A history of Arsenal's Hale End academy

Bukayo Saka, product of Arsenal's Hale End academy
Lewis Ambrose

MARCH 28, 2022

Lewis Ambrose chronicles the different generations of the Arsenal academy, from Tony Adams and David Rocastle, to Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.

“Thomas, charging through the midfield… it’s up for grabs now! Thomas, right at the end!”

They are perhaps the most famous words in the history of Arsenal Football Club. Just a few years before the emergence of Manchester United’s world famous Class of ‘92, another of England’s biggest clubs looked to their youth system to end a long wait for a title. 

Michael Thomas joined Arsenal as a teenager and became a first team regular at the age of 19. He was just 21 when he scored the goal at Anfield in May 1989 that clinched Arsenal a first league title in 18 years. Now, in 2021, the Gunners are again approaching 18 years since their last taste of league success and are again looking to home-grown talents to steer things back in the right direction.

That 1988/89 title-winning campaign saw 17 players make a league appearance under George Graham. Nine of them were academy graduates, with five playing huge roles in the success. Tony Adams, just 22, was captaining the only club he would ever play for. He was joined in defence by David O’Leary, the club record appearance holder to this day. Further forward, the hero, Michael Thomas, regularly lined up alongside club icon David Rocastle in midfield.

By 1991, when the club won the First Division title again, Paul Merson had graduated to become a first team regular. The 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup triumph, saw Ian Selley and Ray Parlour also feature heavily having come through Arsenal’s youth academy.

Since then, though, there have been surprisingly few come all the way through at a club that prides itself on giving youth a chance.

Arsenal's Rocky Rocastle, Tony Adams and Paul Merson

We don’t buy superstars, we make them.

ARSÈNE WENGER

“We don’t buy superstars, we make them,” Arsène Wenger declared in 2007. But even the vast majority of young players given a chance to become Arsenal regulars were bought in at some stage. 

Firstly with Nicolas Anelka, then the likes of Patrick Vieira, and later players like Thierry Henry and Kolo Touré, Wenger brought in some of the finest young talent in the world, old enough to make an instant impact, and helped them develop into some of the best players on the planet. The pattern continued with Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor and Samir Nasri, while the likes of Gaël Clichy, Cesc Fàbregas and Mathieu Flamini found their feet with the reserves before making the leap.

In the meantime, there were few true Hale End graduates, truly Arsenal-educated players; Ashley Cole was an exception in the final years at Highbury. Some threatened to make the grade, Jermaine Pennant and David Bentley come to mind, Kerrea Gilbert was briefly another hope while Justin Hoyte enjoyed a minor first team breakthrough before fading. 

There may have been many young players impressing under Arsène Wenger but they were discovered when the bulk of their development had already taken place. Arsenal had one of the greatest youth scouting systems in the world and a lot to offer them but they missed that home-grown centrepiece that every club longs for.

Arsène Wenger and Cesc Fàbregas at Arsenal

Arsène Wenger and Cesc Fàbregas at Arsenal. Credit: Getty Images

As Arsenal moved to the Emirates the club’s footballing philosophy, driven by Wenger, became more concrete than ever. The club was one built in his image, from top to bottom, and the exits of the final title-winning stars meant the Frenchman was undoubtedly the biggest figure at the club. 

On the pitch, Jack Wilshere emerged to embody the club more than anyone else. He had the creative spirit Wenger valued so highly, a brilliant dribbler with exceptional balance and the urge to constantly drive forwards, but also the typical English tenacity craved by the fans. He was fearless.

“I first integrated Wilshere into training with the first-team when he was 15 and he has never looked out of place,” Wenger said after Wilshere’s first goal for the club, months after he had already become the youngest player to ever represent Arsenal in a league match.

Others continued to be handed opportunities, especially in cup competitions, but Kieran Gibbs was the only other true academy graduate to truly break through as Arsenal struggled to find and nurture a generation to emulate the one of the early 1990s. 

Things got worse as Wilshere, considered the club’s crown jewel by so many, battled with injuries. The midfielder went from being touted as a future England captain to having a bit-part role when his body allowed it.

Arsenal's Ashley Cole, Jack Wilshere and Alex Iwobi

Worse yet towards the end of Wenger’s reign, the club started to bleed the young imported talent. Serge Gnabry and Héctor Bellerín followed in the footsteps of Fàbregas to celebrate not just first team debuts but spells as key players in their formative years. 

Just a couple of years later that very approach was still in place — Arsenal signed Donyell Malen, Ismaël Bennacer and Jeff Reïne-Adélaide amongst others all in the summer of 2015 — but the pathway to first team football became less clear as the club went through a decline.

“When I was at Arsenal, manager Arsène Wenger sometimes called up a few youth players for a couple of games in the League Cup,” Andries Jonker, who served as academy manager from 2014-2017, said in an interview after Wenger’s departure.

“But when Arsenal had a league game a couple of days later, those boys were never in the squad. And in the next 50 games, Wenger would not pick them, either. So I have serious doubts if young talent are making the right step if they go to England at this moment. I would advise them not to go, but to play 100 games in first-team football on the continent first. Take Donyell Malen. At Arsenal, he was a big talent. But he left the club just in time. He realised he was going to end up in what I call no-man’s land.”

Maybe it would have happened at other clubs but for talented young players ending up in that so-called “no-man’s land” at Arsenal of all places was a real change and a huge concern. But the club had already been doing work on the academy in an effort to produce more players capable of making the leap to the first team.

Plans had been put in place in 2012 for Hale End, then run by club legend Liam Brady, who had joined the club as a schoolboy himself, to undergo a huge and long overdue revamp.

“Looking ahead, the Club is in the process of agreeing the necessary planning consents for a major development of its youth development training facility at Hale End,” Arsenal confirmed in 2012. Developments were completed four years later.

“You should create the best conditions for the boys to develop themselves,” Jonker told Arsenal Player in 2016. “That means good floodlights, good pitches, good changing rooms. When I came in it was all fine, but it had been built in the 1930s. With this reconstruction, we’ve made ourselves up to date. We’re living in 2016 and now it looks like 2016. That’s what we had to do.”

At the core of it all, of course, was that identity that centred around Wenger’s own idyllic vision of the sport, a vision shared by Brady, who would fitted seamlessly into one of the Frenchman’s Arsenal sides.

Arsenal's Andries Jonker

Andries Jonker, Arsenal’s former academy manager. Credit: Getty Images

“There are only a few clubs in Europe who have a real identity,” Jonker added. “Ajax, Anderlecht, Barcelona and Arsenal – you know what to expect. That’s a passing game with us, space for individual quality and creativity, the intention to play football and score goals, and of course we want to win.

“We have an identity and over the years we have been working on that identity. That’s not just me, it’s Liam Brady and his people. We’ve been working for a long time on that identity and that means that everybody knows what’s to be expected.”

As Hale End improved, Arsenal fell behind. And as Arsenal fell behind, chances became more infrequent for young players. But the academy did finally deliver a first team regular again, the last of the Wenger era, just as the Hale End improvements were completed. 

After a handful of appearances in domestic cup competitions, Alex Iwobi started a Champions League game at Camp Nou before making his full Premier League debut. He was handed the latter days later and scored his first professional goal away at Everton, before adding his second a week later.

Iwobi may not have been the most popular player during his time at Arsenal but one thing was immediately clear watching him; perhaps even more than Wilshere, he was undeniably and unequivocally a player created in Wenger’s image. A real 21st century Arsenal player.

Smooth on the ball, creative, and unselfish to a fault. That club philosophy laid out by Jonker was clear to see whenever Iwobi was on the ball, the academy was doing its job after heavy investment, but the pathway to the first team had become less clear than ever with Arsenal struggling to remain in the Champions League and no longer competing for major honours.

The irony, of course, is that Wenger stopped trusting young players as much but it is now the club’s academy graduates who are maintaining his Arsenal legacy more than anyone else.

And another former Wenger player was crucial in giving them the platform to do just that. Appointed as the U23s head coach by new academy boss Per Mertesacker in 2018, Freddie Ljungberg had an enormous influence on Arsenal’s most talented youngsters as they made their final steps in youth football. 

Ljungberg had already spent time with some of the players, including Bukayo Saka, as a youth team coach at the club two years earlier. In the meantime he had gathered experience as Jonker’s assistant when the Dutchman took over at Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg.

There are only a few clubs in Europe who have a real idtentity – Arsenal, Ajax, Anderlecht and Barcelona.

ANDRIES JONKER, FORMER ACADEMY MANAGER

Arsenal saw Eddie Nketiah continue his superb goalscoring form under Ljungberg and Joe Willock really started to catch the eye, scoring nine goals in 14 games.

“He’s a mentor for me, he showed me a lot behind the scenes that people don’t really know about,” Willock said of Ljungberg after earning permanent promotion to the first team in 2019.

“He’s improved my whole overall game. If I’m being specific, getting in the pockets when I’m playing number 10 and attacking as a number eight. He showed me a lot of different tactics to get space and turn to attack other teams. Those are the main things really.”

Willock wasn’t alone in making the jump to the first team in the summer of 2019, with Ljungberg making the same move.

“Alongside his new coaching responsibilities, Freddie will have a strong focus on the young players who are moving into the first-team group,” read an official statement from the group. Work was clearly being done to make sure players were given the right environment to step up into as well as the opportunity to do so.

Willock started the first three Premier League games of the new season and every Europa League group stage match, firstly under Unai Emery, and later Ljungberg himself when the Swede took charge as interim boss. But it was another Arsenal youngster who took the platform Ljungberg provided and truly ran with it.

Arsenal legend Freddie Ljungberg

Freddie Ljungberg. Credit: Getty Images

Bukayo Saka was just 16 when the Invincible took over at U-23 level. The creative winger had never played at that level and some at the club were reluctant to see him take such a step up at such a tender age.

Ljungberg had coached Saka a few years previously and had no reservations: “Bukayo, I had him when he was 15,” Ljungberg explained last year. “We try to help players so they can get a career, especially as a youth coach, even if you win things and stuff, that’s not important, the important thing is for me to teach him certain things, stepping stones so he will be ready for the first team.

“Bukayo did all the work himself, he worked hard, he was a very good professional and when I had the 23s at Arsenal, I said that I was going to take Bukayo to the under-23s and I got: ‘No, he’s playing with the under-18s, he’s not ready’.

“I said, ‘no, there’s no chance, if I’m the boss of this team, he’s coming to train with me and I’ll show he can play’. Sometimes as a coach, you have to have those discussions when people don’t agree with you.”

There was no doubt that Saka proved Ljungberg right. The teenager played 24 times for the under-23s in that season, more than any other player, and was handed his first team debut and later a full debut by Unai Emery.

Arsenal's Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Charlie Patino

Ljungberg finally made way for Mikel Arteta but it felt like he sent a message to the Spaniard with his final line-up. With Arteta already appointed and watching on from the stands, Ljungberg underlined the club’s bright future and that the talented players all needed nurturing. 

Saka started at left-back with Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the opposite side and Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson and Gabriel Martinelli all supporting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front. Willock saw more Premier League minutes from the bench in the 0-0 draw. Saka continued at left-back under Arteta and there were plenty of chances for Maitland-Niles and Nelson as well. The coronavirus pandemic delayed things but, as football returned, Saka continued to deliver. 

He may not have played in the 2020 FA Cup final win, where Maitland-Niles gave a superb performance in his place on the left of the defence, but Saka was the true silver lining from a miserable campaign and signed a new long-term contract quickly after the season ended.

“From 14, when he took over my development, he challenged me in a way other coaches didn’t,” Saka said of Ljungberg in 2021. He pushed me and saw my potential in a way other coaches didn’t.

“All the way to the under-23s he was still pushing me and even in the first team he was still helping me, even until today. He has had a big influence on my career.”

Arsenal's Bukayo Saka

Bukayo Saka. Credit: Getty Images

Saka’s impressive form continued even as Arsenal badly struggled early on in 2020/21. Having signed a new long-term contract to remain at the club, the Englishman took on increasing importance as Arsenal and Arteta searched for a saviour. In the end, it was his combination with fellow academy graduate Emile Smith Rowe that dragged the Gunners out of a potential relegation battle.

The pair provided a natural fluency to Arsenal’s game, combining with each other, trading places, and creating with consistent decision making that belied their years. They are attack-minded, creative, selfless players in the Wenger mould, produced by the updated Hale End with their games geared towards combining with and bringing the most out of their team-mates. 

Saka has superb control and decision-making on the ball. Smith Rowe’s movement off the ball is brilliant, reacting to the movement of the team-mates closest to him to always either open up or exploiting spaces. The duo are now carrying Wenger’s legacy and tasked with restoring Arsenal’s reputation.

Arsenal ended 2020/21 in eighth for a second successive campaign but fans could now hang their hopes of improvement on the shoulders of two superb home-grown talents.

The summer saw Smith Rowe sign a new deal and take the number 10 shirt. Elsewhere, Joe Willock, who had impressed in the Europa League before Christmas and scored in seven consecutive Premier League games to help Newcastle avoid relegation was sold to the north-east club permanently. Like Iwobi before him, a first team breakthrough had helped Arsenal turn a home-grown academy graduate into money that could be used to really strengthen the first team squad.

Arsenal's Ben White and Aaron Ramsdale

Ben White & Aaron Ramsdale. Credit: Getty Images

Arsenal also used the summer to, finally, address the age of their squad. The turnover has been huge and talented home-grown talents have been supplemented by the arrivals of a host of players 23 or younger, with Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White and Martin Ødegaard going straight into the team while Nuno Tavares and Sambi Lokonga provide some much-needed competition and depth in important areas. 

The club had lost its identity over recent years but they seem to have returned to the old Wenger approach to squad building that served them well as they dealt with the financial burden of moving from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium. Taking that approach but adding genuinely top class home-grown talents to it gives fans a clear vision to root for, one they are familiar with, and one that reflects the club’s own modern history.

I can’t see myself anywhere else. Being an Arsenal fans from a young age, there is nothing better I’d rather be doing than playing for the club and the fans as well.

EMILE SMITH ROWE

 
 

 

 

And all signs suggest they will not be the last. Folarin Balogun made his first team debut in 2020/21, scored in the Europa League, finally signed a new contract, and made his Premier League debut at the beginning of 2021/22 season.  There are calls for 18-year-old midfielder Charlie Patino to make the step up to the first team, where he already trains alongside 17-year-old Omari Hutchinson. 

The challenge that faces Arsenal now is to make sure results improve while still finding ways to develop and integrate the best players they manage to produce at Hale End. With Saka and Smith Rowe shining there is hope that, for the first time in a long time, they will manage to pull it off. Should the north London club recover over the coming years, Hale End will be at the heart of the renaissance.