Young gun

Young Gun: Brian Okonkwo

Okonkwo Cheshunt

Throughout the season, we catch up with our young Gunners in the matchday programme to find out more about their route to our academy. This week, Brian Okonkwo explains becoming a goalkeeper, arriving at Arsenal and more.

I grew up in Camden, near Regent’s Park, where my brother played football for a local team called Pro Touch. Football has been a part of my life since childhood, thanks to my dad, who’s always been a passionate fan. We’d often watch matches together. Initially, I played as a striker, but I later found my calling in goalkeeping. One day, there was no goalkeeper for a game, so I volunteered to step in. Despite never having played in goal before, I found a natural talent for it, and it became my position from then on. 

When I was younger, I looked up to David De Gea, particularly because I was a Manchester United fan. I also admired goalkeepers like Casillas, Buffon, and Neuer. They were keepers performing at the highest level, winning major trophies, and playing pivotal roles in their teams’ successes. Their achievements inspired me, and I aspired to emulate their longevity and impact on the game.

"I'd only been a keeper for six months to a year but I was progressing rapidly"

The move to Arsenal happened when I was just ten years old. A scout named Francis, who was also working with Pro Touch at the time, played a key role. He truly believed in me and arranged my trial. It’s quite crazy when you think about it because I had only been a goalkeeper for about six months to a year, yet I was progressing rapidly in my development. 

When I arrived at Hale End for the first time as an official Arsenal player, I felt like a totally different person. The team welcomed me and I quickly got along with them, which further boosted my confidence. One standout memory would definitely be a crucial under-12s match against Chelsea, where I made a number of saves that helped us to an important win. 

However, my journey faced setbacks due to injuries, causing me to miss out on several tours, including one to Oman, which was disappointing. Additionally, due to Covid, I missed out on other tours that were scheduled to take place. Despite these challenges, I did have the opportunity to travel to Holland and Scotland with the team, which was a great experience.

Brian Okonkwo during training

Receiving my scholarship was another big moment for me. It meant that the Arsenal coaches and staff had faith in my abilities to take the next step, transitioning to training at the Sobha Realty Training Centre. It was a relief, knowing I would continue as an Arsenal player and could approach each training session and match with an open mind, secure in the knowledge that I had at least another two years with the club to focus entirely on my progression to the next level. Moving to full-time football presented a new challenge, one that demanded more from me both physically and mentally. 

I’ve had three loan spells, the first was a one-game loan with Hitchin Town FC. The opportunity arose when I found myself lacking game time with the under-18s, and I saw it as a chance to experience men’s football. Hitchin Town reached out to me because they were short on goalkeepers due to injuries and suspensions. Given the positive relationship between Ken Gillard and the club, and my eagerness for game time, it worked out for everyone. 

I must admit, I felt nervous going into the game, uncertain about what to expect, especially since I hadn’t trained with the team beforehand. But I was also excited. The team at Hitchin Town were incredibly supportive and made me feel welcome. Despite the fatigue in my legs from the increased kicking, I managed to make some good saves in a 1-1 draw. The experience of playing in front of the away fans, who were vocal throughout the entire game, was truly memorable.

"I couldn't be prouder of my brother Arthur's accomplishments"

I then had a spell with Leatherhead, followed by the most recent at Cheshunt, and these circumstances were different as I was actively looking for loans to play men’s football. The Leatherhead and Cheshunt environments were different because their styles were very different. At Leatherhead, they were more around playing at the back and being comfortable on the ball, which is what I’m used to at Arsenal. At Cheshunt they wanted me to kick long, which was not what I’m necessarily used to. 

Having my brother Arthur alongside me at Arsenal has been great. Knowing that I can turn to him for anything I need is brilliant. He’s faced numerous challenges and has always risen to the occasion, constantly striving to improve. 

I couldn’t be prouder of his recent accomplishments. In the past couple of years he’s won the Austrian Cup with Sturm Graz in 2023, and just this season he achieved promotion with Wrexham and was in WhoScored’s League Two team of the season. Seeing his success motivates me to push myself even further and achieve similar milestones in my own career.

Brian Okonkwo in training

Playing alongside Jurrien Timber in the Blackburn and Liverpool U21 games was brilliant. His leadership on the pitch and his exceptional play highlighted the step up from under-21 level to the first team. His ability to keep possession, communicate effectively and his overall performance showcased the standard required at the highest level. 

It was a valuable experience to share the pitch with him, as it provided us with a clear perspective on the levels we must strive to reach to break into the first team.

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