Buidling Dreams Together


Three forgotten Hale End wonderkids from the last decade

Arsenal’s academy, familiarly called Hale End, has produced great amount of young talent ready for professional football over the years. Especially, after Arséne Wenger’s arrival to the north London in 1996. The Frenchman has always been recognised for giving chances to youth team players. He is the author of now legendary quote: “We do not buy superstars, we make them.”

For Wenger, it was not always about attributes or skills certain player had but also respect and humility of each talented individual. Speaking to the BT Sport, Wenger outlined Arsenal’s three-steps pyramid of choosing a player from their academy.

Arséne Wenger with Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson during Arsenal first team training.

“Let’s not forget what it is about in the academy. First is recruitment, number two is quality of education, and moment of integration into the first team comes third,” said Wenger to zoom in the process of development in one of the most successful academies in England. “Final and the most difficult part these days goes through me. In the end, I will decide whether player has a chance, or he might not make it,” former Arsenal coach added.

Likes of Jack Wilshere, Héctor Bellerin , or current Arsenal’s attacking duo Bukayo Saka & Emile Smith Rowe established themselves in the Arsenal’s first team, however, not everyone can share the same achievement in their footballing CV.

Héctor Bellerin and Serge Gnabry.

Even though, some former academy members didn’t make it at Arsenal, they fulfilled their potential and are now playing for biggest European clubs. Donyell Malen, Ismaël Bennacer, Yunus Musah, or Serge Gnabry belong to group of players who left Arsenal at the young age and launched their careers elsewhere which is paying off now as Malen is at Borussia Dortmund, Musah joined Serie A winner Bennacer at AC Milan last summer from Valencia CF and Gnabry became treble winner and multiple Bundesliga champion at FC Bayern Munich.

This is a list of three wonderkids that came through Hale End predestined for success at Arsenal or other top clubs but due to unforeseen factors such as injuries or lack of game time they could not cement their place at Arsenal, hence, they went to seek different opportunities.

Gedion Zelalem

Gedion Zelalem during Arsenal U21 game.

Born in Berlin in the Ethiopian household, Zelalem’s first kicks started in Hertha Berlin’s academy, however, he moved to United States with his father at the age of nine after his mother had passed away year before. Thanks to his talent at such a young age Zelalem convinced Arsenal scouts and made a permanent move to London.

Clearly, his potential was enormous since he lightly progressed through youth categories playing for U21s at only 16. In July that year he participated at Arsenal’s Asian tour which brought more popularity on his name. Wenger described him as “player with a good eye and technique who is agile,” according to Sports Illustrated.

Zelalem left a good impression as his debut for Arsenal occurred in FA Cup against Coventry in 2013/14 season at the age of 16. He became the first player after Wenger took charge in 1996 to play for Arsenal competitively which he defined as “surreal.”  Season later,  he made his Champions League debut at only 17 when he came on as a second half substitution against Galatasaray.

Perfect start for a teenager whose international career was still uncertain. In 2015, due to his few years spell in the USA he gained U.S citizenship and appeared in U20 World Cup despite being just 18. Performances in the World Cup secured him a season-long loan at Rangers where he made 21 appearances to get used to more physicality and aggressivity in men’s football.

Year after, he went on a second loan to VVV Venlo to improve his attacking game. Zelalem was a star in making until 2017 U20 World Cup happened. In the opening group stage game against Ecuador, he tore his ACL after 34 minutes that left him out of the game for several months. Unfortunately, a specialist advised him to undergo another surgery which kept him on the sidelines for more than year and a half.

In March 2019, with just a few months running on his contract at Arsenal, he decided to leave and restart his career at Sporting KC in MLS. Hoping to rebuild his career at home in the United States, Zelalem’s chapter at Kansas did not last long when club chose not to renew his contract after he played only nine games in 2019 campaign.

Zelalem then managed to stay in the U.S after his move to New York City FC. His 14-minute cameo against Philadelphia in 2020 season, hugely hit by COVID, led to contract renewal with NYCFC for two more seasons. Featuring 20 times across both of 2021 & 2022, club opted not to sign a new deal with him which ended his American journey.

Club confirming Zelalem’s contract extension.

He is back in Europe now, playing regularly for Dutch second division team FC Den Bosch to establish himself after an injury-riddled career so far. He has recently signed a new deal until June 2025 and featured 18 times already this season, including four occasions leading the team as a captain.

Now 27, Zelalem is happy to play again trying to repay the faith from Den Bosch after they gave him chance when no one did. Maybe it will not be Arsenal ever again, but Zelalem is slowly aiming for the highest goals possible with hunger and passion similar to Hale End days.

Chris Willock

Chris Willock during academy days.

Unlike Zelalem, Chris Willock, as a Londoner, joined Arsenal’s academy when he was five years old. Willock quickly skipped all youth categories and, at the age of 16, was brought into Arsenal’s pre-season training camp and featured in some friendly games that caught Wenger’s attention.

During 2014/15 season, Arsenal’s winger showcased his talent in a youth team which resulted in an England call-up for U17 European Championship. Three Lions only reached the quarterfinals, but Willock was named in the Team of the Tournament alongside players like Marc Cucurella and Dayot Upamecano. He seemed unstoppable as he scored in 2015/16 Premier League Division 2 Play-Off wins against both Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers which sealed Arsenal’s promotion.

After two great seasons at a youth level, Wenger gave him a chance in two League Cup games against Nottingham Forest and Reading in 2016/17. Even if it was only a couple of minutes at the end of the game, it meant a world for young Arsenal graduate to make his competitive debut for the club.

Still yet to play in a Premier League and experiencing a huge competition on his position in a first team, Willock began his new adventure in Portugal joining Benfica in the summer of 2017. After 14 years spent in Arsenal, the idea to go abroad was chiefly to face new challenges and playing men’s football.

Benfica have a B team in a second division in Portugal which he later admitted was beneficial for his development since he did not want to play in an English U23 system. Willock played 64 games for Benfica B in his two years spell in Lisbon with no official appearances for the first team. In 2017/18 season, former youth England international scored only three goals in 30 games in year full of changes and adaption. Second season worked quite well for Willock when he ended the campaign with 11 goals and seven assists as Benfica B’s top scorer.

When he finally got used to life in Portugal’s capital, Willock received a loan offer to come back home. West Bromwich Albion was interested in Willock, and he saw it as an opportunity to make it in England again.

However, he made zero appearances for the club and was only playing for U23s again. Speaking to The Athletic, Willock said “it was an eye-opener that everything is not going to come easily, and you need to fight for your position.”

Therefore, Willock was able to go on another loan to a struggling Huddersfield Town with clear mission – keep them in the Championship. Willock arrived at the same time as Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe and helped the club to avoid relegation in a 2019/20 season highly affected by pandemic with his two goals in 14 appearances.

To complete the homecoming, Willock headed back to London when Queens Park Rangers signed him permanently from Benfica. It has been almost four years since this transfer and Willock turned himself into one of the most crucial players in the team participating 131 times, scoring 19 goals and assisting 20 for QPR.

Chris Willock celebrating a goal for QPR.

After recently turning 26, he finally found a place where he can flourish and express his footballing skills and potential consistently. He is feeling confident and happy to play best football of his life.

Despite all the obstacles Willock has faced in his footballing journey so far, he still has time to achieve his biggest goals. He has proved that he is capable of performing and more experience might help him to join his younger brother Joe in the Premier League soon.

Miguel Azeez

Miguel Azeez playing for Arsenal.

Youngest on the list, Miguel Azeez only looked up to his older teammates Zelalem & Willock during academy days. Joining academy when he was five, Azeez was rated as a big prospect by all his youth coaches thanks to his great technique, often labelled as a standout player and set-piece specialist.

Coaches, experts and especially Arsenal fans predicted bright future for a young central midfielder. He was used to playing with players above his age, making his debut as a 15-year-old for U18 and joining U23s earlier than teammates in his age group.

Throughout 2018/19 season, while thriving for U18s at Arsenal, Azeez was constantly called up for England U17 friendlies and EURO U17 also wearing an armband in some games. Especially because of EURO, Azeez was not available for biggest club game of the season in a Premier League U18 Final stage game between winners of North & South divisions.

That season promoted him to a U23s where he quickly became a starter and engine of the midfield for the next two years. Azeez is bestowed with tremendous quality on the ball which current Arsenal’s manager Mikel Arteta swiftly became a fan of and gave him his debut for Arsenal in Europa League group stage game against Dundalk with a seven-minute cameo at the end of the game.

He also appeared on the bench in several Europa League games and Premier League away trip where Arsenal comfortably beat relegated Sheffield United. However, he did not feature in any other games.

In 2021/22 season, Azeez was sent on loan to Portsmouth to gain more experience and game time alongside men. He was supposed to acclimatise to tough and aggressive League One style of football, but it did not go as planned. Azeez was recalled in January after producing only 10 appearances with one goal.

Former Pompey coach Simon Bassey: “Miguel (Azeez) found it hard physically, he was a superb athlete but did not bring that athleticism to the game,” he told The News Portsmouth. Azeez later on reflected on his time in League One speaking to football.london saying: “I have grown there as a person and physically as well.” He later evaluated that period as “learning new different aspects of the game and dealing with disappointments.”

Miguel Azeez on loan at Portsmouth.

Although, unsuccessful loans continued when Azeez joined LaLiga2 side UD Ibiza at the beginning of 2022/23 campaign. Azeez has a mother with Spanish background who has probably played a part in making that decision. But he ended up his five-month period in Spain with only 11 games under his belt without any goal contribution.

He was recalled from loan again and sent to Wigan Athletic for another five months. And those five months were an absolute disaster. Azeez made only two appearances in the Championship and his only highlight was when he entangled himself into disciplinary issues with the manager and coaching staff.

After a disastrous year, Azeez came back to Arsenal again, starting the current season with Arsenal U23 and spending only 97 minutes on the pitch. In February, he opted to leave Arsenal permanently and signed for Spanish third division team Atlético Baleares. He has already made his debut for them while also completing full 90 minutes against Atlético Madrid B last Sunday.

Azeez posing for Atlético Baleares after he left Arsenal this February.

Despite the fact he has been meandering throughout his career, Azeez is only 21 with plenty of time for a restart. No one has ever questioned his footballing ability; however, his game requires huge improvements off the ball as he needs to adapt to higher tempo and physicality of top leagues.

This list contained three players that made a debut for Arsenal in the last decade that I think had immense potential but, due to factors I mentioned, they were not able to fulfil it. Each one of them are still young to be judged as flops or wasted talents but experts or their former coaches certainly hoped for more resonant careers of this trio.

All the stats are a courtesy of Transfermarkt.com

Written by

For more football content, follow me on X (Twitter): @olivernehila