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Willock turns Gunners rejection into resurrection at United

February 14, 2017 in Interviews

Every season, many young footballers go through the dreaded experience of getting released by a professional club.

The realisation that they will not fulfill the dreams they have chased for years can be a hard blow to take and for many of them, the opportunity will have passed forever.

To rub salt into the wound, in some cases the judgment comes from the player’s favourite club, the one they will watch for the rest of their lives thinking ‘what if’.

Former Arsenal trainee and lifelong Gunners fan Matty Willock knows this scenario all too well.

After spending his formative years dreaming of emulating his hero Thierry Henry, at the age of 15 he was given the bombshell news that he would not be kept on as a scholar in the under 18s.

But it was not the end of the story, as amazingly he was offered a second chance – at Manchester United.

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Despite the turn in events that got his career back on track again in Manchester, the pain of rejection by his first love was hard to take at first.

“I’m an Arsenal fan so I was dreaming of playing for them one day,” Willock said.

“But when I was 15 I got released. They told me they weren’t giving me a scholarship, so obviously I was without a club.

“Fortunately the head scout at Arsenal was in contact with United and he organised a trial for me to come up and play a couple of games. Luckily enough they said they wanted me, so I signed for United when I was 15.”

For many Premier League academy cast-offs, this type of career rescue act is unheard of. Some might drop down a division or two and have a mediocre career in the lower leagues; most will slip out of the professional game altogether.

Of course, grassroots football is where every player begins their journey to the top and the man from the capital’s East End was no different.

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Willock left his boyhood-club Arsenal at 15, but resurrected his career at Old Trafford

Connections

Recalling his pathway to Old Trafford, Willock said, “I started off in Sunday League when I was six or seven.

“I was at Ridgeway Rovers. David Beckham played for them and there are a few other players who have come through there. It was probably the best club around my area, Chingford, and they’ve got good connections with a few clubs like West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.

“Then I got a trial with Arsenal when I was about 10 or 11 and I just went up through the age groups.

Now 20, and an important figure within United’s under 23’s, Willock’s career is on the up.

Having trained intermittently with the first team squad, he further proved his worth to the Red Devils’ hierarchy with a 93rd – minute winning goal in the Premier League 2 fixture away at rivals Liverpool.

The Londoner’s header deep into injury time secured a 1-0 victory at Anfield, and three vital points for his team.

Siblings

The next challenge for United’s match winner on Merseyside, is to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s reckoning and make his first senior appearance; something another member of the Willock family has already achieved this season.

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The midfielder grabbed a late winner at Anfield for United’s U23s

“I’ve got two brothers who still play for Arsenal; Chris and Joe,” said Willock, proudly.

“We used to play together as kids in the park, my dad used to take us every day. It was just something to do. It’s good going home and being able to watch my brothers and they’re both doing well, so that’s a good thing.

“Joe (17) is playing for the under 18’s at the minute and Chris (19) made his [first team] debut in the EFL cup [against Nottingham Forest] which was obviously a big moment for him because he’s a proper die-hard Arsenal fan, it was a dream come true.

“I wasn’t there and it wasn’t on TV so I didn’t get to watch it, but he told me he did well.”

Whilst his younger siblings continue their development in North London the older Willock brother knows he must bide his time for the opportunity to feature in Mourinho’s plans.

Furthermore, to be considered for a loan move away from Old Trafford in order to pick up valuable minutes in a first team environment, Willock concedes that he must listen to the instructions and wishes of his club.

“I’ve been with the first team a bit in training, hopefully I can push my way forward. Patience is key, really. Sometimes as a player you really want something but you have to remember the club always knows best.”

Barriers

Mourinho is famously a manager who tends to utilise experience, rather than youth, within his squad and therefore the path to the first team will not be straightforward for any young player at United.

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Willock’s older brother, Chris, has featured for Arsenal this season

Yet Willock, in pursuing his dreams, has proven that he is not adverse to overcoming barriers placed in his way.

Having bounced back from his early experience of rejection and the harsh realities of competitive football at the highest level, what message would Willock pass on to youngsters who, like him, have been left high and dry by their academy experience?

As you’d expect, old-fashioned hard work is high on the list. But so too is keeping a level head and realising there is still time for things to change.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he signs off.

“It’s easy to give up and start thinking you’re not good enough when people say it by releasing you, but you have to keep believing in yourself and keep working hard. If you’ve got the talent you’ll come through.”

Five famous footballing returns

November 29, 2016 in Opinion

Many Liverpool fans were hoping against hope that club icon Steven Gerrard might have one last hurrah at Anfield after leaving MLS club LA Galaxy.

Gerrard, 36, opted to end his playing career last week, but may one day return to Liverpool in another role – possibly as a coach and potential manager?

For a footballer, leaving the club where you are seen as a legend is an incredibly hard decision, but the chance to return as a player or manager can be an even bigger one.

Remind everyone why you became a hero in the first place, or ruin your reputation; which way will it fall?

Here are five of those who did it best:

5 – Graeme Le Saux – Chelsea

Graeme Le Saux’s first spell at Chelsea ended in anger but the second was glorious.

Le Saux was the most expensive defender in England at the time at £5m – a far cry from the £30m Chelsea recently paid for David Luiz to return to the club after a £50million move to PSG two years earlier – when he returned after a controversial first spell in west London. 17 Sep 2000: Graeme Le Saux of Chelsea in action during the FA Carling Premiership match against Leicester City at Stamford Bridge in London. Leicester City won the match 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Dave Cannon /Allsport

In 1993 Le Saux was a regular starter at Stamford Bridge, but rarely lasted the whole match, and when he was taken off at Southampton, it proved too much for him to take and he ripped off his shirt in disgust, throwing it on the feet of manager Ian Portfield.

The defender was soon on his way to Blackburn Rovers, where in his first full season, he helped them win the Premier League title and became an England regular.

In 1997 he returned to Chelsea, making him English football’s most expensive defender and in the next three years, they won the FA Cup, League Cup, Cup winner’s Cup and UEFA Super Cup.

Leaving Chelsea as the “villain” for showing disrespect to the manager was tough enough, but returning to the club that sold you after your misdemeanours is a risk Le Saux took and evidently it paid off.

4 – Thierry Henry – Arsenal

When Arsenal’s record goalscorer Thierry Henry left for Barcelona in 2007, after eight years, 245 appearances and 174 goals, a huge part of his heart remained in north London.

So in some ways it was no surprise when five years later he returned to train with the team, and, inevitably, play for them again. Henry celebrates after scoring the winner on his return to Arsenal.

By then Henry was playing for MLS side New York Red Bulls, and during their 2012 off-season, he trained with the Gunners to keep in shape.

But when they suffered an injury crisis, manager Arsene Wenger looked to his former talisman and he signed a two-month loan deal. ‘King’ Henry was back.

He made four appearances and scored twice; the first came in his debut when he scored the winner goal in an FA Cup tie against Leeds.

His last ever Gunners goal came in his final match under Wenger – again, the winner, in injury time for a 2-1 triumph at Sunderland. No wonder there is a statue of him outside the Emirates Stadium.

Henry is now Belgium’s assistant manager and a pundit on Sky Sports. Many Arsenal fans would love to see him succeed Wenger as manager one day. Is another hero’s return too much to ask for?

3 – Ian Rush – Liverpool

Ian Rush’s 346 goals in two spells at Liverpool make him the club’s all-time record goalscorer. At his peak in the 1980s, there was no-one to rival him in English football. Ian rush celebrates scoring at Wembley for Liverpool.

Having won four league titles and two European Cups in six years with the Reds, in 1987 Rush left to join Serie A giants Juventus. It did not go well, with just seven goals in 29 appearances for the Italians.

Loaned back to Liverpool for the second year of his Juventus contract, Rush’s Midas touch returned, as he scored 30 goals in 42 matches.

A permanent return home was just a matter of time, and the Welsh striker spent another eight seasons at Anfield, making 245 more appearances and adding a further 90 goals. During this time he also won another league title, two FA Cups and became their record goalscorer.

A legend? Unquestionably.

2 – Didier Drogba – Chelsea

Didier Drogba was not just a legend as a player; over two spells at Chelsea, he helped change the history of his club.

His first spell, after joining from Marseille in 2004, saw Chelsea win their first league title in 50 years, in his debut season.

Another Premier League title followed the next year, setting up a glorious era in which he became the first ever player to score in four different FA Cup finals, as well as the first African player to score 100 Premier League goals. But nothing compared to how he signed off his first stint at the club.

His 88th minute equaliser in the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, in Munich, took the game to extra time and then penalties. And who scored the winner? Drogba, of course.Drogba celebrates scoring the winning goal in the Champions League final.

When he left that summer to join Chinese league side Shanghai Shenhua, after eight years, 226 appearances, 100 goals and eight trophies, a fan poll by Chelsea’s official club magazine saw the Ivorian named as the club’s best-ever player.

Supporters probably thought they would never see his like again. They were wrong.

Drogba’s stint in China was short-lived, and soon he was playing for Galatasaray in Turkey, where he added the 2013 Turkish Super Cup to his medal collection.

The following year, he was back at the Bridge, signing a one-year contract for manager Jose Mourinho – like Drogba, enjoying his second spell at Chelsea.

Drogba managed four more goal in 28 appearances, before announcing that the final game of the season against Sunderland would be his last for the club.

After half an hour, he had to come off injured, but rather than limping off, he was chaired off the field by his team-mates. Now that’s a stylish exit.

The success Drogba enjoyed in his first spell at Chelsea meant that coming back for a second time he had to be as good, if not better than he was previously. Undoubtedly, he was a good playing an integral part in saving Chelsea’s season and thats why he is second.

1 – Paul Scholes – Manchester United

An increasingly rare one-club man, Paul Scholes’ 466 appearances for Manchester United over 17 years make him one of the modern greats.

In his testimonial match in August 2011, the midfielder signed off with a 25-yard finish, showing that even though he was retiring, he had still not lost his touch and he could have played on for a while yet. But no-one expected that he would actually do so.

Five months later, with United going through an uncharacteristic rough patch, he was back, making his ‘second debut’ by coming on to score in the Manchester derby, and also finding the net in his first start second time around. Scholes makes his second debut for United in a Manchester derby.

He was persuaded to sign another one year contract extension, keeping him at United until the end of the following season, and retired for good at the end of the 2012-13 season – fittingly, picking up a yellow card in his farewell match. Well, he never was much of a tackler…

His total of 25 major trophies makes him the most decorated English footballer of all time, and he is now co-owner of Salford City FC, a coach at United and a pundit on BT Sport.

The fact that Scholes completely retired from football before returning to top level football looking fitter than ever, makes his comeback the greatest of all.

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