The below is largely a bit of stream of consciousness. I naturally have my own opinions on what I think makes top level players but am always open to hearing others opinions. The views expressed are my own and have nothing to do with my employer.
Despite having lived in England for quite some time, I'm still a big fan of US Youth Soccer and our entire national team programs in general. I'm always interested in hearing what new coaches or technical directors bring to the table when they are hired and more often than not, they are asked about the style of play they plan on imposing on their pool of players. While I'm a big proponent of tactics and establishing a system that can be adhered to from the youngest of players to the guys representing our country at the international stage, it all starts with building a strong technical foundation that ensures our players are confident and comfortable on the ball, regardless of the setting and regardless of the opposition.
I often get asked what it is exactly that scouts look for when watching players to either recommend signing or bringing in on trial. Though the answer can likely differ for various scouts, managers, coaches, etc, I have been watching the game as a scout for a long enough time - and was lucky enough to scout players for Arsene Wenger for an equally long time - to have an opinion on what I think it takes to make it at the highest level. Of course it isn’t a perfect science and scouts do their best to assess all aspects of a player - from ability to personality to intelligence to environment and more- but several core characteristics are consistently debated, discussed, and analyzed in a subjective manner.
A Bit of Background
I want to begin with the technical side of the game because it is an area that, as an American who moved to England and Arsenal specifically as a 17 year old, I was surprised about. I moved over as a striker and eventually settled in at left back, but I quickly realized how despite my thoughts on my technical standard being at a high level, just how far off I was. At the highest level, technique can separate average players from good players and good players from great players. This skillset goes hand in hand with confidence and belief and most importantly the ability to execute in dynamic situations that present themselves throughout the course of any game.
Technique is established at a young age and tuned as a player develops and matures into his/her senior career. Some players are naturally more comfortable on the ball while others may have to work a bit harder to achieve the same amount of comfort in similar situations.
As a kid I used to put cones down in my backyard and dribble through them for hours. Right foot only. Then left only. Then both feet. Then the outside of my right foot only. Repeat on the left. Then a little sequence that would see me use the inside of my right foot to the outside of my left foot only to bring it back with the inside of my left foot to the outside of my right foot. Repeat. Repeat. I did this because I innately enjoyed being outside with a ball at my feet either in the sweltering humidity and heat combination of Roanoke, Virginia’s summers or the cold winter days that would sometimes freeze the ground and make my backyard feel more like an ice rink and less like an actual pitch.
I’d also spend a bit of time juggling a ball - trying to get 100 first, then 500, then 1000. At 1000 I felt as though I had obtained a level of technical strength as well as a level of concentration that made me feel like I could hit 5000 or 10,000 if I tried. By the time you hit 1000 juggles, you’re generally sweating because you’ve been focused for so long. The technical repetition nearly goes into auto-pilot and it becomes a test of how long you can actually stay focused.
In the video above Zidane - arguably my favorite player - demonstrates remarkable technique, athleticism, and awareness to bring down the ball and evade his defender. I can assure you no team he ever played for set up situations where he would have been forced to twirl around, control the ball with his chest, then use the outside of his foot to rid himself of his marker. The above is a perfect example of ball mastery, belief, and creativity which is a by product of repetition.
Never in a game was I required to juggle a ball 1000 times. In fact, I don’t think I was ever tasked or required to keep the ball up 10 times in a row. However, the repetition lead to a strong understanding between my mind and my feet, the spatial recognition of myself with relation to the ball and the area around me, and of course that increased ability to focus for longer periods of time. It also established a form of goal-setting that prompted me to push myself further and further - a process I still use to this day as a 34 year old sat at a computer here in London.
Further to the point above, the repetition leads to being confident and comfortable in possession or whenever the ball is near. I may never have juggled a ball 1000 times in a game, but if a ball fell to me from the air, I was confident and comfortable in my own ability to safely bring it down and ultimately keep the ball moving. Similarly, though I certainly wish I’d managed to dribble around 8 defenders in a row during my career, I never did, but the movement and general muscle memory I’d acquired through repetition would contribute to me dodging a tackle or two here and there throughout the game without having to think about it.
Of course soccer is much more than just being able to juggle and dribble. When speaking to parents, coaches, and agents it is often observed that at its highest level, the sport actually looks quite slow. While this can be the case during lulls in possession or situationally in a match, this observed pace is often due to a combination of awareness and technical ability. Players who bring the ball away from pressure and into space naturally seem to have more time on the ball. Those who struggle with their first touch make the game look frantic, fast, and out of control. Those who rush passes because their first touch puts them in an uncomfortable position or on the wrong foot equally speed up play when it doesn’t need to be sped up.
Again, at the highest level, players possess an elite understanding and awareness of the game AND are able to combine their technical prowess alongside it. This is what makes the best players in the world who they are. I’ve seen all sorts of players during my twelve years scouting - some players will be remarkably gifted from a technical standpoint but fail to understand the game or execute this technique when pressure is present. Others understand the game and what should and needs to happen next but lack the ability or quality to actually make it happen.
A Quick Focused Look at Strikers
Positionally players tend to have a different type of technical skillset as well. Strikers require the ability to hold off defenders while simultaneously holding up the ball and bringing others into play. They need to be able to effectively take the sting out of a 40 yard driven ball into them with a strong defender on their back and angle their first time pass into the run of an oncoming midfielder ensuring that the weight of the ball allows for the midfielder to continue his run without breaking stride or direction. They also need to be able to check back into space and turn sharply on the ball when they’ve created enough space from their marker to do so. In this case, their first touch will be quite different than when they have a defender on their back. Their first touch will also differ if the team is under quite a bit of pressure and requires their striker to serve as an outlet and just hold onto the ball for a second or two to allow the rest of the team to join. In these cases, not only will the striker have a defender on his/her back, but they’ll likely have a trailing midfielder eager to close down in front of them. A composed first touch to bring the ball under control and potentially a second touch to get away from the oncoming defender will then be required.
This is just one aspect of one position on the pitch - and of course a small snippet of what makes this sport so fun, dynamic, and easy to play but difficult to master. The main job of a striker is to score goals and this requires being able to move the ball into good positions, getting into good positions, and being able to get the ball past the keeper and into the net. Being able to strike a ball properly is another very important skill, but I tend to again see far too many young players focus far too much on how to hit the perfect set piece or knuckled shot without actually being able to control a ball under pressure. I understand of course - it’s far more exciting to hit a shot from 25 yards that sails past the goalkeeper and into the net than being able to consistently control a ball with a strong defender breathing down your neck, but the opportunity to perform the former will never present itself unless you’re able to do the latter.
A Quick Story
I used to practice shooting in my background quite a bit when I was growing up and it lead to me being able to score quite a few goals with my travel team in Virginia. When I arrived in London for my trial, the first couple of days were so difficult for me because I never seemed to have the chance to actually shoot to show the coaches I was capable of scoring. I lacked the ability to consistently play with my back to goal and spin defenders or just be able to bring the ball under control with a big strong center back all over me.
While I was heavily regarded back in the States as being quite technical and comfortable in possession, some of the technique I had developed growing up barely had a chance to surface at the highest level. Back home, I was able to create space for myself and score because I was quick, I was smart in possession, and because I could generally do enough to dribble and create opportunities around the box. When all of those tools were removed because of the stronger, more intelligent defenders, I was forced to rely on other aspects of my game that I had just failed to develop properly.
Note: After 8 months at Arsenal, I was essentially deemed not good enough as a striker and moved to left back where I was able to use my skillset far more appropriately. I'd never defended in my life but I learned how to and eventually played for the first team several times as a left back and left midfielder.
It Really is all About the Basics
If you watch the Premier League and the world’s best players, you’ll see players like Sergio Aguero and Olivier Giroud holding players off, bringing others into play, and spinning their defenders. Aguero and Giroud play for Manchester City and Chelsea respectively, two teams that are capable of keeping the ball for long periods of time, playing through the lines, and ultimately creating opportunities. Those are the basics strikers need to have to make it at the top level - the best will have mastered those simple fundamentals - as well as a host of others - but from a technical standpoint, these are just a few pieces that will be of interest to a scout if a player is able to perform them consistently, effectively, and efficiently.
I’m aware I’ve only focused on several aspects of just one position, but I wanted to emphasize just how important mastering and improving the fundamentals of the sport is. Everyone dreams of being able to ping a ball the way Steven Gerrard used to for Liverpool, but if you watched him throughout the course of a season, or a match, it was the consistency of all of his passing that was equally impressive. Short, firm passes into strikers or other midfielders. Passes that were angled and weighted perfectly to the appropriate foot.
If Gerrard saw an opportunity to play between the lines, that pass was going to be fired into the striker and the striker would have to be able to deal with it. Good teams won’t let you just play between the lines, when you want, and more often than not, the pass is going to firm. The player playing the ball will want to ensure that his receiving teammate is capable of handling the pace of the ball as these passes can often lead to dangerous chances that result in goals. It’s one thing to get the ball from A to B, but the world’s best players aren’t content with this and neither should they be.
Dennis Bergkamp is up there with Zidane in my favorite players list and for good reason. He was strong, intelligent, creative, and a technical genius. He scored some incredible goals for Arsenal and the Netherlands, but he set up so many as well using fundamentally basic parts of the game that he had mastered. Many of his assists and passes in the video above are perfect examples of his incredible ability to time, weight, and angle a pass - more often than not with defenders trying to kick him into row Z.
I don’t want to delve too much into game intelligence just yet as I think there’s quite a bit that can be discussed on the topic, but the technical and tactical side go hand in hand often. Seeing a young midfielder or center back play the ball in front of a fullback or winger because there is ample space in front of him/her to explore is refreshing. While some players may think just getting the ball to the fullback or winger is enough because that is that the best choice, the best players will lead the player and do so in such a way that his/her teammate doesn’t have to worry about anything except what they are going to do with the ball next.
Young players looking to further improve themselves can and should focus on improving the very basic fundamentals of the game. Controlling a ball with time, controlling a ball under pressure, keeping the ball on the ground when passing if it makes sense to do so, playing to the appropriate foot of the intended target, weighting passes appropriately, ensuring the angle of the pass makes sense for the situation, and more.
Again, these are simply my observations and my observations alone. I was fortunate enough to be at Arsenal during the amazing Invincibles season and had the chance to train and play with some of my favorite players ever. Though injury put me out of the game at 22, I learned how to appreciate its intricacies in a different way as scout and again was fortunate enough to have some of the best teachers the world has ever seen.
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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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.