Zinchenko reveals which Arsenal icons inspired him

Oleksandr Zinchenko kisses the Arsenal badge on his shirt

Oleksandr Zinchenko may have grown up more than 2,000km from Emirates Stadium, but the Gunners have occupied a special place in his heart since childhood. We spoke to our Ukraine international about how Arsenal – together with his family – have been two huge sources of inspiration throughout his career to date. 

When Tony Adams visited the Emirates earlier this season, one of the Arsenal supporters lucky enough to get a photo with the Gunners legend was our very own Oleksandr Zinchenko.

An Arsenal fan since childhood, Alex is fully aware of the club’s history, and the big names that have come before him in the famous red and white. So when he had the opportunity to meet ‘Mr Arsenal’, he didn’t miss out, even asking our club photographer to capture the moment as well.

“Yes it’s true!” Alex smiles. “I asked club photographer Stuart MacFarlane if he would introduce me to Tony and also take a picture. He is absolutely a legend. I’ve seen clips of him playing on the internet, I know about his reputation, but also I remember the words of my ex-national team coach, Andrey Shevchenko. He used to always say to me that Tony Adams was the toughest defender he ever faced in his career. 

“I told Tony that when we met. He was laughing, he’s a great guy, Tony is a joker – but what a player he was. Thank God I didn’t have to play against him in my career!”

Oleksandr Zinchenko and Tony Adams

Now an Arsenal defender himself, it’s no surprise that Alex was inspired by the likes of Adams – arguably the greatest defender in our history. But the Ukraine international reveals that it was actually the game’s flair players that were his early heroes and in particular one of the most skilful No. 10s of them all: Ronaldinho. 

“I was a striker myself when I started,” he explains. “Then I was a left winger, then midfield, now a left-back. Maybe I will finish as a centre-back or a goalkeeper! But it was the forwards I enjoyed watching, it was Ronaldinho when he was at Barcelona. He was just unbelievable.

Everyone had their idols, and mine was Ronaldinho. For me I’d say he’s the greatest player ever. There is no doubt how good Lionel Messi is, and everyone has their own tastes and their favourites, but for me the best was Ronaldinho.”

However, Alex had grown up as an Arsenal fan, and our team of the mid-noughties contained enough flair players of its own to help him fall in love with the Gunners.  

"I loved watching players like Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Dennis Bergkamp too"

“I always watched Arsenal,” he says. “People know I was an Arsenal supporter when I was a kid. That was because I loved watching players like Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Dennis Bergkamp too. I watched him but mainly I was watching a bit later, when Robin van Persie was up front with Henry. Cesc was there too and it was a fantastic team. 

“We didn’t have many television channels to choose from, so when I was growing up I would watch the Premier League to see the Arsenal games, but also every single Barcelona match as well; the Champions League also.

“When I was a kid my inspirations were top, top footballers, because I was dreaming of being a footballer,” Oleksandr adds. “At the time you don’t really think about it like inspiration, but when you grow up you realise that those players and those people really influenced you and inspired you to do what I’m doing now.”

Now that Alex is the one providing inspiration to budding young footballers – back in his home country and beyond – it’s closer to home that he seeks motivation and stimulus. “Growing up as a kid – it was the footballers I loved watching,” he states, “but today my family are my big inspiration now, that’s for sure. I’m always thinking about them. That’s my wife and my little one – and my two dogs. 

Oleksandr Zinchenko celebrates with Gabriel Martinelli in training

“But also of course my whole family, my parents and my wife’s parents, my grandparents. The whole family, but closest are my wife and my little one. I am an only child, so I have no brothers or sisters but my family is close.”

His two big inspirations then, are family and football. And throughout his career and life so far, the two have been closely linked. 

“I always say that a football team is like your second family,” he says. “You spend so much time with your team, sometimes more time than you are at home with your wife and child! So it’s important that your team feels like your family as well.”

Never more was this important for Alex than when he moved clubs for the first time as a young player – in fact as a very young player. The full-back takes up the story: “I’m from a very small city, a population of just 12,000 people, and I was with the local team back in Ukraine, called Karpatiya. We used to train twice a week there, I was six or seven when I started there, then at the age of 11 I moved to another academy, called Monolit Illichvsk, which was 550 kilometres away from my home. 

"I kept saying it was my dream to play for Arsenal one day, so when I signed, and I joined up with the team in America – it was a different feeling"

“So I left home at the age of 11. For the first couple of months I was there I used to cry into my pillow,” he recalls. “It was very difficult for me in the beginning and difficult for my family, but my coaching staff there helped me a lot. 550 kilometres is a long way to be from home, so I needed the support of those coaches. That’s why I say that your football team is your family too.”

But it was Alex’s real family, and specifically his mum, who gave him vital support at the start of his career. He said that the way he managed to overcome adversity at that young age has stood him in good stead ever since, and helped him settle into English football many years later. 

“When I first arrived at Monolit I had a couple of trial games and I did well,” he continues. “I scored some goals, I made a lot of assists. One game I played as a striker, the other as a left winger and I played well. 

“So they wanted to take me, but I remember at the time I was staying in a hotel room with two goalkeepers. They were both there for the trial as well. I remember that day very well. One of the keepers was talking to his mum on the phone out on the balcony, and I saw him crying on the phone, saying: ‘Mum, please take me back home.’ So guess what I did after I saw that? I did exactly the same! I called my mum and said: ‘Sorry I can’t do this!’

Oleksandr Zinchenko playing for Shakhtar Donetsk against Arsenal

“She was really good, she was asking what was wrong, if anything was the matter. I went back home for a couple of days to see her, but then I was OK. She spoke to me, was there for me and made me feel better, and I came back to the club. I was OK after that and the coaches looked after me. 

“That experience made me much stronger. I had made that move as a young kid, so I was much stronger in my head than I thought. So then when I moved to the UK when I was 19 that was much easier, because of what I did when I was 11. I had already grown up quite a lot by the time I went to sign for Manchester City. I was ready, even as a 19-year-old.”

And now Alex is firmly at home in English football. He won four Premier League titles, four League Cups and one FA Cup while at City, before making the switch to us this summer. Now aged 26, he says he has already found that family feeling he cherishes so much at his new club. Despite being here for less than six months, his relationship with the club goes back much further. 

“I used to wear the Arsenal shirt when I was 15,” he says. “Have you seen the picture of me with my old teammates on social media where I am wearing the shirt? Already that was a special feeling to wear it then, because I was a massive supporter of Arsenal. 

Oleksandr Zinchenko as a kid in his Arsenal shirt

“I won’t lie to you, it meant a lot to wear that as a fan. I always kept saying it was my dream to play there one day, so when I signed, and I joined up with the team in America during pre-season – it was a different feeling. 

“It was a very different feeling to when I wore it as a 15-year-old, that’s for sure! My first game was a friendly against Chelsea on tour and I will always remember it. It was a really memorable night for me, especially with the scoreline that night [we won 4-0 in Orlando], and being in the stadium with so many Arsenal supporters there. They are feelings that you just cannot describe.

“Then my first-team debut for real was in the Premier League away to Crystal Palace. My wife was there that night watching me from the stands. She couldn’t believe that after just five minutes the fans were singing a song for me. 

“This is something we couldn’t even dream about – this sort of welcome from the fans,” he says. “It was unbelievable. So I’d like to say a massive thanks to everyone for that, and I will always be grateful – it’s why I always give everything for the team every time I’m on the pitch.”

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