It’s been more than five years since Reiss Nelson made his Arsenal debut, in the Community Shield win over Chelsea as a teenager back in 2017.
Since then the forward has enjoyed loan spells in Germany and the Netherlands, and played 50 times for our first-team. But most importantly, he says he’s grown up, taking all these experiences to make him aware of the opportunity he has now.
“I’m 22, I made my debut when I was 17, and I feel I’ve learnt a lot since then,” he begins. “When I was younger I was maybe the ‘cheeky chappie’, very loud and just doing my own thing, which probably got me into trouble a bit!
“I wasn’t really good with time-keeping and things that I should have been doing, I was doing what I wanted. I made my debut at 17 and was training with the first-team at 15 and 16 so I felt like I had all the time in the world. But if I could give one bit of advice now, it’s that time goes just like that.
“So any opportunity you do get, it’s a basic thing, but live it and understand it to the full, because you never know how quickly your career can go.”
From being the wide-eyed youngster in the team, Reiss is now in a position where he can pass on what he’s learned, to those now taking the same path as him.
One of those is 15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri. The Hale End youngster – an attacking midfielder like Reiss – has not only been training with the first-team, but made his debut in September, becoming the youngest player in our history. So has Reiss had the opportunity to give any advice to the talented teenager yet?
“Yeah I’ve spoken to him a little bit and that’s what I said to him – it happens very quickly when you look back. I understand how it is when you come over to the first-team for the first time, and the coaches are explaining the drills. The older players might know what they are asking us to do, because we’ve heard it before, but the newer players, it can be hard to pick up everything that was said.
“I listen to it all, but the coaches will say it once and you’ve got to pick it up straight away. I’ve been here a long time now, so I understand it, but even for me a lot has changed while I was away on loan, so you’ve really got to take it all in. whenever I have Ethan in my group, I try to tell him: ‘bro they are asking us to do this or that’.
“It’s things like that which can be difficult at first, but other than that all I’ve said is to carry on doing what he’s doing, enjoy every moment of it, because I just want the best for him.”
At this point of the interview, Ethan walks past us in school uniform, on his way to continue his education after a morning of training. “It’s so crazy,” Reiss smiles. “He’s still at school, but I was in a similar position, so hopefully I can help him too.
“When I was first training with the first-team I remember being with people like the boss, who was coming towards the end of his playing career at the time, but I remember being in groups with him, Per Mertesacker, Tomas Rosicky – all the experienced players – and they used to give me advice all the time. David Luiz was another who really helped me when I was younger, Alexandre Lacazette was another, and I appreciated that a lot.”
Reiss finds inspiration and guidance wherever he looks in the current squad too, and none more so than a fellow Hale End graduate.
“For me, right now, the person I look at and think: ‘he’s doing so well’ is Bukayo,” he reveals. “That’s because of how young he is and how he just takes everything in his stride. For me, that’s such a great thing to see. He’s come through the academy, taken that route, and he’s done it perfectly.
“I think people underestimate how young he is and what he’s actually achieving. For me, Bukayo is an inspiration because any young player should want to be like him.”
But when it comes to finding inspiration off the pitch, Reiss doesn’t have to look very far. “The person who inspires me most is my mother,” he states. “For the upbringing she’s had, then also when she had children of her own, she worked so hard, taking two jobs to look after us. She made it seem like everything was normal and easy for us, but now I see in reality it was so hard for her.
“She made everything seem so good, showed us all the love, respect and everything you need to go on to be a nice human being. She made me into the man I am today, and she is still my inspiration, definitely.”
"I like it when my whole family is together, that’s when I’m happy"
He says it’s those values that were instilled into him from a young age that continues to shape his personality today – even more so as he grows up himself and can look back on all the sacrifices his mum made, ever since he joined our academy aged eight, back in 2008.
“From when I started playing at Hale End, my mum was the one making sure I got to training each time,” he says. “Petrol is expensive, right? But my mum was working two jobs, and then my sister would drive me to training after school. We came from a background where the money wasn’t there, so for her to drive me to the academy – an hour there, an hour back – three times a week, was a big sacrifice. It all adds up – the money and the time. So now every chance I get to make her happy, I try to make the most of it.
“We are still very close,” he adds. “I live five doors down from her. I have had a few loan deals lately, so it was hard not to be able to see my family as much. But now I’m back, I make sure we see each other every single day. I like it when my whole family is together, that’s when I’m happy.
“It was hard to see each other as much when I was in Holland last season, especially with Covid as well, but I saw my brother and my sister a lot, and my girlfriend was there often too, so I had people around me and supporting me over there.”
But life on loan is also about learning to cope without your home comforts and being away from your family, Reiss readily admits. He says his year in the Netherlands – playing for the rivals of tonight’s visitors, Feyenoord – has only added to his experience.
Reiss helped the side reach the final of the Europa Conference League last season, but he said the life skills he learnt off the pitch are just as valuable.
“I’ve done it before,” he says, referring to his spell at Hoffenheim in 2018/19, “but this time felt different, because of the pandemic, and I was on my own quite a lot.
“I did a lot for myself and learnt a lot about the local culture, how the Dutch live, and I loved that side of it. Now I’m 22, I’ve had a couple of loans, in Germany and in Holland, and I’ve learnt so much.
“I’m talking about people skills, and learning about how the German people are diligent in their timing for example, and I can say the same for the Dutch. Their discipline, their appearance, how they respect each other – I’m trying to take little bits from everyone I’ve met and build it into who I am.
"When you come back, straight away you feel like you are home again"
“I come from a difficult neighbourhood where respect wasn’t always taught, so learning from your surroundings and new cultures is only going to be good for me.”
On the pitch it was a hugely worthwhile endeavour too: Reiss played 32 times, scoring four goals, but perhaps the biggest takeaway for the former England Under-21 man was the reinforcement of the old proverb absence makes the heart grow fonder.
“Feyenoord is such a big club, an incredible club and the fanbase is up there as one of the best,” Reiss explains. “Experiencing Feyenoord v Ajax at their ground was crazy, and I had a great time, but as soon as I came back through these gates at Arsenal after my loan, I don’t know what it is, but I felt that love I have in my heart for Arsenal.
“I’ve always had that, people who have been at the club for a long time have that love and I think it never leaves you. I don’t know if it’s because I know everyone here from the security guards and the cleaners to Edu and everyone else, but it feels like my home.
“When you are away, you don’t realise how much you will miss it, but when you come back, straight away you feel like you are home again.”
Now his focus is on restarting his Gunners career. His appearance against Bodo/Glimt on the last matchday in Norway was his 50th in all for the first-team, but it’s been more than two years since he started in the Premier League for the Gunners (an occasion he marked with a goal against Liverpool). He’s now itching for more gametime, and to put all he’s learnt in the past few years into practice.
“I feel like everyone knows what I can do already, but I do feel like I want to get out there and play games again,” he says. “I’ve played 50 times for Arsenal but it hasn’t been consistent, it’s been over a period of five years which is not what I wanted to achieve.
"What my mum has passed on to me in terms of inspiration, I want to pass on to the next generation"
“I made my debut at 17 and of course I didn’t expect to play every game straight away, but I really want to get into the rhythm of playing week in and week out. That’s something that I dream of, that’s my main goal for myself and I feel if I can do that then my abilities will come through. I want to stay injury-free and focus on the things I have to do.”
And once again, he looks to his mother for guidance and support at this, potentially crucial, period of his career.
“What my mum has passed on to me is showing me there is no progress without struggle,” he adds. “Any situation you are in, she made it seem fine, and now sometimes when I look at myself and I’m not getting in the team, or I’m on the bench, I need to look at how far I’ve come, and make sure I take any opportunity I do get.
"When I think of other times when I’ve been discouraged, I’ve always tried to realise that I could be in a worse position. I’ve learnt to take every step as it comes, and remain thankful for everything I do have. Then if I do get a chance to evolve, I have to take it.
“There are so many games coming up, and any time I get called up, I’ll be ready. I’m used to playing in European football, I’ve done it for a long time so I’m ready if it’s in this competition too.”
And Reiss admits there’s an extra source of motivation and inspiration for him to hit the heights at Arsenal again, and it comes back to family.
“For me now, I really want the young kids in the family to understand and get a feel for what I’m achieving and what I’m doing in my career,” he states. “That’s my nieces and nephews, when my sister brings them to the games. They are about 11 or 12, so they are at the age now where they understand what’s happening and I would love to give them inspiration and show them that they can do anything they want to do.
“I want them to see me play and create memories in their heart that means something to them. What my mum has passed on to me in terms of inspiration, I want to pass on to the next generation. That’s what motivates me now.”
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