What the No 14 shirt means to me and why it was impossible to leave Arsenal

What the No 14 shirt means to me and why it was impossible to leave Arsenal

Edu and Eddie Nketiah - Interview with Eddie Nketiah: What the No 14 shirt means to me and why leaving Arsenal was impossible - GETTY IMAGES

Edu and Eddie Nketiah – Interview with Eddie Nketiah: What the No 14 shirt means to me and why leaving Arsenal was impossible – GETTY IMAGES

Eddie Nketiah knows the importance of the No 14 shirt at Arsenal. He knows how the fans see it because he grew up as one of them and he knows the names of the players who have worn it before him. “It’s an important number,” says the Arsenal forward, smiling at the thought of wearing it next season. “It means a lot to me.”

The number is significant not only because it was worn with such distinction by Thierry Henry, Nketiah’s childhood hero and former academy coach. The meaning for the club and the player runs deeper and the fact that Nketiah has received him alongside a new five-year deal should be taken as a testament to Arsenal’s confidence in their young striker.

“I joined the club when I was 14,” says Nketiah. “I wore 14 on loan at Leeds and even lived in No 14 at one point. When the opportunity arose to take it, it was hard to say no. I know what that means for the club and the fans. It’s a beautiful feeling, an iconic number.”

That’s not to say Nketiah is the new Henry. Nor is he the new Theo Walcott or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who have also worn the 14-shirt in recent years. Those comparisons don’t help anyone and right now, Nketiah is smart enough to focus on being himself despite all the noise around him.

Thierry Henry and Arsène Wenger - Interview with Eddie Nketiah: What the No 14 shirt means to me and why leaving Arsenal was impossible - REUTERS

Thierry Henry and Arsène Wenger – Interview with Eddie Nketiah: What the No 14 shirt means to me and why leaving Arsenal was impossible – REUTERS

He’s not another Thierry because nobody is. Instead, he’s Eddie, the Arsenal fan-turned-Arsenal player, the academy graduate who remains fixated on leading the line for his club.

“We know it’s a special shirt and Thierry made it cool to wear this shirt, just like he did with socks and gloves,” Nketiah told Telegraph Sport at Arsenal’s training ground. “That’s what we grew up with. But I’m just trying to be the best version of myself. I focus on creating my own memories in this shirt and putting my own stamp on it.

“You still have to deliver. There will always be pressure whether you’re wearing the number 30 or 14 or whatever because that’s part of playing for Arsenal.

To be clear, playing for Arsenal is all Nketiah ever wanted. For much of last season it seemed certain he would leave the club due to his lack of activity as a free agent. But life in this sport moves fast and Nketiah took his opportunity when it presented itself, starting in the last eight games of the season and scoring five goals.

“Everyone knows how much I love Arsenal”

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta had been trying for months to persuade Nketiah to sign a new contract. The postseason games and the 23-year-old’s excellent performances in those games proved crucial.

“Everyone knows how much I love Arsenal,” says Nketiah. “I came through the academy, I have a bond with the club. The manager was very supportive and pushed a lot for me to stay. When I had those kinds of assurances and had no doubts that I would have opportunities to play next season, it was almost impossible for me to leave.

“This run [of matches] really helped me. It made me feel like I always wanted, that I’ve longed for. That feeling of playing well, doing well, scoring goals. It helped me with my decision and made it much clearer. Experiencing this with my family, we knew this was the place to be. There is nothing better than doing good for the club you support and love.”

Nketiah’s scoring instincts were never questioned. He is the record goalscorer for England’s Under-21 side and last season only two Premier League players (Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez) scored faster in all competitions.

Such is his talent for finding space in the box that Nketiah has sometimes been accused of being too much of a poacher instead of being a full-on centre-forward. He knows what the critics are saying and it’s safe to say he answered them in the final few games of the season as he displayed a physical strength and technical prowess his critics didn’t expect.

“I’ve worked a lot on my strength and power,” he says. “The stronger I got, the more I was able to demonstrate the skills I’ve always had. It allows you to compete and do the things you know you can. Some people come into the first team and they feel good physically straight away. But for other people it’s different.”

Eddie Nketiah celebrates his goal against Chelsea in the Premier League - Interview with Eddie Nketiah: What the No 14 shirt means to me and why leaving Arsenal was impossible - GETTY IMAGES

Eddie Nketiah celebrates his goal against Chelsea in the Premier League – Interview with Eddie Nketiah: What the No 14 shirt means to me and why leaving Arsenal was impossible – GETTY IMAGES

Nketiah is a thoughtful player who is hugely popular with Arsenal staff behind the scenes and hearing him talk about his development means understanding the importance of rhythm for strikers. It’s hard to build momentum playing just a few minutes at a time, off the bench, and it took Nketiah a number of games to really show off his all-round ability.

“When you have an eight-game streak in the first team, you get that database and platform to show what you can do,” he says. “I’ve been working a lot with the manager on playing with your back to goal, on the spaces I can fall into and connect the game. Of course it was developed. But at the same time, you don’t get here just by standing in the penalty area and scoring a goal.

“People will always say things, but I know what I can do. The people who have played with me, played against me, the coaches who have worked with me, I know how they feel about me.”

A new season will almost certainly bring new competition for Nketiah as Arsenal are keen to sign another striker. “Every team needs a squad to keep up,” he says. “The club is always looking for ways to strengthen itself. They renewed my contract and they did it for a reason. Whoever walks in, you enjoy the challenge. You make them feel welcome and then you fight and compete.”

Nketiah also has a decision on his international future on the horizon. He is eligible to play for Ghana and they have made it clear they want him to represent them. “There were discussions,” he says. “But nothing is decided yet.”

Whatever happens, in club football or on the international stage, there is no doubt that Nketiah will continue to work as he has always done. His game is shaped by his hunger ⁠ – both for goals and for running off the ball ⁠ – and that won’t change now either.

“It’s just my mentality, my personality,” he says. “I know I’m not the finished article, and I don’t have to be the finished article now. I have time to improve and make mistakes. But I believe in myself that if I get a run and play the games I can deliver. I know I have so much more to give and so much more to do.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.