emotion, it’s going to be hard to top that moment in my career. Obviously I hope I score loads more, but that first goal means so much.
“Growing up through the academy, having my family there at the Emirates watching the game, it was surreal, and the way it happened, winning the game as a sub. It was a dream, so I’ll always remember it. Especially because the fans made it so special.
“When I think back to that game, I think back to the reaction of the crowd, and having a chant on my home debut! It’s unbelievable. It was so loud, the crowd chanting my name. I kind of zoned out a bit after scoring the second goal because it was such a crazy feeling, but then I hear the chanting: ‘Eddie, Eddie!’ It was amazing, and my team-mates made it even more special for me the way they were congratulating me. I’ll forever be grateful for that experience.”
Not many of his team-mates could claim to have had the whole stadium singing their name on their first appearance at the Emirates. But Eddie had actually had a headstart. Shortly after he joined Arsenal’s academy from Chelsea, when still playing for the under-15s, he was part of the side that took on West Ham at the Emirates near the end of the season.
“Yeah, I was a lot younger, maybe 14, and we had a youth game at the Emirates, because we used to have a game there at the end of every season. All the age groups were there on the same day, and your family could watch.
“I remember I scored that day too. Now I think of it, that was my first time ever playing at a proper stadium, with the dressing rooms, amazing pitch, people in the stands – everything. We could get as many tickets as we wanted, so I did! I had a lot of people there from my family and all my friends from my area came too.
“It was a one-off game, not a tournament, and the buzz when I scored was great. I went for the big celebration too! Knee-slide man, definitely,” he grins
It didn’t take long for young Eddie to realise he was made to perform in front of a crowd.
“In youth football I’d only been used to playing at Colney for the under-16s and under-18s,” he continues, “in front of just family and friends. But then I made my first start for the Under-23s at Boreham Wood, against Leicester I think.
“I was only about 17 at the time and there was quite a good turn out. It was in a proper stadium, we won 3-0 and I scored a hat-trick. It was a great experience, but scoring at the Emirates for the first-team, that’s just way bigger.
“I had quite a good record in front of goal at youth level, which I was proud of, but the first senior goal is different,” he says. “And that comes back to the fans too. That’s what makes it special, and gives it extra, because you can’t replace it.
“That buzz you get after scoring a goal in front of a crowd is an addictive feeling. Scoring and celebrating with the fans. It’s nothing like scoring in an empty stadium. It brings everybody together, and that’s what football is about, that togetherness. I still meet fans now and they will say to me ‘I was there when you scored against Norwich!’ It’s great, it’s a shared experience and a moment that you have with the fans, and obviously that didn’t happen in those lockdown games.”
Not that Eddie’s form was hugely hampered by playing behind closed doors. He scored seven times during the lockdown period, which is nearly 50 per cent of his all-time total for the first team.
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He much prefers playing to a crowd though, and believes the standard of football has improved since the return of fans.
“Yeah, I would say personally that I think the tempo of the games are a lot quicker since the fans are back in. I just feel like there’s more of a buzz around, that creates more adrenaline and there is more interaction as well. It’s why people say the fans are like the 12th man, because you get something extra from the buzz.
“For me when you score a goal in an empty stadium, it’s not that same kind of enjoyment as when it’s full. When you can celebrate and interact with the fans – that’s what makes it special. For me personally that was what I missed during the lockdown games – the moment when you score.
“Obviously throughout the game you miss the crowd, but something you can never replace is the noise when you score a goal. That eruption in the stadium, the team celebrating together and feeling that unity with the fans. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
And maybe Eddie feels this special bond with the Arsenal fans because… well because he’s one too.
Eddie joined Arsenal from Chelsea in summer 2013 and it was about this time that he enjoyed his most memorable visit to the Emirates as a fan, and witnessed first hand another historic goal against Norwich – this time scored by one of his future team-mates (who was on the pitch when Eddie scored his match-winning brace against the Canaries), and now current training partner.
“The first game I really remember going to was that game against Norwich, when Jack Wilshere scored that lovely goal. That fantastic team move, I will always remember that.
“I was in the crowd that day and that’s the game that has stayed with me. What a goal that was and what a player he was as well. It’s great to see him back training with us now.
“I grew up as an Arsenal fan, it was in my family – my dad had grown up as an Arsenal fan so it was always there. Thierry playing there when I was really young, those are my first memories. So yeah, being an Arsenal fan as a kid it was a really happy day when I came over to join the academy.”
And as he says, he’s still a fan now. Being immersed in the game day-to-day has not dampened his enthusiasm for football as a supporter. He recently went to watch one of his friends play for Dulwich Hamlet in the Conference South (“it’s good to see that side of it, and my friends come to support me when I play, so it’s good to go and see them when I can too”). And when he can’t get to games in person, it’s rarely off his TV screen.
“Yes, I’m a big football fan, I watch a lot of games in my free time,” he reveals. “Growing up me and my friends would go to each other’s houses and watch the games. When we could we would get tickets and go to games. When I was going through the age groups as a player we would get a lot of tickets and I used to love going to the games. First when I was at Chelsea then when I was about 14 I came to Arsenal and they also gave us season tickets so I was able to come and watch most of the home games.
“So whenever I could I’ve always gone to games with my friends.
“On TV it’s usually just the Premier League I watch,” he continues. “When I was younger I watched La Liga a lot mainly because of Ronaldinho – he was one of my favourite players growing up. I loved him, so whenever Barcelona were on and he was playing I’d make sure I watched that. But now it’s mainly the Premier League, and I still try to watch Match of the Day every weekend too.
“I enjoy watching football, I enjoy being a fan and love to see goals basically. Sometimes I like to switch off as well though, and it’s important to have things going on away from the sport, but I never miss the big games on TV.”
Eddie watches for enjoyment, but also he says, to develop and improve his own knowledge of the game. This extends to quizzing his current and ex-team-mates about their own experiences in football.
“I do that all the time. I speak to Joe Willock a lot at Newcastle. Just because he’s not a team-mate anymore doesn’t mean we’ve stopped being close. I grew up with him here, playing since we were 14, so he’s like a brother to me.
“And Reiss (Nelson) as well. He’s on loan at Feyenoord now so I catch up with him, ask him what it’s like over there. We chat about what he’s doing but definitely I’m interested in the football as well.
“Even when I was with England Under-21s I’d talk to the other players about where they play, what the environment is like because it’s good to get a feel for what it’s like at different clubs and in different countries.
“You never know what will happen in football so it’s good to learn about other places and have an open mind. It’s good to have those experiences in life.”
Eddie gained some of those life experiences himself during a successful loan spell with tonight’s opponents Leeds.
The striker spent the first half of the 2019/20 season with Leeds, scoring five times and ending up with a Championship winning medal as Marcelo Bielsa’s side went on to win the league. He quickly endeared himself to the passionate Leeds fanbase, scoring on his debut away to Salford in the Carabao Cup before netting the late winning against promotion rivals Brentford as a sub on his league debut.
The latter was his first taste of a sold out Elland Road.
“Playing there, that was a top atmosphere as well to be fair,” he explains. “I had played at Salford the week before, and even at that game the away end was packed out. But my Championship debut was against Brentford was amazing. It was 0-0 when I came on with about 15 minutes left. Brentford were one of the other top sides in the division, so we needed a goal. I came on and scored and the whole place just erupted.
“It was right up there for me. I think that’s when I was first bringing out the phone celebration, but I couldn’t do it because I got absolutely mobbed by the whole team! I still had a sore back the next day where everyone had jumped on me!”
That was all priceless experience for a 20-year-old forward. Now aged 22, Eddie has already sampled a few intimidating atmospheres in away games too. The all-time record goalscorer for England Under-21s, with 17 goals from 16 games, Eddie is well-travelled in world football and, has played 15 games in European competition for Arsenal as well.
But it was one the games in which he was an unused sub, that he counts as his most intimidating so far.
During his debut season in the first-team squad, just a week before his headline-grabbing display against Norwich, he was
part of the squad that travelled to Belgrade, and returned with a 1-0 win in front of 50,000 Red Star fans.
He says: “Yeah I think the Red Star Belgrade game stands out. The stadium was mad, it was tight to the pitch, there was whistling throughout and to be fair that was intimidating. It makes you want to play in it though. You hear about those tough away games, but you want to play in it, to experience it. It’s part of football. I try to zone it out when I am playing, but when you are on the bench maybe you take it in a bit more.
“Then when you are on the pitch you are a bit more motivated, you want to score to silence them, so I quite enjoy it to be fair.”
Whether it’s scoring to silence the opposition fans, or scoring to make his fellow Gooners erupt with joy – it’s a sensation you sense Eddie will never tire of.
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