Where are they now? Arsenal’s U21 team in Jack Wilshere’s last game
In the late 2000s, Jack Wilshere was emerging as one of Arsenal’s biggest talents in years, and he wasn’t the only player in the academy that looked destined for big things.
A number of other hot prospects were on the pitch with him during the U21s match between the North London club and Aston Villa in November of 2009.
Here’s what they all went on to do…
Note: Strictly speaking, this wasn’t Wilshere’s final appearance for Arsenal’s Under-21s. He made a series of appearances for the youth set-up as he looked to regain fitness in his mid-20s. We’re counting this one as his final U21s match as a youth prospect, despite it coming after his senior debut.
GK: Lukasz Fabianski
At the time of this match, Fabianski was the senior side’s backup goalkeeper, and he couldn’t establish himself as Arsene Wenger’s first-choice during his time at the club. Since leaving North London in 2014 though, he’s done well for himself.
He spent four years between the sticks at Swansea and impressed at that time, being named the 2017-18 Player of the Season.
West Ham took note of his performances, signing him for £7m shortly afterwards, and he’s been their number-one keeper ever since.
RB: Kerrea Gilbert
Gilbert spent the first few years of his career going around the lower leagues of English football, being sent on loan to Cardiff, Southend, Leicester and Peterborough between 2005 and 2010.
He fancied a change of scenery after that and agreed to join MLS side Portland Timbers, but visa issues prevented him from crossing the pond.
Instead, he joined Veovil for a season before spending short spells at Shamrock Rovers, Maidenhead United and St Albans.
The defender left the latter club in 2014 at the age of 27 and hasn’t played competitively since.
CB: Kyle Bartley
Bartley looked set to become a permanent member of Arsenal’s senior squad when he made his debut in a Champions League match this same year, but Wenger never really took a liking to him, sending him out on loan to Sheffield United and Rangers.
After the latter of those spells ended in 2012, the defender signed for Swansea, but after just a year in Wales, he was shipped on loan by them too, first to Birmingham and then to Leeds.
In 2018, he finally found a club that wanted to keep him around long-term when he signed for West Brom. He still plays for the side today and has made 153 appearances, including 30 in their 2020-21 Premier League campaign.
CB: Craig Eastmond
Eastmond made his senior debut a month before this game against Liverpool in the League Cup and impressed, setting up a goal. He went on to play in four league matches that season too, starting one of them, but never played another Premier League game beyond that.
After short loan spells at Millwall and Wycombe in 2011 and 2012, he spent three years at Colchester before signing for Sutton United in 2015, where he’s remained ever since.
He’s become something of a legend at the club, making 311 appearances and being named Player of the Year in the season – 2020-21 – that he led them back to the Football League as captain. He’s remained an important player in their two League Two campaigns.
LB: Thomas Cruise
Unlike his namesake, Cruise never became a Top Gun in his field.
After making his first and only senior appearance in a dead-rubber Champions League game against Olympiakos in 2009, he barely during a season on loan at Carlisle before signing for Torquay.
The left-back made 64 appearances across three years before being released and he didn’t fancy continuing his footballing career after that, training as an accountant instead.
So, if you need help with your taxes, give him a call.
CM: Fran Merida
There was a lot of excitement around Merida in 2009, with him being dubbed the gem of Arsenal’s academy along with Wilshere, but the Spaniard never really lived up to the hype.
It looked like he would when he scored a wondergoal against Liverpool a month before this game, but unhappy with the lack of first-team opportunities Wenger had given him in his three years at the club, the Spaniard left for Atletico Madrid at the end of the season.
He was given the playing time he wanted in his first season there but a change of manager brought that run to an end with Diego Simeone not taking a liking to him.
The midfielder ended up spending a decade bouncing between the first and second tiers of Spanish football before signing for Chinese side Tianjin Jinmen Tiger in 2022.
He’ll always have that goal against Liverpool, but he could have been so much more.
READ: Fran Merida at Arsenal: High hopes, one wondergoal & a very long road back
CM: Francis Coquelin (Emmanuel Frimpong, ’65)
While the story of Merida is one of wasted potential, Coquelin’s is quite the opposite. The Frenchman was never the most exciting player, but has managed a hugely successful career at the highest level.
Few would have predicted that would be the case in 2014 when he was loaned out to Charlton following spells at Lorient and Freiburg.
However, an injury crisis saw Wenger recall him and, to the surprise of pretty much everyone, he impressed and quickly established himself as an important player, forming an excellent partnership with Santi Cazorla in midfield as the club ended its trophy drought with an FA Cup triumph.
The Frenchman enjoyed another successful season after that before falling out of favour and heading to Spain where he’s remained ever since, being a first-team regular for Valencia and Villareal.
Frimpong left Arsenal in 2014, after numerous loan spells away from the Emirates, and retired five years later following a litany of injury worries. His last club was Ermis Aradippou in Cyprus.
CM: Jack Wilshere (Mark Randall, ’65)
Randall departed in 2011 after just two first-team appearances for Arsenal and has enjoyed a nomadic career since. He’s currently playing in Northern Ireland for Larne.
After finishing this season with a successful loan spell at Bolton, Wilshere returned to establish himself as one of the world’s biggest talents in 2010-11, with his stunning performance against Barcelona that season being one we still think about every day.
Injuries prevented him from ever fulfilling his enormous potential after that though and he retired last year after disappointing spells at Bournemouth, West Ham and Danish side Aarhus. ‘Tis a cruel game.
READ: A forensic analysis of Jack Wilshere’s stunning 2011 CL display v Barcelona
FW: Sanchez Watt
This season started in dream fashion for Watt, with the forward scoring on his senior debut against West Brom in the League Cup. He wasn’t able to hugely impress during any of the five loan spells that followed and so left in 2013 having never played a Premier League game.
Instead, he spent the remainder of his career in the lower leagues of English football with the exception of the 2015-16 campaign, during which he plied his trade for Indian side Kerala Blasters.
FW: Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Benik Afobe, ’84)
Emmanuel-Thomas has had a somewhat similar career to Watt, with it consisting of multiple seasons in the Football League and a spell in India.
His best years came at Bristol City, where he got 33 goals in 103 games, and he’s also been a first-team regular at Ipswich and Gillingham.
Given the above, you probably wouldn’t expect many people to know him in Asia but that’s not the case with him playing in Thailand for PTT Rayong in 2019 and currently at Indian side Jamshedpur.
Afobe didn’t make the grade at Arsenal, but spent the majority of the 2010s as a Football League stalwart. He left Millwall last summer to join Hatta of the United Arab Emirates.
FW: Gilles Sunu
Sunu was one of the stand-out players in this youth team, getting four goals in the first nine games of the season. That form convinced Derby to sign him on loan at the start of 2010 and he did decently there, getting one goal in nine games before moving to Ligue 1 club Lorient for the following campaign.
He’d go on to spend five years there, making 86 appearances, before joining league rivals Angers and playing 85 times from 2015 to 2018.
After that, he spent a season at Turkish side BB Erzurumspor and today plays for third-division French club Chateauroux.
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