Arsenal: Picking an Arsenal Youth Graduates XI
It’s no secret that great club dynasties are often paralleled by a prevalence of home-grown, youth academy graduate players in the first team.
We are witnessing another example with this generation. The Barcelona first team consists of no fewer than eight players who graduated from the famous La Masia academy.
In the 1990s and extending into the 2000s, domestic and European football was dominated by two teams whose respective bases were founded on home-grown, locally trained players.
The other was the oft-overlooked AC Milan team of the early-to-mid 90s, which boasted a foundation of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, and Fillipo Galli.
Interestingly enough, Arsenal has never really etched a similarly homegrown team into the proverbial coffers of footballing history, despite now holding something of a reputation in footballing circles for having one of the best youth academies in the world.
In a stark reminder of the realities of being a footballer, the list of Arsenal youth academy graduates who have played international football beholds a measly 60 players, dating back to pre-1970.
The fact of the matter is, it is incredibly unlikely that a single year—or even several consecutive years—will produce more than one or two outstanding players. Teams like Barca and United are exceptions to the rule.
Expecting a club to build their success solely on the metronomic production of star players is both unrealistic and foolhardy—a recipe for disappointment.
That being said, I thought it would be interesting to compile an all-time Arsenal XI comprised solely of players who graduated from the youth academy.
The rationale I had for this was simple: the players had to have played for the club while they were youth players, and if they were bought in—like Cesc, for example—they had to have been bought for less than £1 million.
The basis for their future footballing glory had to have come as a result of their training at Arsenal, and thus a number of prominent names can’t make the list—Henry, Toure, Theo Walcott and Ljungberg all miss out for this reason.
The names may surprise you!
Read on, and comment with your take on the matter.
GK: Wojciech Szczęsny
Szczęsny started his Arsenal career at the age of 16 in 2006 and was identified by Arsene Wenger as a gem from a very early age.
Asides from having not one, but two completely unpronounceable names, and giving commentators the world over heart palpitations at the mere sight of the Arsenal teamsheet, Szczęsny has proved himself to be both an outstanding young keeper and a real “Arsenal man.”
He broke into the first-team at the age of 20 and has gone from strength to strength since then, keeping an impressive 29 clean sheets in just 73 games for the Gunners.
However, his influence on the team goes far beyond his quality as a shot-stopper.
He commands his area with the authority and passion of a general on the battlefield.
He urges his team on with an unquestioning loyalty and respect, and has the heart of a lion.
Most importantly, he doesn’t seem like the kind of player who would flake out on the team.
Szczęsny seems to love Arsenal from the bottom of his heart and has expressed a desire to stay with Arsenal for his entire career. As he is a young, first-choice goalkeeper, that could be well into the 2020s.
A disproportionate number of the great leaders and captains in football history have been goalkeepers—think Dino Zoff, Oliver Kahn, Peter Schmeichel, Iker Casillas—and in Szczęsny, Arsenal has one of the burgeoning best.
If he plays until 2027—as he claims he is willing and capable of doing—Szczęsny will have been at the club for 21 years—only two years fewer than Paolo Maldini spent at AC Milan.
Thank goodness for youth academies.
RB: Pat Rice
Well, there’s not really a lot that can be said about Pat Rice that hasn’t already been said.
He is pretty much the definition of a one-club man.
Asides from a four-year spell at Watford in the twilight of his playing career, Rice has cumulatively devoted 42 years of his life to helping Arsenal Football Club prosper: 14 years as a player, 28 years as a backroom staff member.
Rice joined the Gunners as an apprentice in 1964 at the tender old age of 15, making his first-team debut against Burnley—remember them?!—as a sprightly 18-year-old in 1967.
He went on to make more than 400 league appearances for Arsenal.
He won the Double in 1970-71 and had the honour of lifting the FA Cup as captain after a nail-biting 3-2 victory over Manchester United, clinched by Paul Sunderland’s winner in injury time after the Gunners let a 2-0 lead slip.
As a player, Rice wouldn’t have struck Arsene Wenger dumb with his natural ability, but you don’t accumulate 523 appearances for the Arsenal without having something special.
For Rice, that something was what the English call “bottle”—he was perennially keen to learn to pass better, to tackle harder, to run faster, and he led his team with tenacity and integrity.
As a backroom staff member, though, Rice came into his own.
He was a youth team coach for 12 years between 1984 and 1996 and was caretaker manager briefly after the walking, talking fiasco that was Bruce Rioch.
But his greatest accomplishments arguably came when Arsene Wenger came to steady the ship in 1996, appointing Rice as his assistant manager in the process.
16 years and seven major trophies later in 2012, Rice—with a cumulative 10 trophy wins as player and assistant manager—hung up his boots, finally, at the ripe old age of 63.
There are very few ways we could do justice to Pat’s Arsenal legacy, short of religious cults and/or burnt offerings.
But, in a vague effort, I will say he has come to encapsulate all that is Arsenal to me: grit, determination, service and sacrifice, but also elegance, and class.
Most importantly was his unflinching composure—the ability to keep his head when all around him were losing theirs and didn't know who to blame..
Pat Rice is Arsenal. And we can be proud as punch to say that he has been one of our own from day 1.
CB: Tony Adams
In my childhood, I had a VHS tape called “Arsenal’s Golden Goals” which I watched relentlessly for three or four years.
Every day it was come home from school, have a couple of bits of toast, chuck on the video and blob out on the couch to the not-so-dulcet tones of mid-80s Highbury cheering in ecstasy.
Oh my poor mother.
This video only really covered the Don Howe/George Graham eras of Arsenal, and only showed goals, so it was both a great education in Arsenal history, and an incredibly misleading portrait of how “boring boring Arsenal” played football.
Tony Adams scored a few goals in this video.
Not many, I confess, and after he scored a goal he would celebrate with the vicious, obnoxious insensitivity of an older brother submitting his younger sibling in a pretend-wrestling match.
I thought he was a bit of a prat actually. But that’s because I was five years old, and when you’re five years old, appreciating Tony Adams is harder to do than it is now.
In 1980, Adams joined Arsenal at just age 13 and his record speaks for itself: 504 league appearances, four league titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, one European Cup Winners’ Cup, and three Community shields.
You know you’ve done something of note when a paragraph can be written solely consisting of your winners’ medals.
Adams was a tall, tough-tackling centre-back in the real 1980s mold—a man’s man at a time when a player could legitimately pop off at halftime for a pint and cigarette and fish and chips was traditional pre-match tucker.
As captain, he led his team with a nigh-unstoppable, almost frenzied vigour.
His only weakness lay in character: the keenness with which he pursued the booze led to a large number of alcohol-related incidents which included playing a match drunk, and ultimately to his admittance into rehab for alcoholism in 1996.
While this is not cool, the character Adams possessed to battle through his addiction and emerge on the other side is incredibly noteworthy.
A real testament to the mental strength and resilience Adams showed throughout his career.
He even enjoyed something of a renaissance under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger, who inherited him upon taking charge in 1996.
Adams’ rough-and-tumble style of defending didn’t really fit in with Wenger’s model. There was even talk of Arsenal’s talismanic captain being shifted off elsewhere by the Frenchman.
But under Wenger’s guidance, with new dietary and conditioning demands brought in by Le Professeur, and the new, ball-playing style that the Frenchman cultivated, Adams evolved from a Vinnie Jones-like rock-‘em-sock-‘em robot into a sleek, tall, elegant defender who was more about positioning and subtlety than kicking a player out of a match.
He rewarded Wenger’s faith indubitably, captaining the Gunners to two Doubles, and retiring in 2002 at the age of 36 as a true Arsenal legend.
The third greatest player in the club’s history, according to the official Arsenal poll, and a one-club man if ever there was one.
CB: David O’Leary
So a bit of background: you may not have heard of David O’Leary, but you should have.
This lean, elegant Irishman is Arsenal’s most-capped player of all time.
Pat Rice was at Arsenal for 14 years, making 523 appearances
Tony Adams was there for 22 years and made 669 appearances.
David O’Leary joined Arsenal in 1973 and over the course of 20 years with the club played a staggering 722 matches for the club, with his final game coming in 1993 at the age of 35.
He made his first-team debut at the age of just 17 and that season went on to make 30 appearances.
He is the youngest player to reach just about every games-related milestone that the club statisticians can offer.
O’Leary is one of the greatest players in Arsenal history, coming in 14th place in an official Arsenal poll.
Stylistically, O’Leary was somewhat different to the other, more rugged British defenders of the time.
The Irishman was something of a precursor to modern defending, relying more on excellent positioning and his composure on the ball and when stretched—a style which almost certainly improved his longevity.
As a player, O’Leary holds the distinguished record of claiming a winners’ medal in three different decades.
He was present for the dramatic 3-2 1979 FA Cup win—for a period, the most dramatic match in Arsenal’s history.
He was also there—on the bench—for the final game of the 1988-89 season, when Michael Thomas scored in the closing seconds of injury time to clinch the title for the Gunners’ on goal difference.
O’Leary has seen it all, and having played over 1,000 matches over all age groups for the Gunners, he is certainly a deserving selection at centre-back.
LB: Ashley Cole
I can’t believe I just wrote that down.
I actually deleted it several times and looked nervously over my shoulder for the raging mob of Bleacher Report Arsenal fans, pitchforks at the ready, coming to storm the Otago University Library.
Thankfully, most of you are in the Northern Hemisphere and thus asleep.
So the less said here the better.
We hate this guy, I know.
He is an incredibly unappetizing combination of greedy, arrogant, faithless, showy, and maliciously conceited. He is willing to go behind anybody’s back and has absolutely no respect for those sacrosanct ideals that shape our society—contracts, agreements, promises, even love.
Just ask Cheryl Cole.
But, along with those things, he is an exceptionally talented footballer, and we as Arsenal fans can take solace in the fact that everything that he is, we made him.
That tackle, that run, that cross, that pass—none of it would have been possible were it not for Arsene Wenger’s keen eye and Arsenal’s exceptional youth coaches who spotted Cashley’s ability when he first arrived at the club in 1997, at just 16 years of age.
Cole broke into Arsenal’s first team in the 2000-01 season, when Sylvinho, the first-choice left-back at the time, was injured.
From that moment until a fateful day in 2006, he was a shining bastion of all that Arsenal and Arsene Wenger had hoped for.
A brilliant young defender, as capable in attack as he was in defence, with outstanding pace, tackling, technique, excellent passing, and a willingness to press the opposition flanks and keep their wingers running all game long.
Then it happened. And it sucked.
We can’t say his transfer to Chelsea worked out badly for old Cashley, as he’s on his way to becoming to most decorated English footballer in history.
But to be honest, knowing what we know now, I’m quite glad we’ve removed the festering swine from the Arsenal dressing room.
Such impertinence and self-concern can only harm oneself and others around you.
Though Chelsea may be perfectly content to pay Cashley what he wants and allow him to swan around, shooting 21-year-old interns with air rifles, we still have one ace up our sleeve.
That little stamp, somewhere on Cole’s anatomy—I won’t say where I hope it is, I might get sued.
That little stamp, with three words: “Made At Arsenal”.
CM: Cesc Fabregas
It makes me sad writing about players like Cesc and Cashley.
We got to watch them develop from such a young age and we go on something of a journey with them as they grow and mature.
We watch them and shout their names and spur them on and we see them succeed.
We nurture them and sit back and smile and think of how wonderful they are, how glad we are that players like this exist, how immensely satisfying it is to see them evolve in front of our very eyes.
They became like childhood friends who we know like the backs of our hands.
And then, at a single horrible moment, these friendships ended.
Abruptly and irrevocably.
They went from being golden children of Arsenal to being the lost sons of Arsenal—the black sheep, so-to-speak.
That being said, adapting something of a maternal viewpoint on such players can leave us with little satisfaction.
Cesc Fabregas was bought by Arsenal for a fee of £500,000 in 2003 at the age of 16.
He had trained from the age of 10 at the famous La Masia academy in Barcelona.
Sensing how difficult it would be to break into the Catalonians’ first-team, he made the bold decision to join Arsenal in order to further his development.
He became Arsenal’s youngest-ever player when he made his debut against Rotherdam United, at just 16 years and 177 days of age.
Soon afterwards became the youngest goal scorer in Arsenal’s history during a friendly against Wolverhampton.
He played at Arsenal for eight years, his rise in the first-team resulting from the sale of Patrick Vieira and the painstaking attention afforded to the young Spaniard by Arsene Wenger.
During this time he made his name and cultivated his ability to the extent that he became one of the best players in the world in his position.
He was Arsenal’s general, their playmaker, their attacking focal point.
In his final two seasons, club captain. He also led the Gunners scoring charts during the bizarre year of 2009-10.
Oh God, this is painful.
He made...ahhh!...107 assists and scored 53 goals in 303 matches.
And we miss him.
We wish he had never left. But he did.
He had to.
There. Happy now!?
CM: Liam Brady
Ahhh, Liam Brady. I love watching Liam Brady.
For every splendidly attacking, free-flowing footballer or football match, there is a Chelsea-Barcelona Champions’ League semi-final to remind us of just how dank, dull and downright disconcerting football can be sometimes.
Winning is winning, and I get that, but football is the "beautiful game," you know? I think it should be played beautifully, by beautiful players.
Liam Brady was beautiful.
In 1971 Brady joined the Arsenal setup at the age of 15. The Irish wizard made his debut as a fresh-faced 19-year-old against Birmingham City.
With his front-men Frank Stapleton and Malcolm Macdonald providing the firepower that Arsenal needed to compete in the League, Brady utilized his graceful playmaking abilities tremendously.
His exquisite passing, touch and close control provided the base from which goals scored by the aforementioned flowed.
The attacking trio led a resurgent Arsenal—along with the soon-to-be-expanded-upon Graham Rix—to three consecutive FA Cup Finals between 1978 and 1980.
Brady left Arsenal for Juventus—where he became a rare British success—at just 23 years of age, but his legacy has only enhanced his reputation.
Form, as they say, is temporary, but class is permanent.
And Brady was the classiest of classy.
RW: David Rocastle
“Rocky” Rocastle! Good Lord how I loved watching highlight reels of this bloke.
David Rocastle was the definition of British elegance in the 1980s.
Quick and urgent, but sharing a loving connection with the football, and at times appearing to strike it with a lazy nonchalance that wouldn’t look out of place at the Emirates these days.
Rocastle was an elegant right midfielder who formed a considerable threat up front for Arsenal in the 1980s and early 90s along with centre-forward Alan Smith, ambidextrous attacking midfielder Anders Limpar, and the ineffable Paul Merson.
He scored some beautiful, beautiful goals and always played with a wonderful style, even in an era wherein subtlety and nuance were perhaps not quite as emphasized as they are today, to coin a hyperbole.
He joined Arsenal as a 16-year-old in 1983 and graduated to the first-team in 1985.
Funny enough, Rocastle had incredibly poor, but undiagnosed, eyesight.
His early days in the Arsenal youth team were reportedly characterized by Rocastle focusing on the ball with amusing fierceness whenever it was at his feet—head bowed, back hunched, dribbling up and down the field like a vacuum cleaner on autopilot.
Thankfully, contact lenses existed.
Rocky left Arsenal after nearly a decade in 1992 for the then-impressive sum of £2 million—how times have changed—but never really achieved the success he experienced in George Graham’s Arsenal side at his subsequent clubs, Leeds, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Tragically, he was stricken by an aggressive cancer in early 2001, and died at the cruelly premature age of 33.
But Rocastle’s legacy at Arsenal has not been tarnished.
A popular figure at Arsenal, Rocky was immortalized at the new Emirates stadium, being one of only 32 players to have had their images painted onto the side of the stadium. Arsenal designated April 1 as “David Rocastle Day” during their Highbury celebrations in 2006.
Gone but not forgotten, Rocastle was a wonderfully classic Arsenal player.
Refined, sophisticated, physically gifted, with a gentle and easy demeanour and a classy attitude towards the game.
CAM: Charlie George
Charlie George was one of those players who could really, really strike a ball.
He wasn’t so much an attacking midfielder in how we see the position.
Hardly the dynamic, technically exceptional wizard of Kaka or Leo Messi, George was more like a Podolski, you might say.
One who sat slightly lower down the pitch, who could take the ball and dribble and pass, but whose biggest skill was hitting the ball as crisply and sweetly as anyone before or since.
George boasts the unusual and inconvenient status of being a man blessed with two first names, which I always find quite disconcerting when I read about such a person.
As a footballer, however, he was immense.
George was another 16-year-old youth player for Arsenal. He joined the club in 1966 and he made his first-team debut in 1969.
Though he was something of a marauder—he played for no fewer than 10 clubs in his career—his best years came at Arsenal.
He was an integral part of the Double-winning team of 1970-71, scoring goals in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds of the FA Cup and proving the difference in the final against Liverpool.
George scored the decisive goal in injury time and famously “celebrating” by flopping onto his back in the middle of the pitch, utterly exhausted.
His form and development was stunted by injury and the gradual dismemberment of the Double-winning team.
Unfortunately, George was sold to Derby County for the princely sum of £100,000 in 1975.
But in his years at Arsenal there were few better at finding the net as George, and nobody who do so with quite as much authority.
LW: Graeme Rix
It was a tough job choosing three forwards from Arsenal’s glittering collection of academy strikers to take these spots.
But there was never any doubt who would be playing on the left wing—which says both a lot about Rix, who is undoubtedly an exceptional player as it does about Arsenal’s glaring lack of left-sided attacking midfield graduates.
Graham Rix is a true legend in Arsenal history. A left-footed forward who combined with Frank Stapleton, Liam Brady and Alan Sunderland to form one of the most impressive front-lines in English football in the mid-70s.
Rix played for Arsenal for 14 years, joining the club as a youngster in 1974 at just 17 years of age.
In 1988, he was eventually released by the club after a career which included the oft-mentioned 1979 FA Cup victory. Rix provided the cross that Sunderland slid home to win the match for the Gunners.
All-in-all Rix played 464 times for the Gunners, scoring 51 goals and captaining the club for the 1983 season.
ST: Andy Cole
Preamble: if you’re keen for a laugh, click me.
Aha! I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t the bloke in that video wearing a United shirt?!”
Well, yes, my eagle-eyed Gunner brother, he most certainly is.
Andrew Cole was, between the years of 1995 and 2001, one of the deadliest strikers in the world.
At the time of purchase, he was the most expensive footballer in the world.
He was bought for a collective price of about £7 million, and began paying off his large fee almost immediately.
Among his personal achievements, Cole was the first player ever to score five goals in a Premier League match.
He won the Premier League’s Golden Boot in 1993-94.
With 186 goals, he is the second-highest scorer in the history of the Premier League, ahead of our own Thierry Henry and behind only Alan Shearer.
And, for all that he is, was, and ever will be, he started off as a 17-year-old nipper, gazing up at the bright lights of Highbury in an Arsenal youth kit and hoping to high heaven he’d make it to the big time one day.
Though he may have been the bane of Arsenal and most other clubs in the Premier League for over half a decade, formed a deadly striking partnership up front with Dwight York for the Manchurians, and only played one senior game for Arsenal...he is an academy graduate.
And the most successful striker that the academy has ever produced.
It just goes to show, doesn’t it?
Sometimes you find rocks and toss them away, and realize—but too late, too late—that the rock was actually a diamond.