When Alex Iwobi was substituted in an under-21s match against Blackburn on a cold afternoon in January, little did he – or anyone else in fact – know that it would probably be the final time he would play for Arsenal’s second string.
Five months later, with 13 first-team starts, an international debut and two Premier League goals to his name, it can be fair to say that Arsenal and Nigeria have quite the prospect on their hands.
The 20-year-old has left the unpredictable nature of life as an academy prospect trailing in his wake and is now a firmly-established member of Arsène Wenger’s squad.
He immediately struck a chord with Arsenal fans on his home debut in the third round of the FA Cup against Sunderland because of his willingness to take risks and impose himself on his opponents, while his natural ability on the ball also shone through.
Having signed for the club when he was just eight, Iwobi displayed his potential from the outset and was often deployed in teams above his age group on his way to the top level.
Iwobi captained Arsenal’s under-21 and under-19 sides regularly in the two seasons before he reached the senior side and was quickly recognised as a player who would adopt the right attitude and temperament to catch the attention of Wenger.
Few could have imagined the impact the youngster would make.
So it was perhaps no surprise to his youth team coaches and those close to Iwobi when Wenger included him in Arsenal’s touring party to Singapore in the summer of 2015.
A goal in the Gunners’ pre-season Emirates Cup game against Lyon that July reinforced the idea that Arsenal’s French coach would integrate Iwobi in the season to come but few could have imagined the impact the youngster would make in the following ten months.
Understandably, Iwobi admits his rapid climb to Premier League star has yet to sink in, but he is under no illusion over the role his family have played in helping him come through the ranks.
‘As a youngster, the main thing for me was confidence,’ says Iwobi.
‘I would always be in the background. I always relied on other people, but I think having my family and friends around me gave me a bit more confidence and they told me what I needed to work on.
I wish I was a lot more confident.
‘When I was about 13 I needed the confidence from my family, because I was getting a lot of criticism from elsewhere. I heard people saying that I wasn’t good enough, people at school, a few coaches said I wasn’t quick enough and I wasn’t strong enough, so I did have doubts. It put me down, but since then I’ve been able to motivate myself.’
‘I wish I was a lot more confident, but saying that, the fact I’m here in the first-team squad now, perhaps I wouldn’t change anything.’
As a result of his meteoric rise, Iwobi’s international future suddenly came under scrutiny.
Iwobi had no hesitation in committing his international allegiance.
Iwobi was born in Lagos, Nigeria, before moving to England when he was just four and represented England’s youth sides as a schoolboy.
However, when Nigeria’s senior side came calling in November last year, Iwobi had no hesitation in committing his international allegiance to the Super Eagles, despite last-minute attempts made by England to persuade him to hold off and play for them.
‘It was a difficult decision picking Nigeria over England,’ he admits.
‘England did contact me before I played my first competitive match for Nigeria. I’m very proud to represent Nigeria but I would like to say thank you to England for the chance they gave me. It was a difficult decision.’
After turning down England’s approaches, Iwobi made his Nigeria debut in a defeat to Congo during a friendly match in October 2015. He only then realised the magnitude of support he has attracted by making his breakthrough with Arsenal.
‘The love Nigeria showed me when I played for them in a friendly was incredible; the fans were just crazy. The fans almost eat you up because they love you so much. I’m enjoying playing for them.
‘When you’re getting out of the airport there are fans already there screaming “Arsenal, Arsenal. Gunners for life!” and it’s just mad. Some of them have Arsenal shirts and then others will ask me for Arsenal shirts.
‘When I played for Nigeria in Africa, it’s a lot more physical and the tempo is higher.
‘Everything is fast and the weather in Africa is something you have to adapt to really quickly. The first day I trained I was gasping for air because it was so hot. There’s minimal air so it’s something I had to get used to.
‘I was hoping to contribute to the team and I came on for eight minutes [for my debut]. I was buzzing and all the fans were clapping and singing songs. The second game we unfortunately lost and went out of the Africa Cup of Nations, but that moment was crazy and a great feeling.’
Iwobi’s frustrating start to his international career – due to that failure to qualify for the African Cup of Nations – could be short-lived with this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio on the horizon.
He is expected to be selected for the tournament, which begins on August 3, but will have to seek Arsenal’s permission to travel to Brazil with the club’s Premier League campaign just kicking off just ten days later.
Iwobi has made it clear he wants to compete for his country in Brazil, to make amends for missing out on the African Cup of Nations, and the competition will provide a fitting platform for him to continue his development.
Nigeria has a crop of excellent players.
‘Nigeria is a great footballing nation and deserves to assume her rightful place in Africa and world football and I am keen to be part of a team that achieves this goal,’ he says.
‘I believe that Nigeria has a crop of excellent players who are capable of doing great things at the Olympics. Coach Samson Siasia deserves a lot of praise for securing a place for the nation at the Olympics.
‘If I am invited, I will do my best to make a meaningful contribution.’
At the tender age of 20 and with the world at his feet, it would be easy for Iwobi to get carried away with what he’s achieved so far like so many other young players before him who have enjoyed a season in the limelight before slipping into a footballing abyss.
But in uncle Jay-Jay Okocha, who was one of the stars of the Premier League with Bolton between 2002-2006, and Arsenal and Nigeria great Kanu, Iwobi has two iconic mentors to look up to. And the youngster reveals he has confided in both men about how to conduct himself on the international stage.
‘As a kid, especially playing at Arsenal, I did look up to Kanu,’ recalls Iwobi.
‘He was just a classy player and I have spoken to him a few times as well.
‘We have had conversations about Nigeria, about myself and what I need to do. [He says] to just be relaxed and he congratulated me and told me I was doing well.
‘To hear that [praise] from such a player like him is crazy and I just have to prove him right. I don’t feel pressure, it is just a privilege to hear that.
‘I get advice from Jay-Jay almost weekly. He is always telling me that he knows a lot has happened and that I have come far, but he says to stay humble and that I will go far.’