Throughout the season, we'll be catching up with our young Gunners to find out more about their route to our academy. This week, Ismeal Kabia reflects on his upbringing in the Netherlands, switching countries and finding himself at Hale End.
Growing up in the Netherlands, football is a big part of the culture over there. I grew up in the east of the country in the Enschede region, which is close to the German border. When I was younger, I supported my local team FC Twente, which is where Steve McClaren coached after he left England. McClaren brought FC Twente the first and only Eredivisie title in their history, so he is regarded as a legend in that part of the country.
I looked up to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as every young kid did, but I loved Arjen Robben too. He was a Dutch superstar and the things he could do with the ball were just unreal. When he cut inside from the right-hand channel you knew he was about to cause some serious damage.
I got into football by playing from an incredibly young age in my local area on the astroturf pitches, and we would play all day. I loved it so much and I guess that’s how my passion for the game grew. I couldn’t imagine myself without a ball at my feet.
When I was nine years old I moved to England, and I lived in Kent. When I arrived I found a team as soon as I could called Chatham Riverside, which was not too far from where I lived. After six months there, I moved to a different team, Sittingbourne Lions. However I also trained twice a week at Pro Soccer Academy (PSA) – a facility that helps to develop players – and this was how I got scouted for Arsenal.
One of the coaches at PSA had links to Arsenal so he invited Adam Birchall to come along and watch me at one of the training sessions, and Adam really liked me. It all happened so fast in the sense that I just moved from Holland less than two years ago to now find out that Arsenal would like to sign me for their under-11s.
"You can’t go to any place in the world where they haven’t heard of Arsenal so being here was a real privilege"
When I first arrived at Hale End I was excited but also very nervous because I was at The Arsenal. They are a huge club, one of the biggest in the sport. You can’t go to any place in the world where they haven’t heard of Arsenal so being here was a real privilege, but as I got used to it the nerves wore off.
Thinking back to the Hale End days there are so many great memories. For example, beating Liverpool to win the Hale End Cup with the under-12s was a fantastic feeling. The Hale End Cup is huge for the club and it is a massive achievement at that age to win a trophy and instil a winning mentality.
When I got my scholarship last year it was a momentous day of celebration for me and my family because I worked so hard for it, and it was such a relief to know that I’ll be around for at least another two years. As an under-18 I now train at London Colney, and going there for the first time was a surreal feeling because I’m literally seeing my idols on a day-to-day basis. I share the facility with guys like Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli, which still blows my mind at times.
The first team are great – they always speak to us, encourage us and help us feel welcome. Guys like Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah will come over and get to know us on a personal level. Seeing guys like Reiss, Eddie, Emile and Bukayo playing for the first-team is inspiring given their journeys from the academy into the team, and it’s encouraging to know that there is a pathway for us there.
"Being a footballer to me is important because of my family. I do it for them"
This season has been frustrating because of the injuries I’ve suffered, but I did manage to play a few games towards the end and score my first goal for the team – hopefully the first of many. Being coached by someone like Jack Wilshere is fantastic because he is so knowledgeable about the game and his attention to detail is top-class.
Given the injury setbacks he had in his career, he is also able to encourage me and support me through the injuries I’ve suffered this season. He always reminds me to keep my head up and to know that I will eventually overcome the lengthy periods on the sidelines.
My priority for next season is to stay fit, play as many games as possible at a higher level and hopefully I will be rewarded with a professional contract by the end of the season. It is a big year for me next season and I can’t wait to work hard over the summer and get back on the pitch firing for the team.
Being a footballer to me is important because of my family. I do it for them because they have always been there for me, made sacrifices and supported me throughout my journey so far.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.