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Teenage kicks

Arsenal 6 Sheffield United 0

You know, it’s not the scoreline that’s the most eye-catching statistic from last night’s emphatic Carling Cup win at the Emirates Stadium – it’s the average age of the Arsenal line-up: 19, the youngest first team in the club’s history.

It was Alan Hansen who famously declared, “You’ll never win anything with kids” back in 1995, just as Manchester United embarked on a double-winning season. I’m sure Kevin Blackwell and his Sheffield United side – which included Gary Speed who, at 39, is twice the age of most of the Arsenal team – would beg to differ.

Obviously, it’s been the equivalent of a batsmen receiving a gentle full toss for the tabloid headline writers, with “Creche, bang, wallop” being my personal favourite. And the scoreline was no more than an accurate reflection of the match itself, with Arsenal’s new generation of ‘galactikids’ notching up three goals in each half, including two for Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner (at 20, one of the side’s elder statesmen) and a hat-trick for the Mexican international Carlos Vela (19) in his first Arsenal start. To add insult to injury, the other goal was scored by the baby of the team, Jack Wilshere, who will not be 17 – and therefore not eligible for a full driving licence! – until New Year’s Day.

At times like this, it’s easier to understand why Arsene Wenger is so reluctant to go into the transfer market to bring in experienced players at the expense of stifling opportunities for his younger players – a policy which has been repeatedly challenged by sportswriters, pundits and fans alike over the past couple of years.

To the critics, I say this: you can’t have it both ways.

For sure, Wenger could pursue a ‘jam today’ policy and bring in experienced (and costly) players to bolster the quest for silverware this season. But equally, he has been frequently criticised for fielding predominantly ‘foreign’ teams which means that promising young British players – David Bentley (Tottenham), Matthew Upson (West Ham), Justin Hoyte (Middlesbrough) and former England under-19 captain Fabrice Muamba (Bolton) to name but four – have had to seek opportunities elsewhere.

So what’s it to be? Believe in creating chances for the best young players to shine, or strengthen the squad with experience and force the youngsters to go elsewhere? Like I say, it’s all too easy for people to criticise either way.

And while it’s certainly true that the list of young British (and, lest we forget, non-British) players who have left Arsenal grows ever longer, you have to ask how many are genuinely good enough to have merited a place in the first team squad had they stayed. Bentley (now 24) would be unlikely to feature ahead of either Samir Nasri or Theo Walcott, respectively three and five years his junior. I would happily take Johan Djourou (21, and a full international at 19) over Upson. Hoyte wasn’t even the best member of his family on Arsenal’s books (his brother, Gavin, started last night). And Muamba, still 20, is already a fine player, but would have struggled to fit into a midfield packed with young talent such as Cesc Fabregas (21), Denilson (20), Abou Diaby (22), Aaron Ramsey (17) and Fran Merida (18).

Now, the above four ex-Gunners are quality Premier League players who would arguably all have found a place somewhere in Arsenal’s squad. But add to that a list of other youngsters who have gone on to become decent professionals but no more than that – anyone remember Rohan Ricketts, Jerome Thomas, John Halls or Ryan Garry? – and it’s hard to question Wenger’s player policy. It’s not that he lets the British ones go; he simply releases the ones who aren’t good enough. (And besides, none of them met quite the same fate as the Ghanaian-Dutch striker Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, who was dispatched to Spartak Moscow and has only just resurfaced in the UK on loan at Birmingham City …)

As for the future, one look at last night’s team sheet provides plenty of evidence that the next Ashley Cole or Theo Walcott – a young British star in a United Nations of talent – will surely arrive sooner rather than later. In addition to the aforementioned Wilshere, Hoyte and Ramsey, English youngsters Kieran Gibbs and Mark Randall (both of whom turn 19 this week) also started the game. It’s likely that most, if not all, of these five will enjoy a Premier League career.

The future is bright, the future is Arsenal. (Even if some of these future stars end up plying their trade elsewhere.) But then most Gunners already knew that. After last night’s attention-grabbing result, now everyone else does as well.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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