Eddie Nketiah: My journey from the cages of Lewisham to the England squad
Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah grew up playing with the likes of Jeremy Ngakia, Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson in Lewisham and explains why it is important he continues to support his first grassroots football club, Hillyfielders FC
I actually used to dream about this! I literally used to dream about one day having the chance to play for England.
Growing up in Deptford, south east London, whenever we could get a moment, we would be kicking a ball. Whether it was just kicking a ball at the TV or the doors in our houses, on the street between two cars or two jumpers, or playing in the local cages with my mates, football was our life.
I didn’t start playing for a grassroots team until I was around eight years old though when my mum signed me up for a local club, Hillyfielders FC.
Playing for Hillyfielders was a really special moment. At that age, it was about just going to a place that was close and comfortable, as it would only take me about 15 minutes to get there as they played in Brockley, but I’m very grateful for my time there.
It's important as a kid to play in an environment where you feel good and comfortable, so you can fully express yourself.
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Although at the beginning, the coach would get annoyed with me! I’m from a religious family so we would go to church every Sunday and it wouldn’t finish until 11.30am. With kick-off at 12pm, I'd have to rush straight from church to the game and get changed five minutes before kick-off, which the coach wasn’t too happy about. But I’d like to think I made up for it on the field!
My faith means everything to me. It’s like the foundation of everything I do. It helps keep me grounded, have that level mentality and deal with life's ups and downs, knowing that if you trust in God's plan, things will work out. It’s like my journey to where I am now, with England, where I’ve had to be patient and now I’m reaping the rewards.
I was with Hillyfielders for one season before I was scouted by Charlton and Chelsea, who I signed with at the end of the under-9s season when I was nine.
My time at Hillyfielders may have been brief but it was an important and memorable time for me.
I’m still in touch with Hillyfielders now and try to do things like provide them with kit, send messages of encouragement ahead of big games and go down there when I can to show them some love and support.
Along with my sponsors, we’re trying to give back as much as we can by providing better opportunities for the kids growing up in the area we grew up in so they can hopefully create a career for themselves in whatever area they want, as it might not always be football.
Hillyfielders did so much for me. I’m always in touch and they know they can always reach out, so hopefully over the next year we'll be able to set up some nice initiatives to give back and support the community.
As a kid, it is important to have someone whose journey you can relate to so you know that it is not impossible to do the same. I am the same as them. I'm no different. I didn’t have anything overly special. I worked hard to get to where I am and through faith and hard work, I made it here. An England international. So I am sure they can do it too.
It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I learned that Arsenal legends Ian Wright and David Rocastle both used to play on the same pitches I did as a kid!
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 brought me and Ian a bit closer as I got older.
Ian has given me a lot of advice over the years and he used to come and watch some of my games when I was out on loan at Leeds United and things like that.
There have been other guys as well, obviously Thierry Henry and a lot of ex-pros who are in and around the training ground at Arsenal.
I try to pick up as much as I can from anyone I can, 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.
I also played for the Lewisham district team growing up and I was fortunate enough to win the London Youth Games for Lewisham when I was 13.
Many of those players have gone on to have good careers, playing in the Championship or League One. That Lewisham team included players like Jadon Brown (Lincoln City), Jeremy Ngakia (Watford), Lewis White (Welling United, formerly Millwall) and other good players from the area.
Other boroughs had great players too, like Reiss Nelson and Jadon Sancho played for Southwark, so competing against such talent was incredible, and winning the Youth Games felt amazing.
Jeremy is one of my closest friends as he lived opposite me on the same street! We spent a lot of time at each other's houses and we were like brothers growing up.
I remember the first time we played against each other in the Premier League. He was at West Ham and I was at Arsenal, it was surreal. I have that shirt and a picture framed.
Growing up in Deptford, not many players had played in the Premier League or done that journey so for us to do that was an amazing feeling and I am so proud of him.
The quality of football in our area was so high growing up! You think of all the players who are playing at the highest levels who have grown up in those environments. Even the players who didn’t make it as professionals were so full of pride and wanted to show they could compete with you.
It was nice having people who were around you that you cared about and who were on the same journey as you, so you could relate to them and open up to them.
I would play a lot at the Blue Cage in Deptford near Dolphin Tower every day and Catford pits was another go-to for us, where the players from across the Lewisham borough would meet maybe twice a week.
Some of my most enjoyable memories in football were from those cages with my friends.
Players like Jeremy, Reiss Nelson, Jadon Sancho and Josh Koroma, who's now at Huddersfield, I would play with them all the time and they were players who had a buzz around them growing up.
I think playing in places like the cages and the pits helps you improve your one-on-one ability so you're able to go past players and be creative.
You learn fearlessness in the cages and develop that grit and determination, and that perseverance.
It is a really prideful and strong environment. There are no real fouls and stuff, so you end up having that natural strength.
The main thing you can see about players that grew up in that environment though is they're fearless and they have that ability to try things and just do things off the cuff; that natural 'wow' factor because you need that in the cage; that's what everyone looks for and everyone loves to see.
When I think about it properly, it is surreal to be sitting here now, in the England camp.
When I was kicking footballs against the doors in my house and playing in the cages, I would dream of being called up by the senior England team and having the chance to maybe make my debut.
Moments like these, I try not to get too lost in the moment so I can appreciate it and recognise it is a landmark in my journey; I have achieved something great and I know this will inspire me to push on and achieve even more.
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