It’s the dreaded verdict: I’m sorry kid, you’re not going to make it at Arsenal

New films chart the highs and lows for Hale End academy prospects

Friday, 15th July — By Tom Foot

Per Mertesacker and Jack Wilshere at Screen On The Green

Per Mertesacker and Jack Wilshere at Screen On The Green

ARSENAL’S Hale End youth academy has produced Premier League stars including Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.

But for every prospect who makes it all the way to the first team there are hundreds who do not.

On Monday night, Gunners coach Per Mertesacker spoke candidly about the highs and lows after a screening of a new series of films about the club’s youth set-up.

Answering questions at the Screen on the Green, Angel, he told how he copes with delivering “devastating” news to young footballers who do not make the club’s grade.

“There is a lot of breathing in before for sure,” said Mr Mertesacker. “It is not easy. I had to learn how to deliver difficult messages. Obviously, when you are a player and a captain you have to be louder, and approach people in a different way – and stand-up. But when you have to deliver devastating news like this … it’s trying to package it in a way where it still can be positive.”

He added: “I am speaking as someone who has been written off many times before. It’s about trying to be honest and authentic. The best way is to try and to feel with them in those moments. But it will never become easy, and that is good.”

Inside the cinema for the premiere of an Inside Hale End documentary series was a pack of potential Premier League stars of the future, and their parents, who are involved in the Gunners’ youth programme.

There were roars of appreciation for footage of wonder goals and silky touches with good-natured jeers when fouls and rookie errors were shown. The series shows how many young players, some who have been in the academy since the aged of eight or nine, develop a deep focus on qualifying for “scholarships”.

Not getting a scholarship means they must leave the programme and look for options at other clubs.

Mr Mertesacker, who began his senior career after being promoted from the youth ranks at Bundesliga club Hannover 96, became a central defender for Arsenal after winning the World Cup with Germany. He has spoken about his battles with mental health in the past.

In one episode screened on Monday night, he was shown informing a young goalkeeper and his family that he would be offered a scholarship over Zoom, leaving the boy’s father overwhelmed and in tears. The series showed how Hale End still focus on the GCSEs and how Arsenal was “constantly in touch with the schools”, with Mr Mertesacker saying that the scholarship announcements were made in December partly to give the children enough time to refocus on their coming exams.

Earlier, when asked about whether the series could be potentially damaging, he had said: “I’m not a fan of highlighting individuals and we made a few points about what we didn’t want this series to be about at the beginning.

“I was confident we could deliver something very special and very memorable for these guys and their parents.”

In the episode shown on Monday night, two players who did not make it through the December guillotine were shown.

This was not necessarily the end of the road for them as many who leave the academy go on to other youth programmes and play football successfully for a living. albeit at a lower level.

Jack Wilshere, who joined the Hale End academy aged 9, was at the event and officially introduced on stage as the new head coach of the under-18s.

The former Arsenal number 10 said: “I think the decision was made easy for me because of my relationship with people at the club.”

Academy coach Adam Birchall said: “It’s not a given you will make it as a professional footballer at any level. So education is very important. We will sit down weekly and think about how they are getting on with their school. The boys and parents feel that too.

He added: “What I love about the series is it captures a moment in time. There are cringe moments of course. But when you do this for as long as I have you have to enjoy the relationships you create with the players.”

Inside Hale End can be found on Arsenal’s YouTube channel.

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