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Arsenal starlet Ben Sheaf impresses on loan at Stevenage: ‘Playing first team football makes you hungry for more’

PUBLISHED: 09:53 14 April 2018 | UPDATED: 10:06 14 April 2018

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf. Picture: DANNY LOO

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf. Picture: DANNY LOO

©2018 Danny Loo Photography - all rights reserved

Arsenal reporter Layth Yousif met up with the highly-rated Ben Sheaf, who is impressing on loan at Stevenage. Read on for his in-depth feature on the talented midifielder.

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to children on a coaching course at Welwyn Garden City FC. Picture: DANNY LOOStevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to children on a coaching course at Welwyn Garden City FC. Picture: DANNY LOO

The crowd in Serbia’s Marakana Stadium are making their displeasure known. Loudly.

Ear-splitting whistles, along with booming voices cascade around Red Star Belgrade’s intimidating stadium.

Every single fan – or at least it feels that way – in this gladiatorial arena is hurling abuse at the Arsenal team for what they see as timewasting.

The attendance is given officially at 51,000. But this is the Emirates in reverse. The noise levels make the crowd seem far bigger.

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to children on a coaching course at Welwyn Garden City FC. Picture: DANNY LOOStevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to children on a coaching course at Welwyn Garden City FC. Picture: DANNY LOO

Behind the left hand goal the Ultras are crammed in. They are not happy as they vent their fury.

The noise in this cauldron is reaching fever-pitch as Francis Coquelin lies prone on the pitch.

With only a few minutes to go the North Londoners are beating their hosts 1-0 through an unlikely overhead kick by Olivier Giroud.

It is clear Coquelin has to go off. But who will replace him to help the team see out this crucial tie and seal three vital points to ensure qualification to the later stages of the Champions League?

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to children on a coaching course at Welwyn Garden City FC. Picture: DANNY LOOStevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to children on a coaching course at Welwyn Garden City FC. Picture: DANNY LOO

Ben Sheaf of course.

Who?

You could have been forgiven for asking the question.

But those of us who know, know.

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to Layth Yousif. Picture: DANNY LOOStevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to Layth Yousif. Picture: DANNY LOO

If you have been watching the club’s talented U23 footballer you will know the name of the highly-rated Dartford-born creative midfielder.

Sheaf came on to a cacophony of boos as firecrackers were let off by the passionate home support as noise levels got to the point where your thought processes were disturbed and adrenaline made you shudder.

Yet the composed Sheaf helped see out the match and the victory for Arsenal on his debut back in October.

Fast forward seven months and the good-natured Arsenal starlet is coaching 20 or so wide-eyed youngsters on an astroturf pitch next to Welwyn Garden City’s homely stadium.

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to Layth Yousif. Picture: DANNY LOOStevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to Layth Yousif. Picture: DANNY LOO

It is a far cry from the match – played in what seasoned Arsenal-watchers list as one of the most intimidating atmospheres the club has experienced on the continent, certainly over the last three decades.

Sheaf is enjoying himself coaching the youngsters. He is engaging and takes time to watch and encourage the children, even celebrating their goals with them.

The creative midfielder has been on loan at League Two Stevenage since January.

After an injury he picked up in his first training session which put him out for three weeks, he is gradually earning rave reviews for the quality of his performances, as he prepares to face Boro’s local rivals Cambridge United at the Lamex on Saturday.

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf. Picture: DANNY LOOStevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf. Picture: DANNY LOO

He is happy to talk and is good company.

But what did it feel like playing at the world-famous Marakana in Belgarade?

He smiles a knowing smile before answering: “The atmosphere in Belgrade was pretty incredible that night.

“I wasn’t really expecting to make my debut but as soon as [Francis] Coquelin went down injured I got told to warm up and got pulled straight back and got put on.

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf. Picture: DANNY LOOStevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf. Picture: DANNY LOO

“I didn’t really have the time to get nervous and it was a brilliant atmosphere. I really enjoyed the experience and hope there will be a lot more games like that because that’s the stage I want to be playing at.

“You don’t realise how passionate the atmosphere is once you’re out there on the pitch but when I went to warm up at the start of the game it was absolutely incredible. There were a lot of whistles and a lot of booing. I saw things get thrown when we walked back down the tunnel.

“It was an amazing atmosphere. I really enjoyed.

“You work all your career for a moment like that as a young player. You hope that’s not the highest stage you play at because you want to be playing at that level on a regular basis. I felt comfortable when I was out there and I just wanted the game to go on forever. I didn’t want the game to stop. I really enjoyed it – it was such a good experience.”

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to children on a coaching course at Welwyn Garden City FC. Picture: DANNY LOOStevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to children on a coaching course at Welwyn Garden City FC. Picture: DANNY LOO

We are speaking on Thursday afternoon, hours before his club colleagues are due to take on CSKA Moscow. It is typical of Sheaf that he takes the time to send his best wishes to the first team squad.

It has been a disappointing season for Stevenage. Blessed with a talented squad, a mix of youthful exuberance allied with wise old heads.

But poor results saw the dismissal of previous boss Darren Sarll before Dino Mammria took over.

The change has coincided with an upturn in results as the club go into the Cambridge clash four games unbeaten, including carving out a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Newport County AFC in South Wales and a clinical dismantling of Barnet 4-1 on Bank Holiday Monday.

Stevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to Layth Yousif. Picture: DANNY LOOStevenage FC's on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ben Sheaf speaks to Layth Yousif. Picture: DANNY LOO

Sheaf says he has enjoyed the experience which has been a learning curve.

He says: “It’s been good. It’s been nice to be here. I didn’t have the best of starts coming in and getting injured straight away but since I’ve been back fit I’ve played a decent amount of games and been in the team pretty regularly.

“It’s been about coming to Stevenage and getting first team football and as much experience as I can including the last four games of the season.”

What are the main differences between U23 football and League Two?

He replies emphatically: “I think you realise there is a lot on the line.

“You can’t always way play ‘pretty’ football all the time.

“We play nice football at Arsenal but I’ve learned sometimes you have to win ‘nasty’ and that the football you play doesn’t always have to be pretty all the time. “Definitely that and of course the physical side of it as well as understanding the game – such as areas to play in and not to play in.

“I’m learning about risks and benefits but overall it’s definitely been a good learning experience for me.”

Stevenage are looking to climb the table in a bid to end the season on a high with a view to a longer-for promotion push next term.

And Sheaf is grateful for what he has learned so far.

“The boys here at Stevenage and the manager [Maamria] have definitely helped me since I’ve been here. The lads have been brilliant to me.

“Both managers [Sarrl then Maamria] have been really good to me and I’ve really enjoyed my time here.

“I’m learning more and more every game. That’s what it’s all about. I’m definitely more comfortable in the team which has been good. I spoke to a few of the senior boys at Stevenage and they all told me League Two isn’t an easy place to come in and learn your trade. It’s physical.

“It’s not the prettiest football at times but they said to me I’ve done well and I’ve just got to keep working hard and learning which I want to do.

“You’ve just got to embrace every moment of it.”

Which is exactly what he’s doing.

Stevenage boss Maamria made a point of hailing Sheaf’s performance after his side routed visitors Barnet 4-1 at the Lamex after Easter.

Sheaf has been playing with another Premier League loanee, Luke Amos from Spurs, who has also been doing well. It was instructive Maamria explained the pair excelled in that match, but only after the opening 20 when they took time to find their rhythm in the hurly-burly of the fourth tier.

The inference was clear. Sheaf understood what he needed to do to influence the game and adjusted his play accordingly.

Sheaf adds: “Just being in and around the first team which I did quite regularly before I came here means you can pick up the tempo of the training. He’s renowned for giving young players a chance and he gave me a chance.

“Once I finish the season at Stevenage I want to go back and prove to him [Wenger] that I’m good enough to play first team football for the Arsenal. I feel I’m ready. I want to play week in week out.”

What did Wenger say to him before he left?

“Arsene Wenger told me before I went on loan to Stevenage ‘just go and play as much as you can and make the most of it’.”

Making the most of it could be a mantra applied to Sheaf.

He certainly made his presence felt when he played his first game at the Emirates against West Ham.

In only his second game for the Arsenal first team he made an impression early on.

Sheaf recalls with a smile.

“Coming on against West Ham at the Emirates [in the League Cup quarter final] against West Ham was memorable.

“I remember when I got told to warm up I was a little bit nervous then but after a couple of minutes I was ready to go on after I got the call.

“I was only on the pitch a few minutes when I won a header against Andy Carroll. I managed to get my head on the ball before him and I was quite surprised about that.

“Arsene Wenger said afterwards, well done boys, good win, but at the time I just thought, ‘I’ve just won a header against Andy Carroll’”.

Sheaf comes from a sporty family. His brother Jake narrowly missed out on a medal in beach volleyball at the Commonwealth Games in Australia’s Gold Coast.

“My brother’s done alright. He just missed out on bronze which was a bit disappointing but he’s done us proud.

“It would have been great to have won a medal but we’re proud of him – I’d like to think he’s proud of me.

“My mum and dad and his girlfriend are out there watching him and we’re really happy for him. I’ve been speaking to him every day. It’s a good stage for him to play on.”

But what is a good stage for Sheaf to ultimately play on?

“I just want to get as much first team experience as possible at Stevenage and then go back to Arsenal with a bit more knowledge of the ‘mens’ game. “Start next season at Arsenal and then see how it goes. If I’m not going to see much first team football then I’ll go out on loan and continue to rack up appearances playing ‘men’s’ football whatever level that will be at.

“I can play centre-midfield and centre-half. I enjoy being on the ball. I have a good range of passing. I read the game quite well. I’m someone who shows they want to break things up and start attacks.

“It makes you hungry for more.”

It’s been a season of transition for Sheaf. Apart from playing for Stevenage, the Europa League and the Carabao Cup for the Arsenal first team, he featured in the Premier League 2 for the Gunners much-vaunted U23s as well as the International Cup.

It’s been a good week for his former colleagues as they won through to the International Cup final beating Villarreal on penalties in a tense game at the Emirates.

Sheaf smiles and recalls: “I was checking the game against Villarreal and they got through on pens which was really pleasing.

“I played a few games in the early stages of that tournament so I’m really pleased for the lads.

“I want to see them win the trophy, that would be nice.

“I was in touch with a few of the boys after the game. It was a bit nerve-wracking on penalties but as long as they got through that was all that mattered really.

“I was chatting to Charlie Gilmour {Gilmour also scored the winner against Swansea City U23s on Friday evening which put the young guns top of Premier League 2 with a game to play].

“Charlie scored one of the penalties and I was with him the other night. He said that Villarreal were a decent team, a really experienced team. It was testament to the Arsenal lads we got through as there were a few younger boys out there on the pitch.”

Ever the team man, Sheaf is genuinely pleased for his peers – and pals –on the verge of the first team.

With Arsenal only three games away from lifting the Europa League Sheaf passes his encouragement on.

“It’s really great to see Eddie [Nketiah] and Joe [Willock] play their part too and I wish them all the best”, he says.

“I think we’ve got a massive chance of winning it. Which will be great, not only because it will mean a trophy for the club but also because it means Arsenal will be in the Champions League again next season.

“Of course there are a few decent teams left in the tournament but we have a good chance of winning it but I still think on our day we can beat any of those teams to win the Europa League.”

Fighting talk from the talented youngster. But what is his dream?

“I’m really enjoying my time at Stevenage.

“But I want to go back and play for The Arsenal.”

If talent allied with hard work and determination are anything to go by, the personable Sheaf has a big future ahead of him.

To learn more about the excellent work Stevenage FC do in the community, as well as their highly-accliamed soccer schools visit www.stevenagefc.com

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