Feature

Joe Willock | In my own words

Joe Willock

Here’s something you won’t know about me: when I was younger, one of my legs was longer than the other.

I didn’t really notice it too much at the time because my body was growing a lot, but it soon became a problem. I remember my dad measuring how tall me and my brothers were and he noticed the issue. He saw that one of my knees was slightly higher than the other. 

I didn’t tell anyone at the time, I just tried to get on with playing football and training as much as I could. But then everything got harder. Having one leg longer than the other was affecting my running and my technical ability. I couldn’t play football in the way that I’d done my whole life, and it was the most frustrating thing I’d ever experienced. 

I was getting really annoyed at myself and I would take out my frustration around the training ground. I couldn’t focus on school work, I wasn’t as happy as I should have been and I was getting in trouble too. Everything rolled into one and I didn’t feel like myself. That was the worst thing about it. 

Joe celebrates winning the Haarlem Cup with our youth team

So you’re probably wondering how I fixed it. Well, to be honest, I didn’t. I couldn’t. I just had to be patient and wait for my shorter leg to catch up with my longer one. But until then, I had to adapt to my body. 

Have you ever had to re-learn a skill you’ve been doing your whole life? It’s not easy. My balance and everything that comes with that had been affected. Fortunately, it didn’t last for long but that was a really challenging part of my life. 

Eventually my legs evened out and I was able to play exactly as I had done my whole life. It was incredible. I didn’t feel annoyed anymore. I was doing well on the pitch, I wasn’t misbehaving because I was playing more football and I was happier because I was starting most games. Everything just fell into place for me really. As that got better, I started improving and learning more but above all, enjoying myself more.

It helped having one of my older brothers, Chris, there too. I always looked up to Chris as a big role model because he was doing things up here when I was at Hale End. He was really highly-thought of at London Colney, so I always wanted to be like him. 

Joe Willock

Joe (left) with Matt (middle) and Chris (right)

When I got up here, he always helped me. I actually came up here a year early, so I was in the same changing room as him. He always used to look out for me, told me to get to places on time and it was really helpful having him here.

It was really difficult for me to take when he left Arsenal for Benfica because we’ve always been together since we were born. We had always shared the same bedroom and were so close, so when he left it felt like a piece of me had left our family household. 

It was tough, but from young we’d always said that our dream was to become the best footballers we can. Me, Chris and Matty. All three of us. Together. Even if means we have to split up or go in different directions, that’s what we need to do. I knew the time was going to come one day where we weren’t all going to be together, but that didn’t make it any easier when Chris went to Portugal. 

I can remember Chris being there the first time I played football. We grew up in a place called Priory Court in east London and there’s a little concrete square with two goals. We used to put cones around the pitch and then all three of us would play, while my dad would go in goal for our knockout games. We used to practice every day and it’s because of my dad that we’ve become the players that we are today. 

Joe Willock

Joe and Chris sharing a pitch in Premier League 2

He would always make us focus on our technique. He never really focused too much on running or the physical side of the game, it was always about dribbling around cones and using the ball. I think that’s where the close ball control has come from, because it’s something we’ve worked on since we were very young. As there were three of us all around the same age, it was easy for us to learn from each other and push each other, and that’s how we ended up getting scouted by Arsenal.

All three of us joined the club when we were younger, before Matty went to Manchester United a few years later. I have so many happy memories of Hale End but the day that will always stand out is when all the first-year scholars were taken for a tour of Emirates Stadium.

It was amazing. I looked around, saw the massive stand, the beautiful pitch and that’s when I thought, ‘I have to play here’. I’ve always dreamed of playing at the Emirates so from that day, I made sure that I did everything I could to prepare myself for when the chance finally came along. 

I can remember Andries Jonker, the academy manager at the time, telling us that the hard work started on that day and even though I knew he was right, I didn’t realise it would be this much of a rollercoaster. The step up from Hale End to London Colney is a big one – it’s so much more intense up here. I wasn’t ready for that at the start but I feel like I’ve adapted well now and I’m enjoying every second. 

It’s going well with the first team. The first time I trained with them was when I was only 16 and I think someone got injured so they needed an extra man. I saw Neil Banfield coming over in a golf cart and he said that they needed a player. I’d just trained well with the under-18s, so Kwame Ampadu told me to go over with the first team. I was so nervous and I genuinely thought that my first training session would be my last if I didn’t do well. But I did well and got a good report by Neil, so it was a great experience. 

That day, Hector came straight over to me. He’s obviously been through the same journey as me, from the academy into the first team. He came over and was like, ‘Hi Joe, you alright?’ and then I saw Alex Iwobi too. I shook everyone’s hands and then got straight into it really. I didn’t really focus on talking to anyone too much, I just wanted to show what I can do. Everyone was very welcoming, though, and they showed me a lot of love. 

I’ve been with them regularly ever since and it’s great because I’m learning from the very best players in the world. It’s easy for me to see what the likes of Aaron Ramsey are doing in training, and it’s good for me to see how they handle things so that I can make sure I’m ready to play men’s football. I feel like I’ve done well, that I’ve shown little glimpses of how I can make a difference in the team. I’m just looking to continue pushing on and showing the coach what I can do. 

I’ve been with the first team for quite a while now so I feel like I’ve proved myself in training, but I still need to show them every day that they can have confidence in me and can pass to me. I’m a youngster still, so I don’t want them to feel like they can’t trust me on the pitch. They’ve always shown belief in me, though, and that’s one thing that I really like about this group of players. They’re not scared to pass to a youngster and let them show what they can do. 

I’ve also been fortunate enough to start a few games and let me tell you, that feels amazing. When the coach tells you that you’re starting, it’s a dream come true. That doesn’t just go for the first time, it’s every time I play and every time I step out on the pitch or am involved in the squad. 

It’s just about preparing myself before the game when I know I’m in the squad. It’s just about channelling my nerves and my thinking into the game. It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of doing, to have my name on the back of a shirt and to be playing for Arsenal Football Club at the Emirates.

To play in front of 60,000 people as an 18-year-old was mad. It’s something that I wanted to do to make my family proud. My dad and mum put so much hard work into making sure I had the best chance of fulfilling my dreams. To pay them back a bit is an amazing feeling for me, and I really feel as though I’ve shown what I can do so far. 

It’s hard to get to these key moments and not think about all the hard work that’s gone into getting here, all the cold nights at Hale End with my dad, watching games, playing games, in the car on the way back from a bad game I played. I think back to all of those nights where I’d refuse to eat because I was so upset with how I played for the under-12s or the under-13s. I always think about those games, and those experiences have helped me to channel my nerves and my desire to do well. 

The fans have helped, too. They make me feel more comfortable and that helps me to showcase my ability and my talent. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, so being at the Emirates makes me feel at home. I know it’s been a whirlwind experience for me because the journey from where I was to where I am now has come and gone really quickly, but I feel at home now. 

The hardest part of adapting to first-team football would be the demands on the body, playing against older and experienced players, players who have played more than 100 games for their clubs and national teams. That’s been a hard experience for me and the pressure is massive too. It’s not just about playing for three points in the under-23s league anymore, it’s playing for a trophy and for people’s jobs. I feel like that’s been the hardest thing for me to deal with: the pressure. 

But on the other hand, it makes me even hungrier to get into the first team and keep my spot there. I want to become a regular and play more than 100 games for the first team, but I also want to become an inspiration to others as well and show people what they can do. 

You don’t have to go down specific avenues because of where you come from or because of what you’ve experienced in your life. Look at what I’ve been through and where I am now – I want people to believe they can achieve their dreams too. 

You have to put in the work, too. I’ve worked my whole life for a chance like this and now that it’s there, I’m not going to waste it. I’m ready to show everyone what I can do.

Joe Willock

Joe Willock

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