Throughout the season, we'll be catching up with our young Gunners to find out more about their route to our academy. This week, it's Josh Nichols.
My earliest footballing memories are playing for my first Sunday League team, Euro Dagenham, for a year or two. We actually went unbeaten one season and got ourselves in the local newspaper because of it. I can’t remember how many matches exactly we went unbeaten, but we were Invincibles too!
When I wasn’t playing Sunday League, I would practice at my local park with my dad, he loves football, he used to play football, and he’s been coaching me all my life. I always used to play street football with one of my best friends too, Blaise, who plays for West Ham’s under-18s now. We used to love playing together, he’s doing really well for himself, and we still keep in touch today.
I actually used to play as a striker when I was growing up and it wasn’t until under-14s that I moved from striker to full-back. When I joined my first academy, West Ham, I was still a striker, I scored quite a few goals, but on my decision day, I was told that I was too small so wouldn’t be playing with them. I joined Chelsea at pre-academy level and was there for the under-8 season. I actually got offered a contract with them, but because it was too far from Dagenham and I was too young for digs, we had to look for another club.
I ended up at the rivals... Tottenham! I was training with their academy, but then the opportunity came up to go and have a trial at Arsenal, the team that my dad and I support, so I couldn’t turn that down. I finished my trial at Hale End, but didn’t get offered a contract the first time, so I ended up back at Tottenham. They actually offered me a contract, but then I got a call from a scout called Shaun O’Connor, who said that Arsenal wanted me back for another trial, I worked hard and I finally got signed.
When I got the second call, my family and I had a big decision to make. We weren’t sure whether to sign with Tottenham, or to risk it and go back on trial at Arsenal, but because I love Arsenal and my parents were positive that I had the ability to get signed, we took that leap of faith and luckily it paid off!
I couldn’t believe it when Arsenal signed me at the start of the under-9s season, I was jumping everywhere, my parents were really happy and proud of me, all my friends and extended family were calling me to say well done. To sign for the team I support was absolutely amazing.
I was speechless when I first walked into Hale End. There’s actually a video that my mum has when I just couldn’t believe I was there. I was very nervous, of course, but I knew I had to prove myself and worked hard to do it.
I still remember my first-ever tour with the team, to Belgium, not long after I signed. We were still so young, I don’t think we were playing tactically, we were just running around the pitch. I didn’t even have all of my kit for the tour!
I loved getting to know all the staff and my teammates at Hale End. Luis Brown has been there from the start with me, then Myles Lewis-Skelly and Ethan Nwaneri joined us slightly later too. I’m really close with all of my teammates and we get on really well, but those three especially are like family to me, we’ve grown up together and I’ve known them most of my life and I can speak to them about anything.
The day I got offered my scholarship at Arsenal was amazing, I couldn’t believe it. I was injured for pretty much the entire under-15 season because of growing pains, I think I only played one match, so I really thought I wasn’t going to get my scholarship. When Per came into the meeting, it originally sounded as though it was going to be bad news, but when he told me I had earned my scholarship and I fully deserve it, I couldn’t believe it. There’s actually a video of me running out of my house and screaming down the street!
Last year was a pretty interesting one for all of us because we had the cameras following us around for the Inside Hale End documentary. It was strange at first because normally it’s just the first team that gets recorded. It was scary to begin with because you know that you’re representing Arsenal on camera, but for the cameras to be there while we’re going through our journey in our final year at Hale End was amazing in the end.
London Colney is a big step up from Hale End and I’ve been picking the brains of my coaches to make sure I’m improving in every area. Specifically, I’ve been working on the attacking side of my game with Jack Wilshere and Adam Birchall, they’ve been helping me choose my moments better of when to go up the pitch and then getting back into position to defend.
Adam has been my coach for four or five years and he’s been a massive influence on my career. To have Jack and Adam this season has been brilliant, they work very well together and it’s just two extremely talented football brains coming together and making the team grow. I have to say Jack is one of my favourite coaches, the way he’s always there for you, he will tell you if you’re doing something wrong and he’s always willing to help you, he’s inspirational too because he’s walked the same path that we’re on now and he’s played on the biggest stages.
One thing I’ve been asked to do a lot is tucking inside as a full-back, just as Mikel Arteta has his defenders do in the first team. I feel like it’s been very effective for us this season and as I’ve been coached to play that way since under-16s level, it’s been built into my game. I want to play for the first team, so obviously this is what I want to do and need to do, so I just had to keep getting better at it.
Talking of the first team, all the former Hale End graduates at the club are so inspirational. I remember being at Hale End, going on tour to America, we were sitting next to Bukayo, he was chatting to us, we were watching him play, Eddie too and they’re just big characters. They're motivational and every day we watch them, we see what they can do and we need to learn from them. We’re always brushing shoulders with them at Colney, they stop and say hello and they’re great with us and very humble.
While I haven’t been called up for England yet, if I am able to achieve that, that would be an amazing feeling as it’s a real goal of mine and I would be really proud of myself. By the end of this season, I will be 17, so hopefully, I will get offered that pro contract – this is something I really want to achieve before the end of the season.