Throughout the season, we'll be catching up with our young Gunners to find out more about their route to our academy. This week, James Hillson discusses his route to Arsenal, being in Europa League squads, and learning from Aaron Ramsdale and David Raya.
I grew up in Bedford, and my football journey began when my dad introduced me to summer football programmes at the age of three or four. Iker Casillas was a significant source of inspiration for me while growing up, with his incredible achievements both at the club and international level. He's undeniably one of the most accomplished players in the history of the sport.
My dad, who used to play as a goalkeeper for his local team, decided to put me in goal, and I've only played as an outfield player twice in my career. Interestingly, one of those occasions was during last year's pre-season when we faced Boreham Wood, and I had the chance to play as a striker. To be honest I really enjoyed the experience; it was quite a rush!
I joined my first football team at the age of seven, known as Bedford Park Rangers. When I turned 11, I started training at the MK Dons Centre of Excellence in addition to my time with Bedford Park Rangers. At 13, while I was playing for my district team I got scouted by Chelsea and I had a trial there but I never signed for them. Then not too long after that, Luton Town were interested in me but this was when they were out of the Football League so I didn’t officially sign for them.
"We stayed in a Portugal classroom with bunk beds for 32 of us!"
Then, while I was playing for the District team, we got to the final which was played at Reading's first-team stadium, and I performed really well without conceding a goal. One of the Reading scouts must have been impressed with me and offered me a trial. I got in and they offered me a two-year deal to play in the under-15s and 16s, along with a pre-scholarship agreement for the following two years. So for the next four years of my career I was at Reading.
Joining Reading was a turning point for me. I was thrilled to be part of a professional setup, training more intensively than ever before. My parents were so pleased to see my hard work paying off. One particularly memorable experience from my time there was our pre-season trip to Portugal, where we stayed in one large classroom with bunk beds for the 32 of us. It was full of banter, but I'm pretty sure we didn't do well in the tournament as we were up all night!
During my last year at Reading before joining Arsenal, I had the opportunity to train alongside players like Michael Olise who’s a nice down-to-earth quality player and we’re seeing him do wonders at Crystal Palace now. I also developed a strong friendship with goalkeeper Jokull Andresson and I still talk to a lot of the boys who are still there. The connection between Arsenal and Reading is strong, with several people making the transition between the two clubs, like Lee Heron, Lewis Goater, and Sal Bibbo, all of whom were at Reading during my time
Before I moved to Arsenal, I initially joined the club on loan due to injuries to both Tom Smith and Karl Hein. Given the close relationship between the two clubs, Arsenal offered me the opportunity to join on loan for a few months. As my scholarship at Reading was coming to an end, and my future at the club was uncertain, I sought advice from my coaches, who encouraged me to go for it. I took the opportunity, and I've been with Arsenal for the past four years.
When I first arrived at London Colney, I was amazed by the facilities. Everyone was welcoming, and I met one of my best friends, Harry Clarke, at London Colney, who has since gone on to excel at Ipswich Town. I integrated well and have loved every moment here.
"I received a standing ovation from the team for my initiation song!"
Being on the bench in the Europa League games was surreal. Back during my time at Reading, I had never even travelled with the first team. So, getting the chance to visit places like Slavia Prague and Lisbon with Arsenal was an unbelievable experience.
One of the moments that stood out was when I had to do my pre-match initiation the night before one of the games. I chose to sing 'Ain't No Sunshine' by Bill Withers, and surprisingly, it went quite well. I even received a standing ovation from the team, and everyone was genuinely happy for me. I'm just relieved it's over now!
Training with the first team is intense and operates at a different level, which is fantastic because it constantly pushes you to perform at your best. As a goalkeeper, you can't afford to relax or coast because you will get found out. The camaraderie among goalkeepers is incredibly supportive, and we all want each other to succeed. Players like Aaron Ramsdale and David Raya have been generous with their advice. Aaron, for instance, has helped me with footwork and positioning, and David has shared valuable insights about core body shape and being ready for shots. Karl, on the other hand, sets a really high standard with his work ethic, both on and off the pitch.
For the rest of the season, my main goal is to get as much game time as possible. I recently had the opportunity to play at Exeter for the U21s in the EFL Trophy, and it was a fantastic experience.
In terms of pre-game rituals, I don't have anything specific. I just listen to my pregame music, focus on a good warm-up, and aim to have a great game.
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