Eddie Nketiah: 'Seeing my parents' happiness and the pride on their faces was special'
Eddie Nketiah has followed in Ian Wright's footsteps by going from playing on Hilly Fields in Lewisham to leading the line for Arsenal and earning a senior England call-up
Eddie Nketiah’s footballing journey mirrors that of one of English football’s most iconic strikers, Ian Wright, and the Arsenal star has already made notes on his phone ahead of having the chance to learn from another after receiving his first senior Three Lions call-up.
Last week Nketiah became the latest to emerge from south London’s footballing hotbed and secure a senior England call-up, with the parallels between his rise and that of one of the area’s most famous sons are uncanny.
Nketiah’s footballing journey started with kicking footballs in the front room of his Deptford home before honing his skills on the street, using jumpers or the space between two cars as goalposts.
The famous south London cages were to follow and the striker’s talent had already seen him picked for the Lewisham district side before he even joined a grassroots team.
At the age of eight, Nketiah’s mum decided it was time he should join a grassroots team and he made the short journey south to Brockley and Hillyfielders FC, named as such because of playing on Hilly Fields, where Wright would regularly find the net as a kid 40 years earlier.
Arrivals | First call-ups for Nketiah and Colwill
The boys are back! James Maddison arrives in style and Marc Guéhi & Marcus Rashford's tiny shinpads!
Wright, who scored nine goals in 33 appearances for England, once stated he never lost a game on Hilly Fields and would make the short journey from the nearby Honor Park Estate, where Hillyfielders now call home.
As a kid, Wright grew up playing with fellow Arsenal legend and Honor Park Estate resident David Rocastle, before going on to represent the Gunners together.
For Nketiah, his footballing skills were honed alongside Watford’s Jeremy Ngakia, who lived across the road and is ‘like a brother to me’, before going on to share a pitch together in the Premier League when the defender was at West Ham United.
Whilst Nketiah’s journey to the Premier League was maybe smoother than Wright’s, following a five-year spell at Chelsea between the ages of nine and 14 before linking up with Arsenal, the strikers have both inspired the kids of south London by going from playing on Hilly Fields in Lewisham to leading the line for the Gunners and earning senior England call-ups.
“Obviously growing up where we came from to then make it to Arsenal, not a lot of people are able to say they've done that, so it is a nice feeling and I think that kind of brought us a bit closer,” Nketiah said.
They would ultimately meet a few years back and when Nketiah joined Leeds United on loan in 2019, the pair would speak often, with Wright sometimes going to watch the striker, and they have remained in contact since.
“Ian has given me a lot of advice over the years. There have been other guys as well, obviously Thierry [Henry] and a lot of ex-pros who are in and around the training ground,” Nketiah said.
“I try to pick up as much as I can from anyone and players and strikers of Ian’s calibre, who have had careers like that, it is always nice to speak to, learn from and bounce ideas off.
“He’s been supportive, and I'm grateful for all the ex-pros who have been in touch. They have helped me and allowed me to continue taking steps in my career."
Nketiah is now looking forward to spending the next week alongside another of the Premier League’s great goalscorers, England’s Harry Kane.
With tongue firmly in his cheek, the 24-year-old joked it will be easier to learn from Kane now the Three Lions’ record goalscorer has left Arsenal’s rivals Tottenham Hotspur and joined Bayern Munich.
Nketiah, who is England Under-21s’ record goalscorer, said: “It's been really good so far. Obviously, he's a world-class striker, and today was my first session so I'm sure I'll be in his ear all week getting tips and learning.
“It's another great opportunity to come away, learn, and improve yourself. See what other top strikers do and how they prepare for games.
“I'm really looking forward to the week. He's a great player, and hopefully, we can do well and help the team this week.”
When asked if he had any questions prepared for Kane, Nketiah replied: “I might have a few notes in my phone, so let's see.
“Obviously, it's just good to be here. And it is not just Harry, there are loads of great attacking players [in the England camp]. Naturally, just being able to be around them and see what they do, what little things they do differently, and where I can steal a few things, is beneficial."
The timing appeared to be on Nketiah’s side when the striker discovered he had been called up to the England senior team for the first time, as the text arrived when he was at home with his family and a friend during a day off.
“When I got the text, it was surreal,” Nketiah said.
“I'm usually a calm guy, but I did lose a bit of composure for a second. It was an amazing moment.
“All my family were really emotional. It has been a long journey, and I've worked really hard to get to this point so it's nice to receive that recognition."
He continued: “I can't remember what I exactly said. I don't think I said much. I was just looking at my phone, just checking every detail to make sure it was correct.
“It was really nice. My parents were really emotional because they sacrificed a lot for me to get here. Seeing their happiness and the pride on their faces was special. It was a special moment to be able to share with them."
Find grassroots football near you