Throughout the season, we’ll be reuniting with our young Gunners to find out more about their journey to our academy. The first of this campaign is goalkeeper Brian Okonkwo:
Since the age of three, all I remember is being surrounded by football. Whether it’s watching it on TV with my dad, Match of the Day, kickabouting in the park, or even after school, football has always been there. Arsenal too.
Some of you who follow the academy might recognize my last name, and that’s because my older brother Arthur is also a goalkeeper! He joined the Arsenal Academy at a very young age and as you can imagine as a younger brother I always looked up to him and wanted to follow in his footsteps.
There were so many footballers who inspired me as a kid, but having my brother involved in academy football made me feel like it was so much more achievable and it wasn’t. was not a distant reality. I actually started playing football as a striker and loved Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney. Their combination of technicality and aggressiveness was something I loved, but it took me until I was nine years old to finally put on the gloves and try.
I’ve always been very tall for my age so one day when my team didn’t have goalkeepers, I thought to myself why not? What’s wrong with being a goalie one day? But I absolutely loved it and pretty much stopped playing the outfield from that day on!
The funny thing about me and my brother is that we’re so competitive and we’ve always been that way. My brother had already been in an academy for years when I first tried to be a goalkeeper, but I remember telling him “I’m going to be better than you!” and that was the goal from day one. Sibling rivalry is different! Arthur told me he hopes I’ll be better than him in the future, but I know he’s kidding deep down and it will come true…
Anyway, after playing as a goalkeeper for a while and showing a lot of progression, my dad spoke to me and said that from what he saw around Arsenal, I am ready and able to move into academic football. I remember when we used to pick the teams when I was a kid, all my teammates always picked me first even though I’m just a goalkeeper! It was always a really nice feeling and something that gave me the confidence and belief that I could take it to the next level.
Luckily an Arsenal scout called Francis worked in my Sunday squad (Pro Touch) and he was able to give me the opportunity to prove myself at the academy. I’m so lucky and grateful to have had this connection with the club, but I also feel like I’ve earned these opportunities because my mentality has always been one of the strongest parts of my game.
Football is something that I love and enjoy, but it has never been all fun and games for me. It’s something I take very seriously and throughout my life I’ve always felt like one of the hardest workers on my team. Becoming a professional footballer is something I’m desperate to achieve, and I know it doesn’t come without hard work, discipline and sacrifice.
I saw it from my brother and I know the level required to reach the top. Fairly early in my time at Arsenal, I realized that I’m in an environment where I can become the best version of myself and it’s up to me to apply myself and show my abilities. Of course, my coaches and my family are there to guide me, help me and offer me support, but at the end of the day, that’s how much I want to push myself and work for my dreams.
This season I had to make the move to full-time football at London Colney, and it’s already been an incredible experience. For the first week or two, I thought it was all about getting comfortable and getting used to this new environment, and I can’t lie… I found that very tiring ! I think everyone who leaves Hale End does! But I’ve already calmed down and I feel like I’m more and more confident with my new U18 teammates.
I had to take a few extra steps to make sure I’m ready for this step too. I knew it would be a test on my body, so I had to take action by taking more care of my nutrition, sleep, and recovery.
I used to go to bed at 11 p.m. in Hale End, but I’m already so tired from the switch to full-time football that I fall asleep at 10 p.m. I didn’t have a say, my body is forcing me to go to bed!
As for my goals for this season, people around me told me not to put too much pressure on myself and I certainly took that into consideration, but in my head I always had the ambition to aim up and if things don’t quite work out that way, at least I know that I pushed myself to my limits and did everything I could do.
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