I signed for Arsenal 15 years ago this summer, and that summer will continue to be one that I'll never forget. I'd always dreamed of being a professional soccer player and to see that dream realized by signing my name on a piece of paper that read "Arsenal Football Club" at the top was and still is one of the best moments of my life. I'd worked hard to get to that point in my life, but I also knew if I was to make it in the professional football world, the hard was was only just beginning - that the amount of effort, sweat, tears, and blood that I had put into getting to Arsenal would pale in comparison to the amount of effort, hard work, and even luck that would be required to carve out a career in the world's game.
The summer prior to signing my contract, I'd been invited by Arsenal on trial. I was an energetic, confident 17 year old that was determined, motivated and very much eager to learn. Despite all this, my trial at Arsenal came somewhat out of the blue. I'd been waitlisted for an adidas camp the summer going into my senior year of high school and was devastated at the thought of missing out on an opportunity that would have put me right in front of the best college coaches in the entire United States. The call to pluck me off that list eventually came, though, and after a wonderful week at the camp under the watchful eyes of several former professionals (including Arsenal players), I was invited to London.
That invite only camp had certainly been the highest level of soccer I'd ever been a part of. That quickly changed when I went to Arsenal as the level increased even further for the next two weeks as I found myself amongst some of the best young professionals in the world. While 'confident' was a word that anybody that knew me prior to my trip to London would have used to describe me, the first couple of days in London was educational for me to say the least and my confidence seemed to take a hit. Was I good enough to be here? Did I really belong on trial at Arsenal Football Club? Sure I was determined to be a pro, but never in my wildest dreams did I see myself thrown straight onto a pitch with the Arsenal reserve team several weeks before entering my senior year in high school.
The gravity of the opportunity quickly dawned on me after several days in London, and I realized that these questions of self-doubt had no business being present in my mind. Arsenal's Chief Scout (Steve Rowley at the time) had flown out to the United States to see me play and had made the decision himself to bring me over to London. If that couldn't help boost my confidence and shake my timidness and doubt, I just don't know what could.
After a bit of a slow start, I began to settle during my two week tryout and changed my mindset from "should I really be here?" to "I'm not leaving here without a contract." The shift in mentality and confidence was apparent, and I became far more comfortable on the pitch in front of the coaches and staff I was out to impress. The trial ended remarkably positive and even gave me an opportunity to be on the receiving end of a Thierry Henry flick while I attempted to hold off Sol Campbell in one of the first team's training sessions. Several days after the trial, I was offered a contract.
I think it's natural to be scared, overwhelmed, and uncomfortable when thrown into situations that are somewhat foreign and new. I also think when thrown into the deep end, strong personalities shine and adapt to these situations. The staff at Arsenal know it isn't easy to be put into a foreign training ground with strangers, away from home and perceived comfort zones. They know the level will be high, but they also know to be invited on trial, the player has to be at a certain level both technically and tactically. For the player, overcoming all of the physical roadblocks mentally and having the awareness to realize that at its very core, you've been brought in to play a game that you love and that you've dreamed of succeeding in all of your life is paramount.
In The Arsenal Yankee, I dedicated quite a bit of time to the chapter aptly named "The Trial", because I learned a lot about myself, the world, and people in general during my initial two weeks in London. In fact, a big reason as to why I wrote the book was because I've always been fascinated with football as a whole, and not just what is seen on television for 90 minutes on a Saturday. How did those players get there? What did they do when nobody was watching to get into a place where everybody is watching? I found everything from my trial to putting on my shirt when I made my debut a learning experience despite the wild unknowns I was entering at each step of the way.
Like everything that is challenging or uncomfortable in life in general, it's fine to be scared, uneasy, and somewhat timid initially - it's a natural reaction. Having the awareness to overcome that fear and grab an opportunity is the true challenge and one that should be warmly received whenever presented.
I often get asked if I regret not going to school. That is, because my career as a player ended quite abruptly at 22 due to injury, people often wonder if I feel as if I made the right decision with regards to leaving the States at 18 and moving to London to chase a dream.
My answer tends to be quite steadfast: A resounding 'No'. I don't regret passing up on a track that likely would have lead me to a top school with a top soccer program and the possibility to either launch my professional career as an athlete or in some other field. I say no, because the lessons I learned and have continued to learn throughout much of my adult life stem from that decision I made all those years back.
I still vividly remember the doctor in Bolton telling me that if I expected to be able to walk by the time I was 30, that I should 'hang up the boots.' As a competitor, I wanted to prove him wrong. As a human, I was in shock, and the thought of that doctor's office and the conversation that took place in it still randomly pops into my head, specifically whenever I hit any sort of setback in life.
At the time, I definitely wondered if I had made the right choice four years prior. By the time I had returned to the States from England, my friends were graduating university, entering graduate programs, and landing awesome jobs all over the country. Naturally I was ecstatic for them, but I also found myself in a very strange place mentally and physically. The sport that I loved and had given me so much had seemingly just taken it all back and spit me out the other end. Physically, my knee caused me all sorts of pain, and mentally, I had no idea what I needed to do next in my life. Soccer had always been the answer and soccer had always been the plan.
Five years on, sat in my friend’s East Village apartment while on a scouting trip in New York, my phone began buzzing. I didn’t recognize the number and nearly ignored the phone call before finally answering:
“Hello Danny - It’s Arsène. How are you?”
“Hi Boss, I’m okay, thanks. Yourself?”
“I’m well thanks - I just wanted to call and congratulate you on Joel (Campbell). We are excited to be bringing him in…”
The conversation went on for another ten minutes before we said goodbye. I’d been scouting for Arsenal for nearly four years at that point with Joel being the first player that I had successfully recommended and signed. That whole process was quite stressful in itself, but the resulting phone call seemed to make it all worthwhile in the end. A phone call like that instills confidence in someone - a phone call like that can put a smile on anyone’s face.
As a player, I quickly learned how important of a role confidence played in my life as a professional. I’d never struggled with a lack of confidence prior to moving to England but quickly learned how vital it was during my first season at Arsenal. I found it difficult to make the squad for the reserves, never mind actually getting to play in any games. A position change at the end of my first season meant playing opportunities would increase and I soon made the left back spot my own heading into my second year.
Refreshed and now slightly more confident, I found myself training with the first team nearly every day and getting to not only play but also learn from the very best. Sol Campbell, Kolo Touré, and Martin Keown would help me with my positioning while guys like Robert Pirès, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Freddie Ljungberg would keep my defending honest on a daily basis. The Boss oversaw all of this, chiming in when necessary and providing valuable feedback and guidance to a group of players that have gone down in history as one of the best teams ever.
That season I made my first team debut for Arsenal and was given the chance to represent the Club three times at the senior level. My confidence was through the roof, but one of the most satisfying things for me was knowing that I had earned the trust and confidence from one of the most respected managers in the history of sport. It was the Boss who chose the team. It was the Boss who plucked me from my warmup and believed enough in me to throw me on a pitch with 21 other professionals on live television. Pulling an Arsenal shirt over my head and seeing that crest on my chest was powerful, inspiring, and incredibly humbling - I was thankful then for the opportunity to represent the Club and continue to be thankful to this day.
The last time I played for Arsenal was 13 years ago, but the lessons I learned as a player and afterwards as a scout - many about football, but most about life in general - continue to live on. From a footballing point of view, the Boss taught me to appreciate beautiful, flowing and often simple football that I could only dream of being a part of as a kid. I learned about movement off the ball, playing in between lines, where to take my first touch, which foot to pass to, how to play quickly, when to play first time, and so much more. I learned how to play efficiently and in an intelligent manner - a concept that I didn’t quite understand growing up and one that I appreciate more and more each day.
More importantly, however, I learned what leadership looked like. I witnessed firsthand how someone was capable of instilling belief and confidence into a group of people and what that looked like on a daily basis in the office. I learned that while some of the best managers - both in football and business - may seemingly require an almost robotic approach to their day to day, the best leaders understand their teams on an individual basis, understand their objectives completely, and are confident their teams can execute those objectives consistently. I also learned there is certainly a human element to any form of leadership, and that even the smallest of details - like a ten minute congratulatory phone call - can make a massive impact.
Sunday marks Wenger’s last home game as Arsenal manager - a game that will no doubt be an emotional affair for many Arsenal fans and football fans worldwide. As an American who was introduced formally to the Club and the Boss at 17 when I first visited England on my trial, I can only be thankful for the amazing memories I’ve been afforded over the last 16 years and look forward to being at the ground to give him a proper send off.
Aptly nicknamed The Professor due to his academic background, the way he’s carried himself throughout his career, and his overall approach to the game, Arsène has helped shape the way I once played and now understand and appreciate the beautiful game. Though Sunday will be the last time I get to see him lead his team from the technical area at the Emirates, the lessons I’ve learned from him both directly and indirectly across multiple facets of life will no doubt live on.
Thank you, Boss.
Over the past couple of weeks, Arsenal website Pain in the Arsenal has ran a series of articles about Gedion Zelalem and Joel Campbell. This past week, the site rounded out their coverage of my scouting work with a review of The Arsenal Yankee.
Josh Sippie, the author of the review, had some nice words to say about the book and seemed to really understand the reason I wanted to put my thoughts down in the first place. I was always fascinated with the top level of the beautiful game and really tried to soak everything up during my time as a pro and did my best to put everything I learned and observed into The Arsenal Yankee. If you're interested in checking out the review, give Pain in the Arsenal a visit!
After 10 awesome days in the States filled with talks and book signings across Virginia, I'm back in London. I had an awesome time speaking in Roanoke, Botetourt, Richmond, and Alexandria, and am looking forward to doing more of those talks in the future.
Upon my return to the United Kingdom, I was super pleased to see The Arsenal Yankee show up on two different reading lists for the summer. First off, Steve Goff from The Washington Post included the book in his article entitled "10 Soccer Books to Consider Adding to Your Summer Reading List." I've been a big fan of Steve's for quite some time ( if you are a soccer fan and don't follow his work, check him out on Twitter: @SoccerInsider) so to make this list in particular was quite humbling.
The second list, though published just over a week ago, was brought to my attention yesterday after I re-posted a picture of JJ Reddick's son in an Arsenal jersey (check my Twitter for that back story). Elliott Turner (@Futfanatico) included me on his list entitled "The 4 Best Soccer Books of 2016 So Far" for Paste Magazine. Here's hoping The Arsenal Yankee is able to maintain its place on that list as the year progresses!
Thank you as always for all the support!
I'm excited to announce that I'll be making three or four speaking appearances at the end of May in my home state of Virginia. I'll be discussing The Arsenal Yankee, my experiences growing up in the States, getting the chance to play in England, as well as scouting and what the best clubs in the world look for.
I'll follow up with more details, but tentatively the schedule stands as follows:
I'll update the venues/times here as well on my Facebook/Twitter. Formats for each event will likely be moderated discussion followed by Q&A lead by the audience. Books can also be purchased and signed the night of the events! Thank you all again for your support!
Last Monday, the awesome people at Howard Kennedy and the Arsenal Independent Supporters' Association hoste Tom Watt, me, and a room full of Gunners as we launched The Arsenal Yankee here in London.
I've been so lucky to have Tom involved and helping me out with the book over the past several years. One of my bosses had originally put us in touch after I'd let the Club know I was writing a book, and he helped educate me on style, structure, and much more when it came to putting my book together. To have Tom moderate and lead the discussion on Monday was a perfect. He knows my story well and effortlessly guided us through what was a wonderful evening.
I was humbled by the turnout and am grateful of the support Arsenal fans everywhere have shown already in this endeavor. To Howard Kennedy, AISA, Tom, and of course those that came out (and even bought the book!), thank you so much for a great night.