An exclusive interview with Arsenal's highly-rated home-grown Hale End right-back
Phil Costa speaks to Brooke Norton-Cuffy, the highly-rated prospect coming out of the Arsenal academy, about life on loan, winnin the U-19 EURO, and so much more…
There are worse ways to start your summer than by taking a selfie on confetti-covered grass, with a beaming smile while donning a gold medal around your neck. But for Brooke Norton-Cuffy, winning the Under-19 European Championship with England simply capped off a transformative six months in his young football career. The Arsenal defender played a key role as the Three Lions overcame surprise finalists Israel to secure their second European title in five years.
“It was an amazing achievement,” he tells Scouted Football in an exclusive interview. “Me and the boys were all proud to be a part of a winning team. But we couldn’t dwell on it for too long because you play, you win, you celebrate and then you’re back at your club in a couple of days. You’re on such a high but then you have to get your head back down and concentrate on what you’re going to do next season.”
To be in that competitive environment, to battle for three points, it means a lot because there is so much at stake for everybody. Obviously in League One, the wages are a bit different and things like goal bonuses and win bonuses can really make a difference in peoples’ lives.
Brooke Norton-Cuffy on his loan to Lincoln City
And while the teenager wasted little time lasering his focus onto the upcoming campaign, his performances in the six months prior were just as exciting. Just one week after his 18th birthday, Norton-Cuffy joined League One outfit Lincoln City in January with Arsenal hoping that regular minutes under highly regarded coach Michael Appleton would accelerate his development. Their decision was quickly justified after he became a regular for the Imps as they finished comfortably above the relegation places.
“The experience for me was only positive and something I felt I really needed. To be in that competitive environment, to battle for three points, it means a lot because there is so much at stake for everybody. Obviously in League One, the wages are a bit different and things like goal bonuses and win bonuses can really make a difference in peoples’ lives.
“But it’s also important to remember that I was there to improve myself and my career, so establishing myself within that dressing room was also a big learning curve.”
Photo by Andrew Vaughan – CameraSport via Getty Images
And establish himself he did, making 17 appearances out of a possible 21 after joining – scoring once and providing an assist. The lower leagues can be unforgiving in English football but Norton-Cuffy handled the transition seamlessly and not only matched seasoned professionals technically but physically as well – his trademark ‘stiff arm’ has already been joked about within Arsenal circles on social media.
“That’s always been a part of my game,” the defender says with a smile. “I’ve always been quite powerful and quick. But before I was quite small – then I got that major growth spurt and started to fill out. I come from a sporty family so everything happened quite naturally.”
Norton-Cuffy also explains how he came back from the pandemic (post-first lockdown) in his best ever condition, when it would have been easy for many footballers to lack sharpness and match practice upon returning for project restart.
“I actually came back from the pandemic in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I remember doing runs in our first session back and I was leading every time – breezing it. Me and my brother would do home workouts together and push each other. We would go out for runs at stupid times because at home all day, your body clock loses sense of routine.
“I was even going alone to the park, just me and the ball, making sure I never lost that feel for it. Doing kick ups, drills around cones, testing my first touch and even though it sounds basic, it really helped me.”
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In recent years, there has been a real behind-the-scenes effort to maximise loan deals at Arsenal, with Per Mertsacker (Academy Manager) and Ben Knapper (Loan Manager) working hard to prevent mistakes of old. When asked about his own experience, Norton-Cuffy gave a glowing review after leaving the pearly gates of London Colney for the first time.
“Each case is a bit different. Personally, I have a good relationship with a lot of the staff at Arsenal so we kept in regular contact. They were messaging me about my performances, the sports science guys were always on my back about the gym and making sure I was doing the right exercises.
“Coaches did come down to watch me quite regularly, which you always appreciate when you’re away from the club and they were even giving me tips about opposition wingers, for example, telling me if they liked to cut inside and sending me clips about how to defend against certain players – they were really hands on.”
I like to get on the ball and be as creative as possible, but my game is more about hard work, winning my battles – I hate getting beat. I really take that personally.
Brooke Norton-Cuffy on his style of play
Those who have watched the 18-year-old will know he is very much in the new school of full backs. He is a standout athlete and very visible on the pitch, excelling in direct duels with an ability to burst away from pressure. But the Hale End graduate is also improving technically, comfortable on his weaker side and was regularly found drifting into central areas whilst playing for Lincoln last season.
“I’d describe my style of play as one-versus-one dominance. As a full back, winning your duels is important because you’re up against someone for basically the whole game. I like to get on the ball and be as creative as possible, but my game is more about hard work, winning my battles – I hate getting beat. I really take that personally.
When asked about areas of improvement, the Arsenal defender paused briefly before giving his answer.
“I would probably say my range of passing. If you watch Trent (Alexander-Arnold) or Reece James, they have those big diagonals in their locker or clipped balls in behind, and as a full back that really opens up the game for you. I’ve also been working on my final ball and decision making, which is more about whether to whip it across goal, cut it back, stand it up to the back post – I know I can do it – but it’s about being able to execute with consistency.”
Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images
Despite his recent arrival into the limelight, it could be overlooked that the defender has been with Arsenal since the age of nine, where he initially joined from Chelsea as a striker. What quickly becomes clear during our conversation is how his first sessions at Hale End have left a lasting impression.
“The focus at Arsenal is a very technical. I was nine years old when I first arrived there (from Chelsea) and I was shocked. I remember doing passing drills and the level was ridiculous – first touches, technique, everyone could play on both feet – even at that age group. They are constantly stressing the importance of technique and perfecting your basics which will take you far in the game.”
But there is also life away from Hale End. And while South American streets have been influential in producing the greatest strikers, or Paris and its banlieues which sparked a French talent boom – the London cages have also played a role in many prominent careers. Players such as Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Tammy Abraham have all spoken about the influence of cage football in their development, which Norton-Cuffy was also quick to highlight.
“100 per cent,” he recalls with a laugh. “I’m in my local cage almost every day – especially during the pandemic. I would go and train in the morning, finish around 1pm and then go the cage and play until the lights cut off. The cages played a big part in my development because you don’t care about injuries or recovery, you just want to go and play football with your friends.
The focus at Arsenal is a very technical. I was nine years old when I first arrived there and I was shocked. I remember doing passing drills and the level was ridiculous – first touches, technique, everyone could play on both feet – even at that age group.
Brooke Norton-Cuffy on his first impression at Arsenal
“Especially when you’re younger and some of the older kids are playing, you might get booted around a bit or get into arguments, but that all builds resilience. There are no fouls, so you just have to get on with it. It raises your technical level as well because you’ve got no time on the ball, so your first touch needs to be perfect. People are always trying skills as well and you can’t afford to get beaten – otherwise they don’t let you forget it.
“Without realising, I’ve taken those habits into my game now. Things like that really help you.”
Although talk of another loan has yet to surface, it’s clear that Norton-Cuffy has made an impression back at London Colney. He narrowly missed out the club’s pre-season tour of the United States and stylistically, fits the profile of what Mikel Arteta wants at right back which could hint at first-team opportunities in the near future. But the young defender is taking nothing for granted.
“It’s impossible to say how close you are,” he explains. “All you have to do is keep performing well, keep improving and carrying on your momentum. But I don’t feel far away from knocking at the door – let’s put it that way.
“When you see players who have come all the way through Hale End, it definitely gives you added motivation because you can see yourself in that position. Someone like Bukayo (Saka) especially, he’ll come and talk to you, he’ll always make you feel like you’re on the same level. It’s eye opening to see that pathway but all the guys who have made it, they have sacrificed a lot and it’s not easy.”
Photo by Christian Hofer – The FA/The FA via Getty Images
We finished our interview by asking the teenager for one piece of advice that has stuck with him throughout his life, whether it be from a teammate, senior player, coach or another influential figure – there was no pause for thought here.
“The best piece of advice I’ve had was from Greg Lincoln. He was with me from the start at Arsenal, all the way through from U10s and is now coaching with England. He said: “make your weaknesses your strengths and make your strengths, your super strengths” it sounds silly but that really resonated with me.”
Arsenal fans are no strangers to romanticising an academy prospect coming through and impressing for the first team; although you can forgive them with their track record. But there is nothing starry-eyed about Norton-Cuffy, whose quiet confidence and determination leave you certain about him taking any opportunities with both hands – if and when they arrive.
We’d like to extend a huge thank you to Brooke for his time. If you wish to report any of these quotes, please credit Scouted Football and include a link to the original page.