The speedster speaks to FourFourTwo.
What was it like playing for Saints when still too young to sign as a professional?
Strange. I was earning £90 a week, living in shared accommodation called The Lodge with 10 other scholars. We were educated and when it came to football I was driven to training in a minibus and we had to be in by 10.30pm at night. Even though I was in the first team, I still had to pick up the balls after training, the bibs, the equipment and put all the dirty kit in the laundry.
Is it true you could have joined Swindon?
I didn’t start playing until I was 10 but I scored about 100 goals for my team AFC Newbury and I joined Swindon’s under-11 team for half a season. But the travelling was too much so I stopped going.
How did you end up at Saints?
I was playing in a tournament for Swindon when Southampton and Chelsea showed an interest. Chelsea invited me to be a ball boy for a game against Liverpool, and it was fantastic to meet my heroes Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, but Southampton really made me feel wanted. I was shown around the old Dell, then I went to the training ground to see the first team. I just felt more wanted there.
With Arsenal trailing you, did it affect your performances?
I didn’t pay much attention. I left it to the clubs involved, my dad and Warwick Horton, my agent, and I just got on with my football. I was happy at Southampton but once I knew Arsenal wanted to sign me, I felt it was in my best interests to move and before long a fee had been agreed.
Why choose Arsenal when moneybags Chelsea also wanted you?
At this stage of my career, it’s all about my development and I know I’m in the right place at Arsenal. Money’s never been an issue for me, I don’t pay much attention to that kind of thing. I just want to develop as a player and I have the best chance of achieving that under Arsene Wenger.
What was it like when Wenger announced that he wanted to sign you?
Having come out of school just a few months earlier, to hear Arsene saying these things was unbelievable really. I was very flattered but I couldn’t let anything affect me. I remember we had a game with QPR coming up and that was the most important thing for me at the time.
People are already comparing you to Thierry Henry. How do you feel about that?
You can’t compare me with the best striker in the world, but it’s been fantastic to watch Thierry at close quarters: his pace, skill and finishing is amazing and he gets assists as well as being a brilliant goalscorer. I’m fortunate to have someone like him around when I need advice. He tells me he developed as a player when he joined Arsenal and hopefully I’ll do the same.
The World Cup took your profile sky-high. How weird was it seeing yourself and your girlfriend in the papers?
I didn’t pay any attention. I never really picked up a paper, so I wasn’t aware of what was being said and written. The whole squad shut ourselves off and focused on the task ahead. I must admit, though, I did find it a little weird when I got a lot of attention after my move to Arsenal. When I did that FourFourTwo interview [Boy’s A Bit Special, FFT 137] just before I left Southampton, my friends kept phoning me up about it. Now I’m
more comfortable seeing myself in magazines and newspapers – it’s part of being a footballer.
How have you coped with the extra attention you’ve received?
I live in a quiet area where not many people recognise me and I prefer it that way. Once I’ve finished training, I like relaxing with my girlfriend and family. That’s not to say I don’t get spotted when I go out, but usually it’s kids who see me in the street and I’m more than happy to sign autographs or have a chat.
Has celebrity status changed you?
Not at all – I’m the same person I’ve always been, just a normal lad who loves playing football. There has been a lot of attention and focus on me, but I have my family, girlfriend, friends, my agent and Arsenal too, who make sure my feet stay on the ground. Thierry Henry, in particular, is like a big brother to me.
Last time we spoke to you, you were about to head off to the World Cup. Having only seen World Cups on TV before, could you believe you were actually there?
To be honest, I can’t remember too much about the 2002 World Cup. I remember the Argentina game when David Beckham scored the penalty and Trevor Sinclair had a good game on the wing, but that’s about it. But of course, I know what the World Cup is all about and how privileged I was to be part of the England squad. It was a brilliant experience, which gave me a real insight into tournament football: training with great players, visiting big stadiums and living in a hotel environment for that length of time. Hopefully there will be more World Cups to come for me.
Had you not been away from home before going to Germany?
I went to Scotland for a week when I was with Southampton last pre-season but that’s about it! But being away for a long period didn’t faze me because I’d lived away from home when I was with Southampton doing my scholarship, and only went home once a week. Saying that, we had our families with us at the World Cup and when we were allowed, I spent time with them.
Was it daunting being around players you’d only seen on TV?
At first it was a bit of a shock, but I soon got used to it. Fortunately there were a lot of young players and I struck up a good friendship with Aaron Lennon, who was in the room next to me. We had a huge games room and lots of the boys played on the PlayStations. Ashley Cole was quite good but he never played me – he was probably too scared! We also had a pool table, table tennis area and a simulation golf game, which was popular, but I was no good at it – I’ve only just started playing.
What’s your favourite memory from the World Cup?
There are many, but the one that really sticks in the memory was when I met up with the squad for the first time before the World Cup began. I’d already been introduced to David Beckham in Madrid when Arsenal played Real in the Champions League last season. He was really nice and gave me plenty of words of encouragement, and when I joined up with the World Cup squad, he was there again to greet me and really made me feel a part of the set-up straight away. He was great with all the young players in the squad, and was obviously a respected captain, but then again, all the senior players were like that.
Although you didn’t play, what did you learn from your time in Germany?
Ronaldo didn’t play in 1994, and it hasn’t done him any harm! I learnt at close quarters how the players and management prepare for big games. The World Cup is unlike club football because everything is geared to playing one-off games every three or four days. At Arsenal, we might only have one game a week and you gradually build yourself up to it, but in the World Cup, there was hardly any respite – especially when you’re on the move.
What did Arsene Wenger say to you when you got back from the World Cup?
He asked how I got on, what I’d learnt, and said the experience would stand me in good stead. Because I hadn’t played in Germany, I only had three weeks off because I was keen to get back playing for Arsenal.
When you scored on your debut for the Under-21s against Moldova it looked as if a huge weight had been lifted from your shoulders...
I did feel a bit like that, but I was more delighted because I’d scored a header and people question my heading! I’d become the youngest Under-21 player to play for England and, like at the World Cup, I’d come into a squad full of new faces, so to cap it with a goal after just three minutes was fantastic.
Arsenal’s fans have given you a rousing reception this season. How daunting is it to have 60,000 fans bellowing “THEEE-O, THEEE-O” as you sit on the bench?
It gives me more confidence, to be honest, just like it did at Southampton when the crowd chanted my name. I don’t see it as added pressure. I’m 17, I shouldn’t feel pressure, but I’ve never suffered from nerves anyway. I just want to play and show what I can do.
What's your best position?
I’ll play anywhere, left, right, behind the striker... wherever the manager feels I’m suited, but I prefer to play up front. I’ve played in most positions. I actually started out as a goalkeeper but got so bored and frustrated seeing all the other lads scoring goals and having all the fun that I decided to come out on pitch.
How has Thierry Henry helped you?
I’ve been watching how he trains, the positions he takes up, how he shoots... the manager is trying to get me to place the ball into the net the way Thierry does. I could also do with learning a few more of his tricks but there’s plenty of time for that. It’s a privilege to train with him, but there’s one downside: as the youngest, Thierry makes me collect all the balls after shooting practice – so it’s important I get as many on target as possible!
Who’s faster: you or him?
He’d blow me away over 100 metres, but make it a little shorter and it might be a different story. We don’t have races but we have speed tests and I did 40 metres in five seconds, the quickest at the club.
Favourite TV programme?
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, but more recently my girlfriend has got me into Lost. I’m not one for soaps, though.
Favourite subject at school (apart from PE)?
I liked maths. I got a C – not bad considering I sat at the back of the class with my mates!
Best ever holiday?
I went to Puerto Banus with my girlfriend after the World Cup, which was a really nice place.
Best karaoke song?
Whenever we have a family get-together, we always get out the karaoke, so I’m not bad, to be honest. I like singing Mario’s Let Me Love You – but I certainly won’t give up the day job.