Already firmly established in the Arsenal back four, Ben White reflects on his journey to the Gunners, and reveals the part a formative loan spell in League Two played in his early career.
There are a whole host of reasons why young players are sent out on loan during the early part of their professional careers. More regular playing time, obviously, is a major factor, along with moving away from home, taking yourself out of the comfort zone and sampling life at a different club or division. But for Ben White, his first loan spell at Newport County in 2017 really opened his eyes to the effect that playing in front of passionate crowds can have on the game.
By the time he was sent to Wales, the young defender had already made his first-team debut for Brighton - as an 18 year old in an EFL Cup game against Colchester United in August 2016, and he played another 90 minutes in the following round, a 4-2 win at Oxford. But those two games - played in front of a combined crowd of about 10,000 - were his only taste of senior football before joining League Two side Newport County for the 2017/18 season.
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“That’s when I first realised how much every game means – not only the fans, but the players as well,” he begins.
“Every point is so important. When you are in the lower leagues the money you get for win bonuses or whatever is especially crucial at that level. Every point is huge, so every game is huge.
“That was a bit of a shock to me. In my first game there I saw people fighting in the changing room, because emotions are so high for every game. It all matters so much to all the players, and the crowd know that too. It all adds to an intense atmosphere in the stadiums.”
It’s also when Ben learned that a crowd doesn’t need to be large in order to be hostile. Newport’s average attendance was about 3,000 during that season, but home advantage encompasses many factors.
“Nobody wanted to come to Newport to play us, but I loved it there,” he continues.
“It was League Two, the stadiums aren’t always the best but it all adds to the atmosphere. Don’t forget that I had come from a category one academy at a Premier League club, where everything was perfect – the pitches are great and you have all the facilities.
“Then you go into Newport and it’s a different world really. It’s probably one of the more old school clubs around, it was a really good experience for me to go there and live it. That was one of the reasons I was sent there, I’m sure, to make the most of all the opportunities you get, and see how much football means to people in lower leagues. The fans, the players, the staff.
“You need to see the real stuff and learn to get on with it. And I can tell you that I absolutely loved it there. The whole thing, what I learnt, in the games and away from the games. It was one of the best years of my life, for sure.”
It was a season full of adventure and experiences. There was some glamour too, in Newport’s FA Cup run, and the chance for Ben to play in front of some sizeable crowds for the first time in his career.
After seeing off Walsall and Cambridge United – both at home – they faced Leeds in the third round, again at Rodney Parade. Two late goals gave Newport a 2-1 win against the side who went into the game 53 places above them in the football pyramid.
Next up, in the fourth round; a home tie with Tottenham. “That first game against Spurs was just unbelievable,” Ben recalls. “We were leading until the last ten minutes when Kane scored the equaliser. We were close to winning but they got a draw. It finished 1-1 but the whole thing was amazing. I actually had my driving test the next day, so I had to try and bring myself back down to earth for that! It wasn’t easy to do that, because nobody would let me – it was such a good result that we had to celebrate it.
“But I passed my test the next day so everything was good. I’ve got a feeling the examiner might have been a Newport fan so I probably got away with that one!”
The examiner may well have been one of the 10,000 crammed into the temporarily enlarged Rodney Parade for the game – creating what the BBC website described as a ‘riotous atmosphere’ at the 143-year-old stadium.
“There was a big build up to the game of course, but really there was no pressure on us,” he continues. “We were not expected to do anything, we could go out there and be free, play how we wanted and enjoy it. We had to use our home advantage. Before you even arrive at Newport, you know you are going to be in for a horrible game.
“There’s sand and mud all over the pitch, we had the rugby team training on it before the game as well to help cut it up even more. You know as a visiting team it’s not going to be a nice day out for you.
“Our fans obviously played a big part in it too. As players we all knew that as well of course, the manager didn’t have to remind us – it was obvious. You feel it from the opposition as well, as soon as they arrive you can tell they are not going to enjoy it.
“Even the way into the stadium is horrible, it’s not a place to be for an away team. If you listen to fans of any League Two club, you know they don’t want to go to Newport away. It’s always going to be a tough one, so that’s even more the case for a Premier League club who aren’t used to it.
“Everyone says ‘can you do it at Stoke on a wet Tuesday night?’ but in League Two it was ‘can you do it at Newport?’ It was seen as the real test, and that’s because of everything: the atmosphere, the pitch, the way Newport play is really hard to deal with as well. We always wanted to make our home advantage count.”
Now an established Premier League player himself, Ben will always be able to draw upon those experiences of four years ago when he next steps into the unwelcoming surroundings of a lower league club away in the cup.
But his ambitions are much loftier than that now he’s at Arsenal – it’s venues like Wembley that he wants to be visiting for his new club. And, somewhat improbably, it was during his loan spell at Newport too when he first had the opportunity to play at the national stadium.
Newport’s draw with Spurs meant a replay, and this was during the season that Tottenham were playing their home games at Wembley Stadium. Ben, still only 20 years old at this point, was about to play in front of the biggest crowd of his young career to date.
“Yeah, but I shouldn’t have played that game really,” he admits.
“I actually tore my quad the week before the game. But I didn’t know if I would ever get another chance to play at Wembley again, so I made sure I played!
“To be honest I shouldn’t have, I only played just over an hour, but I said to the physio before the game ‘I need to play in this match.’
“For me I was thinking it was a once in a lifetime opportunity so I would do anything to play. I did some tests on the morning of the game and got myself through them, and Newport said it was down to me to play.”
Ben started the game, and lasted 77 minutes, by which time Spurs were on the way to a 2-0 win in front of 39,000.
“I think Wembley was only half full, but it’s such a big stadium that it was still a huge crowd. Certainly at the time it was the biggest crowd I’d played in front of. It was a good experience. They beat us, but it was really nice to play there. I thought I played really well in the first game. Harry Kane played the whole game, but we kept him quiet. Then in the replay they had players like Son and they had a lot of the ball. To be fair they did well on the day and we couldn’t do anything against them. They were a good side.”
In the end the Newport following just couldn’t recreate the hostile atmosphere of the first game, despite taking more than 7,000 fans to the replay.
“I remember I had a lot of people asking me for tickets for that game. In fact I’m getting a lot of that again since I’ve moved to Arsenal!” he laughs. “So for me I always tell them that if they were there watching me play for Newport on a Tuesday night then they can come to Emirates to watch us play Tottenham!”
The irony is, Ben himself wouldn’t be hassling his friends for tickets, were the roles reversed.
“I’m not much of a football fan to be honest,” he reveals. “I don’t watch much football at all in my spare time, I never really have, even when I was growing up. I watched a few England games when I was younger but I’ve never had a team I support. I wasn’t that interested in it to be honest, I was playing all the time rather than watching. I loved all sports, played a lot of cricket and tennis too, a bit of hockey – anything to be outside really.
“When I was at Southampton’s academy we used to go to the first-team games but I was never really interested in that side of things, I just loved playing. I never owned a replica shirt for any team, or collected the stickers or anything like that, it wasn’t my thing.
“Nowadays I watch back our own games as part of analysis, and that’s what I focus on. Looking at my own performances and how I can improve.”
But not being a fan of the game himself doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate what they can add to the team. His time on loan in Wales taught him that, and his first few outings at the Emirates has only served to enhance that opinion: “When I was at Leeds on loan playing in a full Elland Road was always great – a really big atmosphere. In fact I played against Arsenal that year at the Emirates, in the FA Cup.
“It was 1-0 to Arsenal, but I think Leeds probably deserved to win on the day, so it is a bittersweet memory for me. We lost the game but playing at the Emirates for the first time was great. You always want to play in front of big crowds and that’s what being on loan is about as well, being introduced to these big games slowly.
“I have to say though that the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in was the Tottenham game here this season.
“That’s the best. The Euros was pretty crazy too. I didn’t play of course, but being part of it was great, it was unbelievable to be part of those games at Wembley.”
He adds: “I’ve played in a few games now for Arsenal, and my mum goes to all the matches. She told me how great the away fans are, and to be fair we hear that as players. She said they are pretty mad, and she hasn’t seen anything like it. It’s great on those away games when you get a win and can go over to the fans afterwards and appreciate their support.
“For me, once the whistle goes, I don’t think it really matters whether it is a home or away game though. As soon as you kick off, you are concentrating so much on the game that you don’t take in what’s happening in the stands. You realise when the game stops, and you might hear some of it then, but when you are playing you shut it out. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a stadium when the atmosphere has affected how I play at all, I can shut it out and concentrate on the game.
“I don’t really get nervous before a game,” he continues, “but I find a big atmosphere gives me more energy and more motivation to perform better. An atmosphere like that gets me going and it’s just nice to play in it, to be involved in a huge atmosphere.”
He may only be a few months into his Gunners career, but Ben’s relationship with the Arsenal fans is already building, and he says that’s been one of the highlights since joining in the summer.
“It’s been mad to be fair,” he smiles. “When I go out I usually get stopped and that’s really nice. It’s great to have that level of support, even when we had the sticky start to the season, to know they are behind you really gives you a lift. After so long of not having them in the stadium as well, it just feels different to have them back. I think you naturally pick up your game more when you have 60,000 people there shouting for you. It’s all positive, having them back.”
And away games? Is there one trip in particular that Ben is looking forward to this season? “I think probably the United game. I want to play against Cristiano Ronaldo. I’ve played at Old Trafford before, but not when it was full. It would be a great experience. In fact I’ve been there to watch a game, when they played Chelsea a few years ago, because my uncle is a United fan so he took me along. But playing there in front of a big crowd is what I really want to do.”
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