Young gun

Young Gun: Josh Nichols

Josh Nichols in action for Arsenal U18

Throughout the season, we'll be catching up with our young Gunners to find out more about their route to our academy. This week, it's Josh Nichols.

My earliest footballing memories are playing for my first Sunday League team, Euro Dagenham, for a year or two. We actually went unbeaten one season and got ourselves in the local newspaper because of it. I can’t remember how many matches exactly we went unbeaten, but we were Invincibles too!

When I wasn’t playing Sunday League, I would practice at my local park with my dad, he loves football, he used to play football, and he’s been coaching me all my life. I always used to play street football with one of my best friends too, Blaise, who plays for West Ham’s under-18s now. We used to love playing together, he’s doing really well for himself, and we still keep in touch today.

I actually used to play as a striker when I was growing up and it wasn’t until under-14s that I moved from striker to full-back. When I joined my first academy, West Ham, I was still a striker, I scored quite a few goals, but on my decision day, I was told that I was too small so wouldn’t be playing with them. I joined Chelsea at pre-academy level and was there for the under-8 season. I actually got offered a contract with them, but because it was too far from Dagenham and I was too young for digs, we had to look for another club.

I ended up at the rivals... Tottenham! I was training with their academy, but then the opportunity came up to go and have a trial at Arsenal, the team that my dad and I support, so I couldn’t turn that down. I finished my trial at Hale End, but didn’t get offered a contract the first time, so I ended up back at Tottenham. They actually offered me a contract, but then I got a call from a scout called Shaun O’Connor, who said that Arsenal wanted me back for another trial, I worked hard and I finally got signed.

When I got the second call, my family and I had a big decision to make. We weren’t sure whether to sign with Tottenham, or to risk it and go back on trial at Arsenal, but because I love Arsenal and my parents were positive that I had the ability to get signed, we took that leap of faith and luckily it paid off!

Josh Nichols with Omari Benjamin

I couldn’t believe it when Arsenal signed me at the start of the under-9s season, I was jumping everywhere, my parents were really happy and proud of me, all my friends and extended family were calling me to say well done. To sign for the team I support was absolutely amazing.

I was speechless when I first walked into Hale End. There’s actually a video that my mum has when I just couldn’t believe I was there. I was very nervous, of course, but I knew I had to prove myself and worked hard to do it.

I still remember my first-ever tour with the team, to Belgium, not long after I signed. We were still so young, I don’t think we were playing tactically, we were just running around the pitch. I didn’t even have all of my kit for the tour!

I loved getting to know all the staff and my teammates at Hale End. Luis Brown has been there from the start with me, then Myles Lewis-Skelly and Ethan Nwaneri joined us slightly later too. I’m really close with all of my teammates and we get on really well, but those three especially are like family to me, we’ve grown up together and I’ve known them most of my life and I can speak to them about anything.

The day I got offered my scholarship at Arsenal was amazing, I couldn’t believe it. I was injured for pretty much the entire under-15 season because of growing pains, I think I only played one match, so I really thought I wasn’t going to get my scholarship. When Per came into the meeting, it originally sounded as though it was going to be bad news, but when he told me I had earned my scholarship and I fully deserve it, I couldn’t believe it. There’s actually a video of me running out of my house and screaming down the street!

Last year was a pretty interesting one for all of us because we had the cameras following us around for the Inside Hale End documentary. It was strange at first because normally it’s just the first team that gets recorded. It was scary to begin with because you know that you’re representing Arsenal on camera, but for the cameras to be there while we’re going through our journey in our final year at Hale End was amazing in the end.

Back: Sebastian Ferdinand, Omari Benjamin Front: Josh Nichols, Romari Forde, Coby Small

London Colney is a big step up from Hale End and I’ve been picking the brains of my coaches to make sure I’m improving in every area. Specifically, I’ve been working on the attacking side of my game with Jack Wilshere and Adam Birchall, they’ve been helping me choose my moments better of when to go up the pitch and then getting back into position to defend.

Adam has been my coach for four or five years and he’s been a massive influence on my career. To have Jack and Adam this season has been brilliant, they work very well together and it’s just two extremely talented football brains coming together and making the team grow. I have to say Jack is one of my favourite coaches, the way he’s always there for you, he will tell you if you’re doing something wrong and he’s always willing to help you, he’s inspirational too because he’s walked the same path that we’re on now and he’s played on the biggest stages.

One thing I’ve been asked to do a lot is tucking inside as a full-back, just as Mikel Arteta has his defenders do in the first team. I feel like it’s been very effective for us this season and as I’ve been coached to play that way since under-16s level, it’s been built into my game. I want to play for the first team, so obviously this is what I want to do and need to do, so I just had to keep getting better at it.

Talking of the first team, all the former Hale End graduates at the club are so inspirational. I remember being at Hale End, going on tour to America, we were sitting next to Bukayo, he was chatting to us, we were watching him play, Eddie too and they’re just big characters. They're motivational and every day we watch them, we see what they can do and we need to learn from them. We’re always brushing shoulders with them at Colney, they stop and say hello and they’re great with us and very humble.

While I haven’t been called up for England yet, if I am able to achieve that, that would be an amazing feeling as it’s a real goal of mine and I would be really proud of myself. By the end of this season, I will be 17, so hopefully, I will get offered that pro contract – this is something I really want to achieve before the end of the season.


Ali on the importance of our club's alignment

Mehmet Ali reflected on our narrow loss to Sparta Prague in the Premier League International Cup at Meadow Park and the takeaways from Wednesday night's performance.

The 1-0 defeat was our under-21s' first on home soil this season, and despite our Young Gunners' spirited fight to attempt a way back into the game, it wasn't quite enough on the night.

"In the last five minutes, I saw the boys really trying to get into the box, get crosses in, make aggressive runs in behind their backline," said Ali. "It was just a shame that we didn't do that earlier on in the game. I felt we had good control, our structure was good and we had a good rhythm, but we lacked quality in the final third.

"We lacked aggressive runs, aggressive crosses, shots from in front, and those clever combinations. That's what we were looking for. I thought we were good between the boxes but the game was decided inside both boxes," he added.

"I just said to the boys: we have to learn and we have to be better in those moments. We can have the structure and set up, but you have to also have the bravery to go and head [the ball], and be switched on and focused. There's plenty of work for us to do in training in terms of being more ruthless in the final third and stopping and scoring goals."

Our Czech opposition, who now sit top of our group, presented a unique test for Ali's young charges and the boss noted the distinct experiences this competition offers. 

"Tactically, I think there are different things going on. When you play foreign opposition, you always expect different things you know, from a referee's decisions and stuff like that. It is different.

"From their perspective, I think they gave us a lot of respect. They dropped off, they made it hard to break them down, and they tried to catch us in transition. When we were aggressive on them and we pressed, they were quite direct and they played forward passes. But that was their game plan and their style and credit to them, it helped them get the win today."

"They had some senior players that played for them today and they're a B team who play men's football every week," Ali continued. "You could see their know-how and their nous of how to buy fouls and run the clock down when they were one-nil up, which was very clever. It was great for our boys to experience that and find ways of beating that - we just didn't do that tonight."

There were several changes to the side who beat Swansea City 4-1 at the weekend and with the transitional nature of academy teams, Ali credited the alignment of the club as a whole as a way to ensure rhythm and stability.

"That's why it's so important that we're aligned overall as an academy and with the first team. There are so many players that have fluid movement from going up to the first team, staying with the under-21s, and even under-16s coming up to support under-18s. It's so important that our style and what we're trying to do remains the same and that our principles don't change regardless of what players we have in the side."

"It's just a shame that tonight we couldn't win the game, but there were some positive performances. I was pleased with some of the younger ones that did get the opportunity to play tonight and it will do them well in the future."

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