Throughout the season, we'll be catching up with our young Gunners to find out more about their route to our academy. This week, Ayden Heaven discusses his Theo Walcott fandom, his journey to Arsenal, and more.
Growing up I was a huge Arsenal fan and one of my favourite players was Alexis Sanchez. He always managed to pick out a goal when we needed it. I was also a big fan of Theo Walcott, he had great movement, his pace was lethal and he was a deadly finisher in front of goal. I think he’s one of Arsenal’s most under-rated players.
It was actually my mum who encouraged me to get into football so I joined my local team, Edmonton United, at the age of five. It was very convenient as the team was just around the corner from my house. When I was there, we had a fixture against West Ham’s academy and I played very well so they asked me to come in for a trial. It was a one-day trial and they immediately signed me after that.
At the time, I was someone who could play everywhere, I could play up front, defence, midfield and I even played in goal funnily enough! I’ve always been quite tall so I had the benefit of using my physical attributes against the other players, who were usually much smaller than me.
"When Arsenal knocked on the door everything fell into place perfectly"
I was at West Ham from eight until I was 12, at which point they let me go. Initially, I was down because I was there for a number of years but in my mind, I knew that I was good enough to get back to academy level – I just needed the right opportunity. I had the mentality that this is not the end of my story, there’s still more to come. Shortly after I was released, I started training with a Sunday League team called Levels just to keep my fitness up and I’m forever grateful to them because they helped me stay in top condition, even though I wasn’t at a club through one-to-one sessions.
The leader of Levels at the time was a scout for Chelsea so he helped me get a trial with them. I was there for around two months but they eventually decided not to keep me on. That decision hurt because they kept on extending my trial so I was disappointed when I didn’t get signed. After that, I went back to one-to-one sessions at Levels and Fulham showed an interest in me. I was training with them for a month and they were actually going to sign me but the journey to and from there was of a considerable length. I had to take the overground and underground just to get there from Edmonton, so I’d get home very late. Although, it was an academy that was too impractical for us, so my mum and I decided we wouldn’t sign for them.
Luckily at the time, Arsenal were knocking on the door too and that made more sense given that, firstly I’m a fan, but also the location was much more convenient, Hale End was only a 15-minute drive, so everything fell into place perfectly.
When I first arrived at my trial, I was very confident going into it and I even knew Louie Copley beforehand as we were both at West Ham at the same time. We’ve known each other since we were nine and he joined Arsenal a few months before I did. When they officially decided to sign me, it was the best feeling ever! Signing for the club I’ve supported and my mum was so happy for me – she even cried! My family are so important, they’re my motivation, I’ve got two younger siblings and an older sister that mean the world to me. I want to shout out my mum because she always encouraged me when I got released and I definitely would not have been able to be in this position without her love and support, every step of the way.
The standout memory from the days at Hale End would be a goal I scored against Chelsea at Under-16s, where I picked up the ball from the edge of our box, ran through the whole team and rounded the keeper to score.
"Training with the first team, the intensity is crazy!"
I was one of the lucky few to get my scholarship a year early, so I knew this time last year that I was going to be playing for the under-18s at London Colney. Seeing the first team players like Saka, Martinelli, Nketiah and Odegaard etc. is amazing because we look up to them and it’s inspiring. I’ve trained with the first team a couple of times and the intensity is crazy! You get dizzy sometimes because it’s at such a quick tempo. The difference between under-18s, under-21s and the first team is unbelievable.
As a defender, my main priority this season will be for us to keep more clean sheets, but I also want to score more goals and be a threat from set pieces. I’m still one of the tallest, so I need to use my physicality to my advantage and get on the end of our dead-ball situations. Being coached by Jack Wilshere is a cheat code for us because he’s someone who has been in our shoes as an academy player and made it at the club. He can share his experiences with us and give us little nuggets to make sure we develop into Strong Young Gunners.