Roy Massey: Arsenal’s ‘father figure’ on unearthing Gunners gems

Jack Wilshere and Alex Iwobi call him a “father figure” and many more Premier League stars have benefited from the work first put in place by Roy Massey 25 years ago.

Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith-Rowe and Joe Willock are among the others to have appreciated Massey’s guidance since he began helping Arsenal legend Liam Brady mould the Gunners’ academy in 1998.

“I regarded the academy as my family,” said Wilshere. “Roy was the one who drove things forward and he had a strong work ethic.”

Iwobi, who joined when he was in primary school and played 100 Premier League games before joining Everton in 2019, says Massey was “respected, loved and adored” and always a “perfect gentleman”.

“He has an infectious laugh and made everyone feel welcome,” added Iwobi. “He gave all of us equal opportunities to get on to the pitch during matches. He gave us belief and freedom to enjoy our football and to express ourselves.”

After more than 25 years coaching at Colchester and Norwich, where Massey’s young stars were handsomely beating the Irishman’s prospects, he accepted Brady’s offer to join Arsenal.

Massey was tasked with unearthing junior school-aged children good enough to represent the London club, while finding and developing new facilities.

Massey built a network of scouts and recruited top-class coaches, using methods honed by Ajax – who won the Champions League three years earlier with a team built around academy graduates – to develop youngsters and create a welcoming, family atmosphere while keeping them grounded.

Arsenal look set to shatter their transfer record with the signing of Declan Rice , but the club’s productive Hale End academy remains invaluable.

And Massey, who retired in 2014, details how some of today’s Premier League stars benefited from the Gunners’ system.

Bukayo Saka – ‘maturity beyond his years’

“Bukayo came to the academy aged eight thanks to Miguel Rios, a young man who I asked to do some scouting for us in west London,” says Massey.

“He brought in several youngsters but clearly the standout was Bukayo, who was 13 by the time I retired and has proved to be one of the most talented players produced by the Arsenal academy.

“Bukayo had a very good left foot and was played mainly as a left full-back, from where he could learn how to defend and attack the game, or as left winger in eight-a-side games on small pitches.

“He had two good feet but the coaching staff thought he was stronger on his left. He showed composure on the ball. He had strength and pace but the slight concern was that as he got older his success would not be maintained once the other players could compete physically with him.

“However, Bukayo had a maturity beyond his early years and showed great football intelligence, ability on the ball and a real desire to become a professional. Like most young boys his dad was very supportive of his efforts.”

Joe Willock – ‘he cried his eyes out’

“The youngest of the three Willock brothers was Joe,” explains Massey. “When I met him, he was only five. His mum Sarah and dad Charles brought him to watch Chris [who now plays for QPR] in the sports hall.

“Throughout the session Joe cried his eyes out and pleaded to play. There was no pacifying him until I invited him on to the playing area so that he could kick a ball about.

“Suddenly he stopped crying and a smile came to his face. When Joe was seven, he was playing for the pre-academy team against Watford.

“In this game, Joe ran through the defence and with the goal at his mercy he hit the ball wide of the post. Coach Rodney Clements took off his glasses and said, ‘Joe, do you want these?’ – Joe laughed and got on with his game before going on to score a hat-trick.

“Like his brother Chris, Joe also showed little interest in the education programme but he was very enthusiastic when training and playing. He probably showed less potential than his older brothers but it did not prevent him making his Premier League debut in midfield against Newcastle United in April 2018.

“At 18 he became the fourth player born after Arsene Wenger took charge to play for the club. Joe also became the 56th teenager to represent Arsenal during the Premier League era – more than any other club. Jack Wilshere was the youngest at 16 years and eight months.”

Eddie Nketiah – ‘he is bad!’

“Eddie started his academy football with Chelsea as a young boy then came to the attention of the Arsenal academy when he played against them and had a very good game,” says Massey.

“Although very small for his age, he had speed and good technical ability

“After the under-14s game, Bobby Arber, a full-time Arsenal scout, passed Chris and Joe Willock. He stopped to speak to them about the game and mentioned the little centre-forward.

“‘He is bad,’ they said. Bobby initially thought they were referring to his character, then quickly realised that “bad” meant good! The youngsters told him Chelsea were releasing Eddie.

“This was music to Bobby’s ears. He contacted Ian Gilmour, who recommended youngsters from the south London area. Ian spoke to Eddie and his parents and they agreed to him having trials with Arsenal. It did not take long for Eddie to be offered the opportunity to join the Gunners.”

Reiss Nelson – spotted at the park

“Reiss was brought in for training at the age of eight by scout Alan Knowles,” says Massey. “He had already been spotted by Tottenham Hotspur, with whom he was training.

“Alan had been driving home after watching a district schoolboy game and as he passed a park he noticed a group of young footballers enjoying a game between themselves.

“Alan stopped to take a look and after a while he saw a little boy receive the ball before dribbling past three opponents. As the keeper came out to stop his shot the young player feinted to shoot and, as the keeper dived to anticipate the shot, the boy dribbled round him before calmly slotting the ball into the goal.

“Alan was impressed and asked the eight-year-old to come and train at the Arsenal academy, where he subsequently stayed for many years before signing professionally for the Gunners.”

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