Throughout the season, we'll be catching up with our young Gunners to find out more about their route to our academy. First up this campaign is goalkeeper Brian Okonkwo:
Since the age of three, all I can remember is being surrounded by football. Whether it was watching it on TV with my dad, Match of the Day, having a kickabout in the park or even after school, football has always just been there. Arsenal too.
Some of you who follow the academy may recognise my surname, and that’s because my older brother Arthur is also a goalkeeper! He joined the Arsenal Academy at a really young age and as you can imagine as the younger brother, I always really looked up to him and wanted to follow in his footsteps.
There were so many footballers who inspired me as a kid, but having my brother involved with academy football made it feel like it was so much more achievable and that it wasn’t a distant reality. I actually started playing football as a striker and I used to love Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney. Their combination of technicality ability and aggression was something that I loved, but it took me until I was nine to finally put on the gloves and give it a go.
I’ve always been really tall for my age so one day when my team didn’t have any goalkeepers I thought, why not? Where is the harm in being a goalkeeper for a day? But I absolutely loved it and I basically stopped playing outfield from that day forward!
The funny thing with me and my brother is that we’re so competitive and we’ve always been like that. My brother had already been in an academy for years by the time I first tried being a goalkeeper, but I remember telling him ‘I’m going to be better than you!’ and that was the target from day one. Sibling rivalry is different! Arthur told me that he hopes I’ll be better than him in the future, but I know he’s joking deep down and it will come true…
Anyway, after playing as a goalkeeper for a while and showing a lot of progression, my dad had a word with me and told me that from what he’s seen around Arsenal, I’m ready and capable of making the step up to academy football. I remember when we used to pick teams as a kid, all my team-mates would still pick me first even though I’m just a goalkeeper! That was always a really nice feeling and something that gave me the confidence and belief that I could step up to the next level.
Thankfully an Arsenal scout called Francis worked at my Sunday team (Pro Touch) and he was able to get me an opportunity to prove myself in the academy. I’m so lucky and thankful to have had that connection with the club, but I also feel like I’ve earned these opportunities because my mentality has always been one of the strongest parts of my game.
Football is something that I love and enjoy, but it’s never been just fun and games to me. This is something that I take very seriously and throughout my life, I’ve always felt like I’m one of the hardest workers in my team. Becoming a professional footballer is something that I’m desperate to achieve, and I know that doesn’t come without hard work, discipline and sacrifice.
I’ve seen it from my brother and I know the level that’s required to reach the top. Quite early on during my time at Arsenal, I had the realisation that I’m in an environment where I can become the best version of myself and it’s down to me to apply myself and showcase my ability. Sure, my coaches and family are there to guide and help me and offer support, but ultimately, it’s down to how badly I want to push myself and work for my dreams.
This season I’ve had to make the step up to full-time football at London Colney, and already it’s been an amazing experience. Over the first week or two I told myself that it was all about being comfortable and familiar with this new environment, and I can’t lie… I found it very tiring! I think everyone moving up from Hale End does! But I’ve already eased into it and I feel like I’m becoming more and more confident with my new teammates in the under-18s.
I’ve had to take some extra steps to make sure I’m ready for this step up too. I knew that it would be testing on my body, so I’ve had to take action with taking more care over my nutrition, sleep and recovery.
I used to be going to bed at 11pm at Hale End, but already I’m so tired from the switch to full-time football that I’m falling asleep at 10pm. I’ve had no say there, my body is forcing me to go to bed!
As for my targets for this season, people around me have told me not to put too much pressure on myself and I’ve definitely taken that into consideration, but in my mind, I’ve always had the ambition to aim high and if things don’t quite work out that way, at least I know I’ve pushed myself to my limits and I’ve done everything I can do.
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