Meet the leader of Arsenal and England’s next generation
Striker Benik Afobe, 17, is the latest teenage sensation to rise through the ranks at the Emirates
NOT content with the rapid rise of Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs to senior England status, it seems Arsenal have another Young Gun on their hands making an impact on the international scene.
Benik Afobe, a 17-year-old who has broken into the Gunners’ reserve team this season, hit a hat-trick for England Under-19s in their 4-0 win over Cyprus on Sunday.
The Under-19s are in Belgium where Sunday’s win, coming hard on the heels of a 6-1 win over Albania on Friday, has seem them qualify for the ‘Elite round’ of qualifiers for the 2011 European Championship finals in Romania.
Given that many of the side are currently 17 or 18 years old, they are players who could well be pushing for a place in the senior side in the 2018 World Cup that, the Football Association hopes, will be hosted in England.
For Afobe, Sunday was the latest scoring feat in a prolific youth career for the player who grew up in east London and has been with the Gunners at their Hale End Academy since the age of six.
Three years ago, he scored a record 40 goals for Arsenal’s all-conquering Under-16s side in the Premier Academy League, all the more remarkable given that he was just 14 for most of that 2007-08 season.
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The following year he moved up to the Under-18s and scored 12 times in just 10 starts. Then last season, as a regular for the Under-18s he scored 20 in 24 Premier Academy games.
Last season culminated in him going to the Under-17 European Championship in Liechtenstein in May, where England won their first tournament at any age-group level since 1993, beating Spain 2-1 in the final.
His scoring record for England is also hugely impressive: four goals in three games for the Under-16s to win the 2008 Victory Shield, and 11 in 23 games for Under-17s, and now four goals in his first three games for the Under-19s.
Amazingly, Afobe is not even a first-choice for the side managed by former Portsmouth and Stoke defender Noel Blake, with Ipswich Town’s hot property Conor Wickham the preferred choice to lead the line.
Other stars of the side are Jonjo Shelvey, who Liverpool signed for �1.7m from Charlton Athletic, and John Bostock, whose moved to Tottenham from Crystal Palace for �700,000 and is now on loan at Hull.
Afobe has always been at Arsenal though, despite being born in Leyton to Congolese parents and playing much of his schoolboy football in Dagenham.
Arsenal’s scouts spotted his potential at an early age and, with Barcelona believed to have been among those monitoring his progress, offered him a professional deal just after his 17th birthday back in February.
He has already scored twice in four games for the Reserves this season, and the next step now for Afobe is the first team.
The Carling Cup fourth round game at Newcastle in two weeks’ time could certainly see Afobe named in the 18-strong matchday squad.
“We are short on the striker front when you have two strikers out,” admitted Wenger before the last round at Spurs. “But [Carlos] Vela is in good shape and we have Jay Emmanuel Thomas who has made some big improvements, we have Benik Afobe, a young player who can play striker and has shown big quality, so we still have some reserves.”
After his display in Belgium at the weekend, Afobe has shown he is hungry for goals and is already fostering a reputation for being a clinical finisher, the type of player Arsenal are often accused of lacking.
Next season’s Carling Cup after a loan spell may be more realistic, but don’t be too surprised if the name Afobe appears on the teamsheet at St James’ Park on October 27.