Wilshere blends silk with steel
Published 04/12/2010 | 05:00
Flicking the ball up, Jack Wilshere volleys it across a Soho pavement to Kareem Leigh, a homeless teenager with eyes that hint of the sadness he has seen, but a first touch that hints of past promise.
Both have represented England: Wilshere at Wembley, Leigh in the Homeless World Cup. Briefly commandeering a stretch of street for a kickabout, their paths have actually crossed before.
Three years ago, Wilshere was bossing Arsenal U-16s' midfield, while Leigh ran around fruitlessly in West Ham United's attack. "Jack completely controlled the game," recalls Leigh, sitting alongside Wilshere in a Centrepoint hostel a few minutes later. "We lost 10-0. Since then, I've followed Jack's career. He's made a lot of sacrifices.
"I could have made it with that extra effort. Unfortunately, my attitude wasn't right. I got kicked out of my mum's house, got put into a hostel."
He went to Norwich City, to Crystal Palace and eventually Bromley reserves.
Now hoping for a trial at Spurs, Leigh finds fitness in the gym and inspiration from Wilshere, who is donating time and money to the Centrepoint charity.
A small, powerfully-built figure already exuding an aura of a star in the making, the 18-year-old listens intently to Leigh's story.
"It's definitely an eye-opener," the Arsenal midfielder says. "It shows how lucky I am to have good support, good family around me. It's not as easy as just having skill; you have to put the training hours in, make sacrifices.
"When your friends are going out, you have to say no."
Not always. The one blemish has been a scrape outside a nightclub, resulting in a police caution, an experience Wilshere describes as "a shock." He explained to Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, what happened, how he was trying to act as peacemaker. "The main concern was the manager, but he talked to me and trusts me."
Born in Hertfordshire to an Arsenal-supporting mother and West Ham-mad father, Wilshere arrived at Arsenal after a year at Luton Town. "With Liam Brady as my mentor it was always good. He's always helping me, always pushing me, and I was training with players like Thierry Henry when I was 14."
Maturing promisingly, Wilshere was dispatched to Bolton Wanderers last season to give him match experience. "Bolton had a big impact on my career. They've made me more grown up. I'm always texting Paul Robinson, who helped me a lot. So did Kevin Davies and Gary Cahill. They just advised : 'Work hard and your talent will show through'."
He returned, playing in the season's opening-day draw with Liverpool. "I showed I could handle it. The boss has been good, kept his faith in me and kept me in there. The boss is always telling me what I've done -- good or bad. What's good about him is that he's never pleased; if you have a good game he'll still say, 'You can do more'. He said that to Cesc Fabregas, and look at him now."
With players of the calibre of Fabregas and Wilshere, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie, Arsenal should be a consistently potent force.
"Fabregas has won a World Cup. Nasri has probably been the best player in the Premier League this season.
"People say we're good and then rubbish. After we lost to Spurs, fans were saying, 'We're hurt' but sometimes they don't realise we're hurt as well.
"We were shocked. I apologised to fans (via Twitter). I just wanted to say we did care.
"For the next two days at the training ground everyone was down. Cesc gets things going as skipper. Nasri and Van Persie are leaders, trying to get us up.
"I'm quite noisy. Being an English boy, one of the only ones, it's important to get the boys going. I say, 'Come on lads'.
"We all realise Arsenal haven't won something for five years. It's not about patience any more. I've only been around the first team three years and that (wait) feels too long. So I can imagine how Fabregas and Van Persie feel. We're all desperate. The main thing we want to win is the Premier League."
In pursuit of silverware, he trains hard. "I'm working on my right foot, on my shooting. A lot of people say Arsenal never shoot. That's wrong. If we get a chance to shoot, we will."
In pursuit of perfection, he draws on team-mates' advice. "It's really good to talk to Theo (Walcott); his head's screwed on. He says, 'If you have a bad game, that's natural, you're young, don't go and kill yourself about it'."
Wilshere drew particular criticism after a rash, red-card tackle on Birmingham City's Nikola Zigic. "That physical side is important as well as the technical side. Every game you have to be up for it. Maybe I was too up for it against Birmingham. I learned a lesson. There's a line. I don't think it was because I was young. I have always had that in my game."
There is a steel to the silk with Wilshere.
Such qualities led Fabio Capello to give him his debut in the August friendly with Hungary. "I watched the World Cup at home as a fan and obviously I was disappointed. To be involved a couple of months later was a shock. At dinner the first night, I was sitting there with Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney and I was pinching myself.
"They were just normal -- 'You all right? I'm Steven Gerrard'. 'All right! I'm Jack!' When I look back on my life I'll remember that.
"Rooney's another one who is a leader and will talk to you. I remember watching Rooney in training. He's like a kid, just playing football, enjoying it. Even just before the game he was so relaxed. He came up to me and said, 'Are you nervous?' I said, 'A bit'. He said, 'Just enjoy your game'.
"These players are so hungry. If they'd wanted to, they could have just walked away after the criticism they got in the World Cup. Because they're so professional and dedicated and hungry, they want to make it right in the Euros in two years, and maybe in the World Cup in four years if they're still around."
After the disaster in South Africa and at the World Cup bid on Thursday, England need some hope. "There are a lot of good young English players coming through like Danny Welbeck and Jordan Henderson," says Wilshere. "I watched Josh McEachran the other night and he seems a natural footballer.
"Jack Rodwell as well. Andy Carroll's definitely got a big international future. Against France, he was one of our better players."
After Hungary, Wilshere was overlooked by Capello for the Bulgaria game. "I always want to play for my country, so I was disappointed not to be picked again," he said, accepting that U-21 experience remains important.
"There's a big U-21 tournament coming up (next summer's Euros) and I'd love to play in that. It's an honour."
Leigh sits there, dwelling on every word. International recognition came his way at the summer's Homeless World Cup in Brazil.
"When we went out to Holland, my whole world crashed on top of me," he recalls, voicing his determination to be a pro.
"I don't want to be kicking myself the rest of my life, working nine to five in Morrisons, thinking I could've made a career out of football. Jack's such a big inspiration." (© Daily Telegraph, London)