When my Dad and I landed at London’s Heathrow airport the first week of August in 2002, it was the first time I had ever been to the United Kingdom. My Dad had been to London before for work, and he spent a majority of the flight telling me what I could expect. My knowledge of England was limited to what almost every other American knows of the country. I knew they had a Queen and red double decker buses. I also knew they enjoyed drinking tea and spoke with funny accents. Most importantly, however, I knew they took their soccer seriously.
I didn’t really know how to feel about the upcoming two weeks. I was nervous, excited, and scared, but most of all I was overjoyed at knowing I’d be walking through the front doors of one of the world’s largest clubs the following day. Even though our flight arrived at night, Steve greeted my father and me at the airport’s international arrivals hall. He’d been in Wilmington almost the entire week during ESP, but I didn’t recognize him at all. If staying out of sight was vital for a scout, then he had definitely done his job.
We packed our bags into a strange car and were on the road several minutes later. Steve and my Dad made conversation in the front of the car while I sat in the back seat staring out of the window like a five year old on his first road trip. He asked us questions about Roanoke and the level of players I was used to playing with. After getting a feel of my background, he handed me his phone and told me to call my Mom to tell her I’d arrived safely. Steve made both my Dad and me feel so comfortable even though we were thousands of miles away from anything we were used to. He discussed what a typical trial was like and explained to me exactly what I should expect during my two weeks in London. Hearing him say things like ‘the reserves,’ ‘the training ground,’ and ‘the first team’ all excited me. The next fourteen days were going to be fantastic.
After spending forty-five minutes in the car, we pulled into the driveway of our hotel. The Sopwell House, the hotel used for the English National Team as well as many other national teams, was everything I expected when I thought of England. Located in St. Albans, a small town north of London where Arsenal’s training ground resides, the Sopwell House resembled a country club. Steve told me that the restaurant was already closed but to order whatever I wanted from the room service menu. He made sure that both my father and I were checked in before telling me what time I needed to be downstairs for pick up in the morning. After finding my way to my room and ordering a club sandwich from the late night menu, I lay sprawled out on my massive king size bed. I wasn’t certain about a lot of things up to that point. I had no idea what the following day was going to be like, and I was both mentally and physically drained from the flight. I did know one thing, though. I knew I wouldn’t leave England without a contract from Arsenal Football Club.
Despite being so tired from the day of travelling, I found it very difficult to comfortably fall asleep. So much was racing through my mind, and my body hadn’t had enough time to adjust to the new time zone. When my alarm went off at 7:45am, my body clock thought it was 2:45am, and I found getting out of bed nearly impossible. I knew I had to get going, though, and after taking an ice cold shower to jolt some life into me, I grabbed my cleats and took ‘the lift’ down to the restaurant for some breakfast with my Dad.
On the way to our table, I made sure to scope out the buffet to see what was available. The tray of eggs didn’t seem out of place, and neither did the sausage and bacon. The mushrooms, tomatoes, and baked beans all looked like they belonged at a weekend barbecue, though. The tray labelled ‘black pudding’ looked like someone had left circular pieces of bread in the toaster for two or three days.
“What’s that,” I asked one of the waitresses while I pointed at the tray of ‘burnt toast.’
“That’s black pudding. It’s basically dried blood,” she responded.
“Hmm,” I thought. “Maybe it’s time I start looking for some Cheerios.”
After putting together a light plate of fruit, cereal, and eggs, and getting over the fact that the pudding I had just been introduced to was a solid and not a delicious creamy dessert, I found my table and began asking my dad about English cuisine. Midway through the conversation, I spotted a familiar face in the restaurant. “Is that really…? No way,” I thought. Seated in the opposite corner of the restaurant was Gilberto Silva, Arsenal’s latest signing. The guy had just won the 2002 World Cup with Brazil. While I had been at ESP camp fighting for a college scholarship, he’d been commanding Brazil’s midfield in South Korea and Japan. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t been too worried about the transfer window leading up to my trip to England and had no idea he had even signed for Arsenal. The day had come at me way quicker than I was prepared to handle, and I didn’t really come to terms with sharing breakfast with a World Cup winner until I saw him at the training ground an hour later.
After finishing breakfast, my Dad and I headed to the hotel lobby where we were told to wait for our ride to the training ground by Steve. I was anxious to get to the training ground so I could start training and work the long journey out of me. A few moments later, an older man wearing a suit and Arsenal tie opened the lobby doors and made his way over to my Dad and me. He introduced himself as Pat Boyle and explained that he’d be in charge of taking us to and from the training ground on a daily basis while we were in town. I liked Pat. As soon as I sat down in the car, he was asking questions and making me feel welcome. He kept assuring me I was going to do just fine, and I soon began to believe it.
I spent a majority of the short trip trying to get used to the passenger seat being on the left side of the car. The minivan we were in rumbled along several winding roads until Pat turned onto a narrow street with a gated entrance to one side. As the van approached the gates and cameras, Pat waved a key-card towards a sensor that granted us access inside. What awaited us inside the gates was awesome. I stared in awe at a uniquely shaped building dominated by large windows and a perfectly manicured landscape. The parking lot was filled with Range Rovers, Mercedes-Benz’s, BMW’s, Ferraris, and Aston Martins. I felt like I was the guest of honor at a foreign car show.
Pat pulled the van right to the front of the lot and guided us to the main doors. To my left, a whitewashed wall with the words “Arsenal Football Club” emblazoned in red across it reminded me where I was. Next to the red sign was a large plaque listing all the trophies the Club had won since it was founded. Ahead of me, two glass doors with the Arsenal crest on them awaited to be opened. Pat pulled open one of the doors and welcomed me to the Club. Inside, the building was modern and simple. Wood floors ran from wall to wall and framed prints from some of the Club’s biggest games in its recent history lined the interior. A frame-by-frame print of Dennis Bergkamp’s famous goal against Newcastle United caught my attention and excited me about the day I had in store for me. The staff at the front desk all greeted me and asked me to take a seat while they called Steve.
My Dad and I took our seats in reception and whispered quietly to each other in Farsi. We were both in awe of everything around us. I’d never really thought about a soccer team needing a reception, or a secretary, or security, but it all made sense. I only ever saw the players out on the pitch whenever their games were televised and didn’t associate anything but the stadium and matchday with them. Seeing all the behind the scenes activity that kept the Club operating smoothly was beyond interesting.
After several minutes in reception, Steve came around a corner and introduced my Father and me to Sean O’Conner, the man who was in charge of keeping the training ground in working order on a daily basis. Sean wanted to give us a quick tour of the building before I had to get ready for training just so I’d be comfortable during my two-week stay. After seeing what the Club offered its players in terms of facilities, food, and medical treatment, I soon began realizing why some of the best players in the world were so attracted to the North London team. The swimming pool’s floor was able to be raised and lowered depending on the type of rehabilitation that was required. When players were exercising in the pool, underwater windows allowed the physios to watch and assess their every movement. Both a hot tub and steam room made minor aches and pains that much easier to get rid of.
Sean explained that several of the training pitches were heated to allow all weather training. Whenever it snowed, the grass would remain green and snow would accumulate around the edges of the pitch. Another pitch, specifically designed for players returning from injury, was composed of a special blend of sand and soil to reduce the strain from impact and pain inducing exercises. The grounds crew worked everyday and left the pitches looking like acres and acres of plush green carpet. The chairs in the restaurant, located on the second floor, were designed to ensure players’ backs wouldn’t ache if they sat in them for extended periods of time. Mr. Wenger approved all of the food prepared by Robert Fagg, simply known as ‘Chef’ throughout the Club, before it hit the serving trays. Strategically placed security cameras monitored every move inside and outside of the building. Everything was spotless, everything was in order, and everything was professional.
The last stop of the tour was the reserve team dressing team. White lockers equipped with doors and matching benches ran along the perimeter of the room. Neatly folded shorts, socks, towels, and training jerseys lied peacefully on the benches in front of each locker. The kit man, or the person in charge of making sure all of the training and match equipment was in order, entered the room and showed me to my locker. He finished organizing the lockers before opening the double doors and disappearing from my sight. I sat down and smiled. Already so many exciting events had happened, and I hadn’t even touched a soccer ball. Resting next to me was a complete Arsenal training kit. I’d trained in professional jerseys and shorts before, but only those that I’d bought at soccer shops or ordered from catalogs. This was different. I had earned the right to wear the team’s crest, and it felt good knowing I was wearing it with a purpose.
Shortly after hanging my street clothes up in my locker, several of the youth and reserve team players began trickling into the dressing rooms. All sorts of English accents that I’d never heard before began echoing through the hallways and dressing areas. Most of the players just looked at me and kept chatting to their teammates, while others simply said, “Alright?” to me. I began getting more and more nervous and didn’t like not knowing anybody. I didn’t really expect the players to be warm towards a new face in their changing room, especially because more players meant more competition, and more competition made getting to the first team locker room that much harder.
David Wales, the youth and reserve team’s head physio, soon turned a corner and introduced himself as ‘Walesy’ to me. Before I was to train, Walesy wanted to do a quick check up on me. I could tell he was sincere and enjoyed what he did. His soft-spoken manner helped me relax as he asked questions about my medical past. Both him and John Cooke, or ‘Cookey’ as everyone called him, let me know that they were available for any treatment I required during my stay.
About thirty minutes later, I was standing in the reserve and youth team boot room, lacing up my adidas Predators and staring at the huge number of shoes hanging from the wall. Each player was assigned four pegs for two sets of boots. Once again, the room was kept incredibly tidy, and almost all of the boots were free of mud and grass and polished clean. Even though the players were expected to keep their boots clean, the faucets, brushes, and compressed air that made up the cleaning station right outside the boot room’s doors made maintenance easy. With my cleats and kit on, I was ready to start the most important two weeks of my life.
Just as Steve had told me on the phone several weeks prior to my arrival in London, I was going to be training with the reserves. According to Ryan Garry, one of the few players that didn’t seem to mind me being around, a majority of the reserves had travelled to Belgium that morning for a preseason friendly. Only six reserves were left behind, and I’d be training with them. I couldn’t really imagine only training with seven total players, so as we headed out the glass doors and started our jog to the pitches, I wondered what exactly we’d be doing.
Eddie Niedzwiecki, the reserve team manager at the time, had already set out numerous mannequins and cones, and roughly thirty Nike balls, the same balls used in the Premier League, were lined up next to the pitch. The pitch. Wow. Never in my life had I seen such a beautifully maintained plot of land. The crazy thing? There were almost fifteen identical ones in the complex. If I had spent the rest of the day day looking, I probably would have struggled to find one piece of grass longer than the rest.
My first session was a technical one to say the least. So much emphasis was put on first touch, composure in tight spots, and the ability to play quickly and under control. The rest of the players were cruising through the different exercises as if it was second nature to them. The areas we played in were very small and forced everyone to think quickly and play even quicker. Everything we did embodied the style of play that is so attractive to watch when Arsenal’s first team play. It wasn’t rocket science and by no means was it revolutionary. The drills were basic but done with so much quality and concentration, and it was evident the boys I was playing with took pride in everything they did. It took a little for me to adapt to the pace of the ball on the wet pitch, but as soon as I did, I began to enjoy myself.
Even though I was just on trial, it was still preseason, and I had to take part in all of the fitness work. My stamina and endurance were both quite high because of the gruelling summer schedule I had completed in the States, and I was eager to show the staff that I was ready to run. The hot and humid weather that I was accustomed to on the East Coast was hell compared to the cool, damp London air. I didn’t mind the fitness part at all. I’d always prided myself on being the fittest player on the pitch, and, even though I was working with professional athletes, I was prepared to prove to myself that I could still finish first. We finished the session with a series of strenuous sprints that left everyone gasping for air. I powered through the jet lag and finished near the top in every drill. After collecting all of the gear, we made our way back inside to shower and get some lunch.
My Dad had watched training from a distance, and as we ate lunch, we discussed what my first day was like. The restaurant and kitchen make up almost the entire second floor at the Club, and it was pretty quiet because of the preseason game in Belgium. Steve joined us, and asked me how it felt to have my first day under my belt. I was definitely happy to have a number of my questions answered: what the level of play was like, what the training ground was like, and what I could expect for the rest of the trial. I knew training would differ once the rest of the reserves returned for training the following day, but I was happy with my performance and left the Club looking forward to a nap and the next several days.
The second day of my trial was especially interesting because a majority of the first team squad was in for training. Steve greeted me in reception again, but he wasn’t by himself this time. Dressed in the staff’s new training kit, Arsène Wenger approached me with an outstretched hand and warm smile.
“Danny, this is the Boss,” Steve said with his usual grin. “Boss, this is Danny, the American boy I was telling you about.”
Mr. Wenger asked me about my trip over and if I was enjoying my stay in London so far. It was a very short conversation, but the little words he did say made such a huge impact. I couldn’t believe I’d just shook the hand of Arsène Wenger, one of the highest rated managers in the world of soccer. I had to start getting used to that. I needed to get comfortable using the entire world as a basis of comparison against the people I was meeting and the facilities I was enjoying at Arsenal.
As soon as Mr. Wenger exited reception, another familiar face approached the front doors. With a smooth strut and an aura of confidence that only comes with being the deadliest striker on the planet, Theirry Henry pushed open the glass doors and greeted everyone in reception. A quick ‘hello’ and handshake were directed my way before he exchanged his shoes for his flip-flops in his cubby and quickly disappeared into the first team dressing room.
It all happened too fast. I was still processing the fact that I had just met the Boss when France’s goal scoring super human had said hello to me. I didn’t understand how anyone could get any work done around the training ground when some of the biggest names and faces in soccer casually strolled through its corridors. Steve must have seen my exchange with Thierry, because he called me back to his office before I was able to escape to the dressing room.
“You don’t need to be star struck anymore, Danny. At the end of the day, the job you want is the job they have. It’s hard to compete with someone if you place them on a pedestal so high above you.”
I understood what he meant but had never really thought about it that way.
He continued, “Obviously, you should use them as teachers and respect them and what they have accomplished, but you have to realize you will ultimately be competing with them.”
His advice motivated me and excited me so much. I knew I wasn’t up to the standard of Thierry Henry or any of the first teamers at that point, but I was in a position to be competing with them. Knowing I was in that position gave me even more drive and determination to succeed.
Training that second day was tougher than the first because my jet lag had started to kick in and I was already tired from the previous day’s work. I met the rest of the reserve team and couldn’t believe how diverse of a group it was. The dressing room was filled with a handful of Irishmen, a Swede, an Icelandic, two Brazilians, a Faroese (from The Faroe Islands), a Dane, one other American, and several Englishmen. The United Nations could have literally held a meeting in the reserve team dressing room and been fairly represented. The other American in the group was Frankie Simek, a boy from St. Louis who had been on the Club’s books since he was 12 after his family moved to England for his father’s work. Frank and I would later become good friends, and we still keep in touch today.
There were about fifteen of us training that second day. The atmosphere of the group seemed quite positive, because so many of the boys were friends. A majority of them were either English or Irish and had grown up with each other in the Club. While we were stretching during the warm-up, Eddie announced to everyone who I was and how long I’d be in London. After telling them where I was from, Steve Sidwell, now with Aston Villa as of 2008, shouted, “Hey Dude!” in a rather poor American from across the pitch. Everyone laughed and I did my best to join in, although I wasn’t really sure if I was being made fun of or not. Sidwell’s joke marked the beginning of an onslaught of American jokes that I was so lucky to hear during my time in England. There was hardly ever any malice in the jokes, but it was almost as if some of the English kids wanted to remind me that I was a foreigner playing an English game.
The session was similar to the first day’s workout, but the increased numbers gave Eddie more options to work with. Technique was stressed and then stressed some more. Like the previous day, we spent the first twenty minutes playing four and five versus two. The possession theme progressed into a larger game of keep away and finished with a game to goals. The soccer was absolutely fantastic in the game. I’d played against some very good players at ESP camp, but the pace and quality I was experiencing at Arsenal was far above anything I’d ever seen. The midfielders were the most creative I’d ever played with. The strikers were the sharpest I’d ever seen, and the defenders were the toughest I’d ever faced. I couldn’t believe just how competitive it was. Everybody wanted to win and treated the game as if it was a proper match against a big rival. The tackling was hard but Eddie kept the game flowing, rarely calling a foul. I found getting comfortable with the pace of the match somewhat difficult in the beginning and saw very little of the ball. The defenders seemed to read every movement I made, and I quickly realized that I’d have to outsmart them off the ball if I ever was to get open enough to actually receive the ball. Even though it was a tough fifteen minutes, I was given the chance first hand to see and experience exactly what the English game was like. If the standard was this good in the reserves, I couldn’t begin to imagine what it was like in the first team.
After training, Steve asked if I would like to get some sightseeing done, and I couldn’t have been happier. My mind and body had been in overdrive since my arrival at Heathrow, and I was really looking forward to seeing a bit of the wonderfully historic city of London. Steve drove my Dad and me around the city, pointing out monuments, famous buildings, museums, and other known landmarks. I sat in the backseat snapping pictures of just about every building that looked meaningful while my Dad and Steve spoke about the Club, the Premier League, and England in general. I was content sitting in the back of the car. So much was going through my mind regarding professional contracts and college scholarships, and having the chance to get away from everything, even if it was for a couple of hours, was very refreshing.
Once we were done seeing London’s major attractions, Steve told us there was one stop left before the tour was finished. We’d left the hustle and bustle of the narrow, busy streets that defined London and were creeping along a quiet road that looked more residential than anything else. Plastered to one of the buildings was a sign that read “Avenell Road.” I’d never heard of the street and wasn’t exactly sure why Steve had stopped the car in front of a house on one side, and a set of marble stairs on the other. When I stepped out of the car, I finally realized where I was.
Directly in front of me, at the top of the small set of stairs, two large black doors were firmly shut and locked. My eyes crept up the doors to a symbol that looked like an intertwined ‘A’ and ‘C’ that I had never seen before. Above the letters, a large cannon looked as if it was protecting the front doors. Directly above the cannon, the words ‘Arsenal Stadium’ were emblazoned in red across the white façade. The giant wall looked like a sea of white with red stripes. “Welcome to Highbury,” Steve said.
The location of the stadium was incredible. Many of the houses that lined Avenell Road had Arsenal flags hanging on their outer walls. Stickers with current and past members of the squad filled windows. What seemed like a normal neighborhood on a quiet weekday was actually the home of Arsenal Football Club. No wonder the fans were so passionate in England. If I had been born twenty yards from one of the most famous soccer stadiums in the world, I think would have been crazy about that team, too.
Steve knocked on the black doors, and a small Irishmen who introduced himself as Paddy greeted us. He’d been in charge of maintaining Highbury for long time, and I could tell the stadium was his life. The doors opened revealing what looked to me like a lobby and was known as the ‘Marble Halls.’ A massive red cannon had been incorporated into the sleek flooring and dominated the entrance. To my right, a large set of stairs wrapped around out of sight to the next floor. Directly in front of me, the bust of a man named Herbert Chapman, one of Arsenal’s former managers, stared menacingly in my direction.
I followed Steve down a very small set of steps, took a sharp left and immediately knew where I was. The tunnel. As a kid, I’d been obsessed with soccer stadiums around the world. I wanted to know what it was like for a player to leave the comfort of the dressing room and walk out in front thousands of screaming, passionate fans. There wasn’t a single soul in the stadium that day, but I still felt shivers run down my spine. The tunnel was cramped and far from cozy. The floor was red and the walls that seemed to be closing in on me were made of brightly painted white brick. One final set of stairs led to the tunnel’s exit, which opened up at the halfway line of the pitch.
The stadium was incredible. By no means was it incredible because of its technological advancements like the stadiums of today, but it was incredible because I could almost feel its rich history. The original stadium had been built in 1913, and it had since been renovated in the 30’s and the 90’s. I’d never been so close to the pitch, the tunnel, or the bench of any stadium, and I was now getting my own personal tour of Highbury. I stood at the halfway line, surrounded by the four stands that made up the stadium: the Clock End to my left, the North Bank to my right, the West Stand directly in front of me, and the East Stand behind me.
I couldn’t get over the fact of what exactly was going on. I hadn’t paid to take a tour of the stadium. I’d earned the right to be shown it by the Chief Scout. The story wouldn’t just end after I left the stadium that day. If I did well, I’d possibly earn a contract. If I improved enough once I was at the Club for good, I might actually get to play on the grass that I stared at in envy - the grass that Sol Campbell and Robert Pires graced every weekend.
Steve then took my dad and I back through the tunnel and led us towards the Clock End. From there, we made our way up to the luxury suites so I could see everything from a bird’s eye view. The pitch was immaculate and looked like a fairway. Everything was set for the opening day of the Premiership. I’d taken about twenty pictures while I was driving around London and nearly double that just in the stadium. It wasn’t very hard to see what interested me more.
Once we finished up at the stadium, Steve brought my Dad and I by the team shop and told me to take whatever I wanted. By no means was I going to go crazy, but I did pick out a couple of t-shirts, a scarf, and a stuffed animal for my girlfriend. We then made our way to an Indian restaurant, one of Steve’s favorites, for a relaxing dinner to wrap up the eventful day. Steve spent a majority of the dinner asking me about my schooling and what plans I had in general about my future. At that point, I had a year left in high school and was excited to pursue a degree in architecture. My education was important to me, and Steve understood that completely. He mentioned that some players managed to take classes while still playing professionally, but soccer would always take precedent if there were ever a conflict.
I entertained the idea of playing soccer professionally and continuing my schooling. The reason I was going to go to college was to get an education. The reason I was going to play soccer in college was because I wanted to eventually go pro in the sport I loved. If I were lucky enough to get offered a contract by Arsenal and still manage to continue my education, why wouldn’t moving to England be the right choice?
Our conversation shifted from schooling to my thoughts on the Club and England so far. I didn’t have any complaints. The training ground was by far the most incredible setup I’d ever taken advantage of, and the actual training was the best I’d ever participated in. I didn’t really mind England, either. It wasn’t as warm as Roanoke was, and I couldn’t understand half of my teammates, but I enjoyed the city and everything that came with it. I could definitely see myself living there. Steve told me that even though everything looked and sounded so rosy at Arsenal, it was incredibly difficult to make the first team, and the odds were heavily stacked against me. He wasn’t trying to scare me, but he was being honest about the English footballing culture that is especially evident at larger clubs.
Once we were finished with dinner, Steve took us back to the hotel where I spent the night thinking about all the possibilities I’d been presented in the past weeks. I’d hoped to come out of ESP camp with a nice scholarship that would have eased the burden of college costs for my parents. I’d done that. Schools from all over the country were contacting me with scholarship offers. Two weeks earlier, I’d never thought that the college of my choice might be competing with a top English club for my signature.
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