Carlin Itonga: Arsenal released me twice, but I just kept going to training
When looking at the names of players who featured during Arsene Wenger’s 22-year reign at Arsenal, Carlin Itonga is one that stands out as something of a curious case.
Itonga, a forward who had been on the books of Arsenal from the age of 10, made just one first-team outing. In November 2001, he came off the bench against Manchester United in a 4-0 League Cup win.
This came off the back of a number of impressive years in the junior ranks. During the 2000-01 season, Itonga hit seven goals in a single game for the Under-19 side against Ipswich Town. As well as his fine form in the academy league, he was a key figure in the FA Youth Cup triumph that season.
After leaving Arsenal, there is little record of Itonga. He has largely slipped off the footballing radar. So I caught up with him to talk about his time at the club and what happened next.
“It was a dream come true,” Itonga says of making his Highbury debut against Manchester United. “I was released by Arsenal twice. But I kept on turning up for training!
“From the centre of excellence, I didn’t get picked. I just kept coming back for training. It wasn’t just me, Rohan Ricketts as well, and my cousin Cedric. The only one they picked was Jermaine Brown.
“We carried on playing Sunday football in south London and there was interest from clubs like Wimbledon, Charlton and Millwall, but we just thought Arsenal was too big. We just wanted to keep coming back. And after, we started improving and we all eventually got a scholarship with Jermaine.”
Following years of persistence just to earn a chance with the club’s youth sides, was the first-team call in 2001 expected or something of a shock?
“I wasn’t surprised because I always believed in my own ability,” he says. “I was kind of frustrated that it took so long for them to recognise that I deserved a chance.”
He does, however, acknowledge that circumstance helped play a part in his elevation to the first-team bench that night.
“Graham Barrett, who was in front of me, had been sent out on loan. Franny Jeffers was injured and Jeremie Aliadiere was away with the national team. So I felt something might happen. Eddie (Neidzwiecki), the reserve coach, came to me and told me, ‘The gaffer says be ready, you’re in the squad tomorrow.’”
Itonga came on for the final four minutes of the tie as a replacement for Gilles Grimandi. The game was already well won by this stage but, for the youngster who had fled to the UK in 1991 from DR Congo, it was the culmination of years of hard work and the achieving of a lifelong goal.
But it proved to be his only first-team opportunity, and the lack of chances at Arsenal became increasingly frustrating.
“Along the way there, I was breaking records (in the youth team) but it never seemed to get mentioned. I think I was underrated a bit, people who were in front of me were nowhere near as good as me but they were pushed on.”
He describes a loan spell at Sheffield Wednesday in 2002 “like a trial”, and he returned to Arsenal without playing for the Owls. “It was one of the biggest mistakes. I didn’t want to leave Arsenal,” he says.
Upon his return to north London, he realised that his future would most likely be elsewhere. He later travelled to Middlesbrough on the assumption that a move was on the cards.
“Middlesbrough came in and I went there but Arsenal wanted £500,000. I thought I was going there on loan at first, I don’t know what happened there really.”
With no transfer agreement reached between the clubs, the move never materialised and Itonga reached the end of his contract in 2002.
“When I left Arsenal, I wasn’t released, I just left.”
With a desire to play regular senior football, Itonga looked for a move to the Football League and ultimately joined Oxford United, albeit in unusual circumstances.
The move came about just after the ITV Digital collapse, which then-Oxford manager Ian Atkins cited as the reason the club could not immediately sign Itonga on permanent terms. Instead, he was offered a deal on a non-contract basis and the chance to build up match fitness in their reserve side.
“It was just another mistake, really. I picked the wrong clubs.”
Next came what Itonga describes as a “culture shock” in the form of a short spell back in north London with non-league Enfield: “It was like coming back to Sunday league football.” Still determined to establish himself in the Football League, he jumped at the chance to go on trial with Exeter City.
“It was the time when they were talking about a takeover with Michael Jackson involved but it never went through. I scored four in the trial game but they turned back after it and said, ‘We have no money.’
“It was a guy called Neil McNab who was in charge at the time. The reason I’d gone down to Exeter was because I’d been told Graham Rix was going to be given the job there. With his Arsenal connections, with Don Howe and everything, he knew me and I thought I’d fit in well.
“But he was overlooked and they gave the job to McNab. They ended up getting relegated and that was it.”
A groin injury that dogged Itonga throughout his career flared up once more and stunted his progress in the rest of the 2002-03 season. He was signed by Conference side Kettering Town and featured in their final two matches of the campaign. However, the Poppies had already suffered relegation and a suitable deal for the following season couldn’t be reached.
He briefly “found love for the game again” at Cambridge City, where he formed a fruitful strike partnership with future Coventry and Hull forward Robbie Simpson, but injury once again curtailed his progress. After joining local south London outfit Fisher Athletic, Itonga’s senior career came to an early end.
Calling it a day
Playing in the seventh tier of English football and still struggling with injuries, the breaking point came in a match in which he was substituted instead of a team-mate he had known from his youth football days. With the side down to 10 men, the manager had chosen to take one of his forwards off, picking Itonga.
“I just thought, that’s it, I’m off. I’m done with the game. If I’m being substituted for Fisher Athletic instead of someone I know I’m better than, it’s not for me anymore.”
After taking some time to consider his future and being informed by specialists that the groin problem he had would need an eight-month break, Itonga decided to walk away from football at the age of just 24, little more than two years after his Arsenal debut.
Wanting to make a fresh start, Itonga returned to his home country for only the second time since leaving due to the volatile political situation in the early 1990s.
“Since I left football, I went back home. I just fell in love with the country. So for me to keep myself calm and stay out of the limelight, I thought I’d come back home and live for a few years and see how things will work out for me. I went and did a few bits at some academies, talking about football. Since then, I’ve been back and forth and mostly now I’m now based in Camberwell.”
From speaking to Itonga, it seems that he is in a positive frame of mind these days and has enjoyed the opportunities of moving between the country of his birth and the place he has called home most of his life. But he admits that there have been some dark moments since his time in the game came to an end.
“It’s been hard. There’s been some depression there. All my life was about football. When that ends, trust me, if you’re not strong, it can destroy you.”
Itonga’s tale is a cautionary one for young players looking to make their way in the game. Had things worked out better at various checkpoints in his short career, his story may have been totally different.
“I walked away from the game quietly, this is the first time I’ve spoken to anyone since, but I wanted to just get a few things cleared.”
By Iain Dalziel