Throughout the season, we’ll be catching up with our young Gunners to find out more about their route to our academy. This week, it’s Omari Benjamin who chats about how he has progressed through the ranks, the step-up to under-18s level and his hat-trick against Tottenham earlier in the season.
I’ve loved football since I was very young – I remember kicking whatever was around the house. My dad was very much into football so growing up I would watch it with him on TV, and we watched a lot of the Arsenal games together.
As most young kids do, I started to play football outside in my local area and one of the dads coached a football team called Everett Rovers in Watford. He took me down there and I eventually signed with them at the age of six. A couple of years later I joined London Colney Colts. I played for them every week until around 12 years old and eventually, I started to get invited to trials with some professional teams.
Funnily enough, while I was there Seb Ferdinand and Alexei Rojas were also part of the squad, and it was cool to see that we all signed for Arsenal at around the same time. While at London Colney Colts, Arsenal scouts regularly attended our games and they would talk to us and give us advice on what we could do to improve our game. After these conversations, I worked on what they told me and used it during games.
Eventually, this paid off and I was invited to play in a trial match at Hale End. In that game I scored two goals – one of them from the halfway line with my weaker foot. You can imagine how excited I was after that! After that game my trial was extended by six weeks.
I was a bit nervous because I never got to train with any of the team before my first game for Arsenal. My first time meeting the lads was on the day of the game where we faced West Brom at Hale End. Despite this, I fitted in straight away and scored a hat-trick. I was so happy and the boys were equally as happy for me – what a perfect way to start my trial!
Shortly after that I officially signed for Arsenal, which was a great feeling, but this was where the real work began because I wanted to make sure that I stayed here and progressed. I couldn’t wait to start and when I first arrived at Hale End as an Arsenal player, it was how I envisaged it: a friendly and comforting environment. The coaches and players were super kind to me and I always felt like they had my best interests at heart.
“I love scoring goals – it’s an art that I’ve had since I was young and that has never left me”
One of the highlights during my time at Hale End was when I played for the under-16 team despite only being 14. It was a challenge but I played well in the game, and that’s something I’m going to have to get used to if I want to succeed at the club.
The transition from Hale End to London Colney as an under-18 has been an enjoyable ride but a pulling one, too. The main difference is that we train every day at London Colney, whereas at Hale End we only trained in the evenings twice a week. It’s beneficial in the sense that it enables us to prepare for what life is like as a professional footballer. Although it can be very intense, I love it, I’m living my dream, and I love waking up to go and play football. Plus if I want to make it to the top, the grinding has to be done.
One of my favorite days at the club was scoring a hat-trick in the north London derby against Tottenham this season! Everyone was so pumped before the game, you could tell from our warm-up that we were very focused, and given that Jack Wilshere understands the rivalry he made sure we were ready for the battle. We also received a message from Cesc Fabregas, who emphasized the importance of the fixture.
We all wanted to win so badly and to contribute by scoring three goals was a personal highlight of mine. It happened so fast because all my goals were in the first half but it was brilliant. I’ve watched it back a few times, to say the least!
The first-team has been great with us and they talk to us often. For example, when I was in the ice bath once, Bukayo Saka took the time to speak to me, and when I scored my hat-trick against Tottenham he reposted the goal on his story and tagged me, which was cool. When I see the Hale End graduates like Bukayo, Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith Rowe, their journeys are so inspiring and it encourages me to believe that I can follow a similar path to them by playing in the first-team regularly.
I’ve got a very mixed family background. I currently play for Wales under-18s as my dad was born there and moved to London when he was a teenager, but I also qualify for Barbados and Jamaica through my grandparents, as well as England. Given that I’m a forward, my playing style is attacking, but I do like to entertain the audience by beating players with skill. I love scoring goals – it’s an art that I’ve had since I was young and that has never left me.
There are some parts to my game I’d like to improve, such as linking play and dropping in the No. 10 role. Through working with Jack, I know my game will improve massively as he is a great coach and you can trust what he’s saying because he’s played at the highest level for Arsenal and England. Sometimes he joins in with our training games and that’s always fun.
My target for this season is to keep training hard to break into the under-21 squad and score some goals in Premier League 2. Through doing this I hope to develop my game and eventually train with the first -team for a session or two.
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