Wilshere hits the big time

WHEN the fourth official held up Robin van Persie s shirt number in the 81st minute against Blackburn on September 13 this year, he was just the messenger in a moment of Arsenal history. For alongside van Persie s number 11 on that electronic scoreboard w

WHEN the fourth official held up Robin van Persie's shirt number in the 81st minute against Blackburn on September 13 this year, he was just the messenger in a moment of Arsenal history.

For alongside van Persie's number 11 on that electronic scoreboard was glowing the number 19 of 16-year-old Jack Wilshere, who was about to make his debut as Arsenal's youngest ever league player.

The midfielder was aged just 16 years and 256 days when he stepped on to the pitch with his team 3-0 up at Ewood Park and in doing so broke Gerry Ward's 55-year-old record by 65 days.

Although not the youngest player ever to represent the Gunners - that record is held by Cesc Fabregas who debuted in the Carling Cup aged 16 years and 177 days - Wilshere is the youngest player to represent the club in the league and his early performances have been every bit as scintillating as the Spaniard's.


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Ten days after his debut he scored his first goal for the club in a League Cup tie against Sheffield United and his stunning performance against Wigan Athletic last Tuesday in the same competition had pundits running out of superlatives to describe his talent.

There are even rumblings that the youngster, who signed for the Gunners on October 1, 2001 aged just nine and doesn't celebrate his 17th birthday until January 1, could make England's 2010 World Cup Squad when he'll be 18-years-old.

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It has been a rapid rise for Wilshere who, despite what Arsenal's website and some national newspapers may say, is not from Stevenage.

He was born and bred in Hitchin, and it is something his old school The Priory is extremely proud of.

Head of PE Dan Nearney, pictured below, taught Wilshere between years seven and 10 and has nothing but praise for England's 'new big thing'.

"He was dynamite. As soon as he came to the school he blew us all away with his ability. He was different class.

"He had it all, and from such a young age. He was well built, physically, and that's held him in good stead during his time at Arsenal and has helped him fit easily into the first team set up.

"While he was in year ten at the Priory he was part time and was doing two days a week at Arsenal and they kept us informed of his progress and we let them know how he was doing here.

"He never missed a match and Arsenal never put any pressure on us to not play him because he really enjoyed playing.

"He was so good that when he came back he would even help train some of the other lads in the team.

"When you're born with such a gift he has got it's great for other boys to play alongside him and improve, and he was such a nice lad that he was happy to help."

Playing for the Priory's under-14 team, Jack helped the team lift the county and district cups and the team also made it to the last eight of a national tournament.

"He was a huge part of that," Mr Nearney, who has been at the school for seven years, continued, "but because of how good he was other players were able to step up a gear and they all played as equals.

"In the national tournament there were scouts from so many clubs watching him, and all of the other boys were excited too because it gave them a chances to show off what they could do.

"A couple of other players got spotted too. Jake Argent-Martin got picked up, and the goalie from the tournament went on to sign for West Ham but has since been released, so it benefited all of the players. And he was so calm about it all."

Jack left the Priory in July 2007 but has often returned to his old stomping ground to catch up with his former teammates.

"Even when he left in year 10 he came back for his friends' matches when they were in year 11 and he never lost contact with them. That shows the maturity that he's obviously got and something which Arsenal are nurturing wonderfully well.

"It also helps that his dad Andy saw his time at the school just as important as his time at Arsenal, and he's proud of his Hitchin routes."

Mr Nearney, who is actually a Tottenham Hotspur fan, said he often trades light-hearted banter with the former Priory pupil about their teams' results and he has seen more Arsenal games this season than he has his own team.

"I watch the Gunners all the time now, but that's because of him. I think I'm turning into a closet Arsenal fan.

"Every time he plays on television I get so many text messages because people in Hitchin are so excited by what he's achieved already, and he's such a nice lad as well. That comes from his level-headed parents and Arsenal, who between them have done a fabulous job."

The Priory expects another visit from the young superstar-in-the-making within the next few weeks.

While he is back in Hitchin they are hoping to get a signed Jack Wilshere Arsenal shirt for a new hall of fame they are planning, but the school hopes the young Gunner won't be the only starlet contributing items over the next few years.

"We have Ryan Webb who is a striker in year 11 and has just been signed by Norwich. He's come on leaps and bounds.

"And in the year before Jack there was Callum Reynolds who is now at Portsmouth, so we've had a few really good players coming through the ranks.

"But it's important to say that it's never just been about the individuals, it's always been about the team."

That's something both Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger would approve of.

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