'I don't have any regrets about leaving Arsenal - I'm pleased with how things have gone'
Two stepovers, an insane hocus pocus, and he’s away from two men. Cutting inside, his next touch – a left-footed drive – sends the ball into the back of the net.
It’s November 2010, and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has just scored a goal for Arsenal’s reserves that he’ll probably never match again. Skill, ingenuity and power – it combined all of the qualities that earmarked him for a bright future at the Emirates Stadium.
Second-string football was child’s play for the north Londoner, but breaking into Arsene Wenger’s first team wasn’t quite so straightforward. For all his promise, the young midfielder played for Arsenal five times (only once in the league) in between being packed off to the Football League with loan spells at Blackpool, Doncaster and Cardiff.
But now things are different. It’s taken a while – four different clubs, in fact – but Emmanuel-Thomas has finally found the perfect environment in which to unleash his prodigious talents. The 23-year-old now lights up in the red shirt of a different kind at Bristol City, where his 17 goals in all competitions match those of his previous six clubs combined. So what’s changed?
“In the past I've only ever played out wide, but aside from a couple of games this season I've only been playing as a centre-forward,” he tells FourFourTwo. “Playing as an actual striker is a bit different because I'm closer to the opposition goal where I can try and do as much damage as I can. This season it's paid off.”
He’s quite right. Although the Robins would perhaps consider their season somewhat disappointing (they currently sit in 15th - “up and down, but it’s starting to come together,” we’re told), Emmanuel-Thomas’s 15 goals in League One have contributed to an impressive goal haul bettered by only four sides this season. In fact, the young hitman forms one half of the division’s most lethal strike partnership; partner Sam Baldock is five goals ahead on 20. You won’t, however, catch the former Gunner taking a greedy potshot to catch up in the scoring stakes.
“It's not really a battle – more of a partnership,” he admits. “It’s all based around the team. If he ends up scoring more goals than me but I end up setting up most of them, I'll be just as pleased. I get more joy providing for others than I do from scoring, so I think I'm quite unselfish in that respect.”
It's a statement backed up by the stats; only two men, Dean Cox (Leyton Orient) and Bakary Sako (Wolves), brag more than his nine assists in League One this season.
So far the Robins duo have been a sight for boss Steve Cotterill's sore eyes – but it hadn’t always looked like panning out this way. For a while it seemed settling down would be difficult; even when Emmanuel-Thomas finally left Arsenal in search of regular first-team football, a move to Championship also-rans Ipswich didn’t quite go to plan.
By the time he’d left Portman Road after two years in a straight swap deal with Paul Anderson, it was largely agreed that he hadn’t lived up to his obvious promise. “But it's one of those scary ones,” conceded boss Mick McCarthy. “Jay did not fulfil his potential here, but he may well do so somewhere else.” It turns out his premonitions were right.
“At Ipswich I ended up playing as a wide man,” Emmanuel-Thomas says. “I didn't mind that, even though it wasn't really my position, because I like facing players one-vs-one. That's one of the good things about being out there. But I've always felt I was a striker.”
It’s not like his form has come completely out of the blue. When impressing for Arsenal’s kids, Wenger made no secret of his belief in Emmanuel-Thomas. “One thing is for sure - he can score goals,” declared the Frenchman in October 2010. “That is a massive talent you cannot give to people.
“The guy is an unbelievable finisher, inside and outside of the box. He has outstanding qualities, and the build you dream to have. It is down to him how far he wants to go because he has big potential.”
Ask the burly frontman to reflect on how close he came to wooing Wenger, and there are no regrets. He made more appearances than most youngsters manage in north London, but by 21 he'd exhausted his options. It was about getting priorities straight – and that meant leaving his boyhood club.
“I had a few experiences in and around the first team, but at the age I was, in and out through injuries and other things, I just wanted to be playing a lot more,” he admits. “I had to make a decision whether I was going to stick around or whether I was going to leave. I had to make that based on my football career, and not which club I wanted to be at.
“We were brought up a certain way to play a certain type of football, and I think that was always going to put me in good stead to wherever I would go next,” he adds. “You can always add more to your game, but being good on the ball always benefits you in the long run. I'm quite pleased with how things have gone, and I don't really have any regrets.”
Of Arsenal’s Class of '09, who won the FA Youth Cup with a 6-2 two-legged battering of Liverpool, only Jack Wilshere remains at the club as a first-team regular. Emmanuel-Thomas scored in each round before the Gunners dismantled a Reds side including the likes of Andre Wisdom, Tom Ince and Alex Kacaniklic.
“Sanchez Watt is still one of my best friends and now he's in League One with me at Colchester,” he says. “I speak to Craig Eastmond and Emmanuel Frimpong too. Jack not so much – I do if I see him, but not much otherwise. A lot of the boys have gone into the Football League and done well for themselves, which is good.”
Five years later the 23-year-old is back on the bounce – and after a season like his, interest from the Championship (fancy it, Mick?) is to be expected. In January, former boss Sean O’Driscoll informed Emmanuel-Thomas that he may have to be sold to balance the books. He wasn’t, much to Robins fans’ delight, but financial pressures mean an acceptable summer bid may prise him away from Ashton Gate after just a season.
“I'm not sure myself what's going to happen, it depends on interest from other clubs,” the youngster admits. “At the moment I'm just trying to focus on doing the right thing until the end of the season.”
Internationally too, Emmanuel-Thomas has options. Born to a St. Lucian mother and Dominican father, the time is nigh for him to decide his future for either nation.
“It's something that will be considered in the next year or so, although I'm not sure which one I'll choose yet,” says the Robins man. “In the past there have been some discussions about it, but soon I want to look into it further and get in contact with the hierarchy of the two countries to see which one I'll play for. It's going to be a bit of an argument between my mum and dad, but that's between them to sort out!”
At this rate they won't be the only ones scuffling for his services.
JET features in FourFourTwo's Top 50 Football League Players - out now in the May 2014 edition of FourFourTwo.