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.