Gooners aplenty awoke to hangovers on a benumbing New Year’s Day in 1992. They had been out revelling in the customary buzz of the occasion in Trafalgar Square and other London hotspots which seduce the masses for the annual celebration.
Their headaches were aggravated that afternoon at Highbury. There, they arrived with a cake walk on the menu for their beloved Arsenal. There, they witnessed minnows Wimbledon seize an improbable 1-1 draw in what then-manager George Graham labelled one of the worst performances during his reign, which had started six years previous, and stand-out striker Ian Wright hobble off injured.
But 1 January 1992 did bear the Arsenal fans a gift, albeit one they would take years to unwrap. Thirty-odd miles north of Highbury, in the town of Stevenage - the birthplace of Lewis Hamilton, who dreamt of playing for the north London giants before focusing on the path to Formula One grandeur – Jack Wilshere was born.
It rapidly became apparent that the diminutive kid had towering potential. At the age of four he was kicking a ball around with lads twice his age; as a nine-year-old he joined the Arsenal academy; at 14 he was representing the England U-16s; aged 16 years and 256 days he superseded Cesc Fabregas as the club’s youngest-ever Premier League player; two months later he became only the fifth 16-year-old to appear in the UEFA Champions League; and then last year he illuminated UEFA European U-17 Championship with his pristine touch, extrasensory vision, defence-splitting passes and intoxicating dribbles.
His displays in that tournament, and a sparkling pre-season, prompted Fabio Capello to flirt with taking Wilshere to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, and persuaded the Arsenal supporters the attacking midfielder was going to have a major influence on their upcoming campaign.
The 1.70m left-footer, however, made just one league appearance for Arsene Wenger’s side before joining Bolton Wanderers on loan in January. He played 14 times for the Trotters, scoring once, with a Paolo Di Canio-esque volley, in a 2-1 win away to West Ham United – ironically, Wilshere supported the Hammers, and idolised the Roman forward, as a child. Di Canio would have been impressed; another Italian was not sufficiently so to hand Wilshere a ticket to South Africa.
Capello must have regretted that decision when he watched Wilshere dissect AC Milan and Celtic en route to the Emirates Cup crown in July. Alike the summer previous, he was tipped to take the Premier League by storm in the red of Arsenal. Unlike it, he has done.
Wilshere is one of only three outfield players – along with Andrey Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh - to have turned out in all of the Gunners’ matches this term. And he has thrived in those adequately to earn a senior England debut as a substitute against Hungary, and be described by Wenger as “exceptional” and Cesc Fabregas as a better player than he was at the same age.
“I think I had to go out on loan last year because there are world-class players at Arsenal and I had to get some games,” reasoned Wilshere. “I came back more experienced and stronger, and if you play regularly it makes it easier for you.
“Playing for England was brilliant, a nice experience, and hopefully I can get some more games but at the moment I am just trying to concentrate on playing in the Arsenal first team. Sometimes I just had to pinch myself sitting in the changing room next to Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard.”
Wilshere shares a different dressing room with another of the sport’s finest footballers. “For me, in the position he plays, Cesc is the best player in the world,” said the 18-year-old. “That is what I want to be like. He is the perfect player to learn from. He is always talking to you – he is a good leader as well as a good player. Hopefully I can follow in his footsteps, to be as good as him would be nice.”
Wenger added: "It is fantastic for a player of Wilshere's age to see someone like Fabregas close up, to play with him," said the Frenchman. "I have told him he will learn a lot this way because Fabregas is such an intelligent player. They both have exceptional talent. But they’re different players – Cesc is more of a passer; Jack is more of a dribbler.”
Perhaps Wilshere’s not his captain’s clone, but he’s systematically part of pundit paralleling. At the Emirates they liken him to their legendary former midfielder Liam Brady. The most common one in England is to juxtapose the Gunners No19 with Paul Gascoigne. Elsewhere he’s been compared to Andres Iniesta.
While whose playing style Wilshere’s most resembles is debated, one unanimous viewpoint is that he has infinite potential. “He’s a wonderful prospect for the future,” opined Samir Nasri, while Tomas Rosicky said: “He is a great talent. For his age, he has a great brain and a big future. When Jack has got the ball, he is very calm. That is something young players sometimes don't have, they panic a little bit.”
Wilshere has a decisive few weeks ahead. After inspiring Arsenal to a 6-0 rout of Braga in their Group H curtain-raiser in the Champions League – he set up Chamakh’s goal with an outrageous back-heel Socrates would have been proud of – he will look to help Wenger’s side on to six points against Partizan in Belgrade. Then it’s a visit to Premier League leaders Chelsea on Sunday – Arsenal are four points off the pace in third – one day before Capello names his squad for the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier against Montenegro on 12 October. Thereafter, Birmingham City and Shakhtar Donetsk will visit the Emirates, before the Gunners make the trip to Manchester City.
Arsenal have 20 fixtures remaining in 2010 - 21 if they beat Newcastle United in the League Cup’s fourth round, which Wilshere inspired them into with an exhilarating man-of-the-match performance away to arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur - before a trip to Birmingham City on his 19th birthday. And if their teenage thrill machine maintains the form in which he has began the season, reminiscing Gooners will not remember 1 January 1992 for an arctic afternoon at Highbury, but for the birth of one of world football’s hottest prospects.