The next Gazza? Why 16-year-old Jack is the talk of football
Amazingly, Arsenal's latest precocious talent is English – and the national team manager is already interested. Jason Burt reports
England are considering fast-tracking 16-year-old Jack Wilshere, who has starred in Arsenal's Carling Cup campaign this season. A scout for the Under-21s watched Wilshere play in the tie against Sheffield United in September, his full first-team debut in which he also scored, and Fabio Capello was in attendance, along with England general manager Franco Baldini and Under-21 coach Stuart Pearce as he dazzled again in the demolition of Wigan Athletic on Tuesday evening.
That came hours after Pearce named his squad for next week's friendly against the Czech Republic and while Wilshere has only recently returned from a training camp and matches for the England Under-17s in Tenerife, there has been discussion as to when would be the right time for him to make the step up.
Such is Wilshere's talent that he could soon be in the England Under-21 squad – there are the European Championships coming up next summer in Sweden – even though he is a first-year scholar, has not yet signed professional forms and cannot do so until he turns 17 on 1 January. Capello is said to be an enthusiastic fan of his abilities and had that confirmed by Wilshere's contribution at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday.
"If he [Capello] wants to have a good selection now he wants to come to our Carling Cup games," joked the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, after the 3-0 victory which progressed his teenage team to the quarter-finals. "We have a competitive future," Wenger added. "Gavin Hoyte, Kieran Gibbs, Mark Randall, Jack Wilshere. The four are top class. Jay Simpson, too. On the bench there was Emmanuel Frimpong, Henri Lansbury. All are top class. If you give me time I will bring a few of them through."
And with that side-swipe at his critics, it is an impressive roll-call of potential. But none has caused greater excitement at Arsenal, or around the football community in the past 12 months, than Wilshere. Wenger eulogised about Theo Walcott, wooing his family and agents, before signing him from Southampton in 2006 and he speaks with similar enthusiasm about the young man from Hitchin who joined Arsenal's Hale End Academy aged just nine, after he was quickly diverted away from Luton Town, where he emerged at eight years old.
At Arsenal, Wilshere has been likened to Liam Brady which, undoubtedly a great compliment, does not quite capture his playing style. He is, although at present just 5ft 7in, more akin to Paul Gascoigne, given the relish with which he runs with the ball and his distinctive style of doing so with his head up. Wilshere is also not afraid to use his body – principally his backside – to hold off opponents and is not fazed by taking possession in tight situations. His close control is exceptional, while he also has an eye for goal and is a precise, incisive passer. His temperament, too, is such that he is unaffected either by the occasion or the opposition but neither does he shy away from the adulation. He is a good decision-maker. "Exceptional" is the word Wenger has often used when discussing Wilshere with his coaching staff.
Predominantly left-footed, Wilshere has played, so far, on the right for Arsenal, while the impact he has made at the club has also been likened to that of Cesc Fabregas who still holds the record as the club's youngest-ever player (16 years and 177 days), although Wilshere made his Premier League debut, against Blackburn Rovers this season, earlier than the Spaniard (16 years and 256 days).
"He's a different type of player," said Wenger when asked to compare the two. "He's more of a dribbler and Cesc is more of a passer. Jack Wilshere has more of a change of direction and pass and Cesc is more of a strict passer of the ball with quick vision. You can imagine that the two together can play good football. Like Cesc he is a player of character. He's not frightened of going into the challenge and likes the physical game. He is not fazed by anything. He takes the ball no matter where and no matter against who he plays. It's just natural for him. Wilshere can play on the flanks or behind the strikers. He can play in the middle of the park and upfront."
While stressing the need to "nurture" Wilshere, Wenger has not been afraid to promote him either. Last season he played in Arsenal's Under-18 team – scoring 13 goals in 19 games – and made his reserve-team debut. He was then the youngest member of the first-team squad Wenger took to the pre-season training camp in Austria. Wilshere scored twice in a friendly against Burgenland and again against Stuttgart before also playing in the home matches versus Juventus and Real Madrid.
Part of Wenger's confidence comes from the fact that Wilshere is coming through as part of the best crop of young talent he has overseen at Arsenal. Each is feeding off the other and, as with the emergence of the Manchester United group in the early Nineties that included David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers, there is a real sense of something stirring at Arsenal.
For Wilshere there is also great faith in his background. Naturally, given his age, he is described as quiet. But he is also respectful, polite and has not been infected by the ego and unwillingness to listen that hampers many a talented young player. He has received huge support from his family – his parents, sister Rosie and brother Tom – while it was quickly recognised that Arsenal, due to their commitment to young players and the support system Wenger has put in place, would be the best club for him to flourish.
Brady, who is Arsenal's head of youth development, yesterday spoke of the club's hopes. "Jack Wilshere has had a lot of publicity but he is a boy who has his feet firmly on the ground," he said. "He really wants to make it in football and is a very dedicated young man. I think Jack is a bit special.
"I think the advantage for them at Arsenal is that the manager is keen to work with the young players," Brady added. "Particularly in international weeks he will have these young players over there training and instilling this confidence that so many of Arsène Wenger's players have. But we don't want to get carried away."
In truth, and even for Wenger, it is difficult not to.