• The German went on to forge a stellar career though, winning the World Cup.
• Mertesacker is now on the other side of the desk, telling kids if they can make it.
Per Mertesacker has sat on the other side of the desk.
The former Germany defender was playing for Hannover when at 15 he was told by his own father: “This is the end of the line.’ Two decades on, it’s Mertesacker who holds futures in his hands. Now as Arsenal’s academy manager, it’s he who tells teenagers whether they really can be ‘the one per cent’.”
“I’ll be up front,” the 34-year-old says. “(But) it’s not easy to deliver that message and still be positive.” Fortunes can change, though. Despite his father’s gloom, Mertesacker went on to win the 2014 World Cup.
“There are a lot of role models out there and we actually deliver the message of Eddie Nketiah,” the German continues. “He was released by Chelsea when he was 16 and we took him. But in the moment, it’s going to be a negative message in the eye of the kid and the parents.” Mertesacker wants to change that. He wants hopefuls to know their future can still be bright — in football, or elsewhere.
His message? “Don’t waste your talent, not being only focused on football.” I want to make an impact on young people’s lives, want to be part of their future really, no matter what they do actually, because I have seen it by myself that all the very talented players at 15, 16 had still a very little chance to be successful in football.’ For most of the German’s professional life, three points have been the only yardstick for success.
Now he insists: “We shouldn’t just focus on those who make it... a similar reward would be a first-team player at Arsenal or, just for the sake of argument, a doctor in America. I’m really open to that.”
“That would give me similar reward, that we have impacted a young kid’s life positively and that he would come back and say ‘Yeah this has improved me, made me learn better, made me a better person’.” It’s quite a challenge. Mertesacker wants to build on the legacy of Arsene Wenger but he is currently in charge of 180 kids engulfed by football, and its culture of ‘take, take, take’. An ethos that spreads beyond the training ground.
“I get the feeling that some parents really think about their son (as someone) who can take them and pay for their pension.” During his youth, Mertesacker’s dad — a coach at Hannover — took the opposite approach.
“(He) sat next to me negotiating a contract and said, ‘No, no this is too much’. He refused to take that money, he said: ‘No, this is too much.’ I was really angry that time with him but he was sending me messages which were really important moving forward.”
He adds: “The new generation is all about: Give them, then they will take care of themselves. No, no, no... if you care about them and just think it’s about taxis, money and credits. That’s the opposite of caring.”
Instead at Arsenal the German hopes oversee a ‘culture shift’ so that ‘respect, discipline and humility’ are nurtured above all else — even performances on the pitch.
“If there is a really good player at U16 level who disrespects the coach, then you see how strong the coach is actually. If you then say: ‘You can go somewhere else then. That is not how we do things here.’ That would be powerful.”
Mertesacker has been on his own journey of discovery since he first arrived at Arsenal, in the wake of their 8-2 humiliation against Manchester United in 2011.
“It was really tough in the first year. I couldn’t always take the tempo and the intensity of the game,” he admits. “Arsene was the one who stuck with me, told me I would learn from those moments.”
In seven seasons under Wenger, the German won three FA Cups but the Premier League evaded the Gunners for the final 14 years of the Frenchman’s reign. Looking back, their former captain admits, “we were not at the level.” “The Leicester City (in 2015/16) one was probably our best chance to win the league. Do I reflect back and think: ‘Have I missed something not winning the Premier League? I don’t know. I think we were not good enough to earn the right.”
These days, under Unai Emery, Arsenal have ground to make up on Manchester City and Liverpool. But the mood is less toxic than during Wenger’s final years, when some supporters turned on their long-serving coach.
“You feel almost responsible,” Mertesacker admits. “For the lack of success and probably the ambition that he might have to leave at some stage because we’re not delivering what everyone wants.’ The scars haven’t healed. To be world class again Arsenal must re-establish a lost ‘connection’ between fans and players.”
That means Mertesacker, Emery and technical director Edu must win back the trust that ‘the people in charge can deliver.’ Their task is made easier by the likes of Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock, the latest products of a proud academy to have broken into the first team. The well may run drier than in years gone by, but the emergence of Nelson and Willock has galvanised supporters.
“You can almost sense that there is a trust in the academy. I just want to build on that,” Mertesacker says.
If he has his way, the next crop of youngsters will make their mark — at the Emirates and outside the ‘bubble of football’.
“That’s a big challenge and I understand that. But I’m not here to please everyone. I hope Arsenal knew what they were appointing when they appointed me.”