The Gunners’ player of the year will crown his remarkable rise this summer after being a player whose potential was evident from the start
As you enter the main building of Greenford High School, you are greeted by a signed English shirt that hangs proudly for all to see.
It was offered by a former student who left three years ago, but whose influence remains as strong as it was during his five-year stay at the institution in West London.
That pupil is Bukayo Saka, and for the past fortnight Greenford High School has celebrated its former pupil as he prepares to show off his prodigious talents on one of the biggest stages of all: the European Championship .
“We’re all so proud of him,” said Dipesh Patel, Saka’s former football coach at Greenford High. “We always knew he was amazing. But we obviously couldn’t expect him to have had the last year and a half he’s had, breaking into the Arsenal squad, being such an important player for them, and then entering the squad. from England.
“It’s just amazing the rise he has had.”
Saka’s inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s England squad of 26 for Euro 2020 crowns a remarkable three-year journey for the teenager. It all started in November 2018 when he made his senior debut for Arsenal away from Vorskla in the Europa League.
Since then he has made himself one of the first names on the squad roster in north London and has thrived as the majority of the club’s senior stars have struggled alongside him.
Such was the quality of his performances in the 2020-21 campaign, he was named Arsenal’s Player of the Season, while he was also nominated alongside eventual winner Phil Foden and Mason Mount to be named PFA Young Player of the Year. .
“Bukayo Saka FC” is a term that has taken root in Arsenal fans’ vocabulary over the past 12 months, when he felt the teenage striker single-handedly had to save the faltering squad. Mikel Arteta.
His performances may have dipped slightly in the last few weeks of the season, but if he hadn’t stepped up his efforts around Christmas, as Arsenal drifted into the final three, then the story of the second half of the campaign at Emirates Stadium would likely have centered on a relegation battle, rather than a late push for Europe.
“I don’t think I’m the player who wears Arsenal,” Saka said last month. “In football it’s 11 men. I don’t think I can do anything on my own. It’s a team sport.”
Obviously, modesty is another chord to add to the bow of a teenager who has always been considered a star in the making.
Saka was first spotted playing for his home side Greenford Celtic at the age of seven. Even at this young age he had professional clubs lining up to take him on, but when Arsenal showed their hand there was nowhere else he would go.
“I had invitations from Spurs, Chelsea, Fulham and Watford but the only choice was Arsenal,” said Saka. “I liked the way they played so the choice was easy for me.
“I trained at Hale End and then signed when I was nine.
From that moment on, it became clear to all who helped guide Saka on the path that he was destined for at the big time.
“You could see he wanted to run against people,” said Arsenal legend Thierry Henry, who worked with Saka for a short time when he returned to the club as an academy coach. “He always wanted the ball and he was brave with the ball.
“It was too early to say [how good he would be], but when I saw him come into the first team after I left, I was like wow. It’s incredible.
“I have always liked the attitude of the child and the commitment. What I like about him is that he cares about his club and will do anything to make the team win. You have to respect that. “
Football has always been at the center of Saka’s life. Growing up in Greenford, he spent hours playing on the green outside his home with his brother Yomi, who was on the books at Watford until he was 14.
His exceptional talent was well known in the area, but he was not the type of boy who sought to rub people’s noses. In fact, when he moved to Greenford High School at the age of 11, he didn’t even initially try for the school’s football team.
“Bukayo didn’t show up for the first two sessions,” recalls coach Patel. “When I picked my first camp, the boy I picked as captain said to me, ‘Do you know we have this kid in our year which is amazing? “”
“So I told him to make sure he brings her the next session.”
Patel’s captain did as asked, and it didn’t take Saka long to get his name written in Greenford High history.
“The first time I saw him it was just ‘wow’,” Patel said. “He was very special.
“In its first year we lost the district cup final, but the following year we won it all. We won the Ealing district competition, the league, the cup , then we won the county cup.
“For our school, it was a first and maybe a last. It was unbelievable. It had such a positive impact on our school and Bukayo was the key to it.
“He just gave us an extra edge with his quality, especially in some of the tightest moments. But it wasn’t just about him. He’s always been such a massive team player.
Saka quit playing for the school team after this conquering season, with his commitments to Arsenal increasing as he got older. He quickly took an outing from school, spending a full day a week training in Hale End, while continuing to study for his GCSEs.
Many in his position would have fallen behind in their schoolwork, but not Saka – who went on to receive four A and three A stars.
“He worked so hard,” Patel says. “He would come home incredibly late after training with Arsenal two or three times a week, but still catching up with all his work and homework, which it was doing late at night.
“We will have his photo at the reception for a long time. Not just because he’s an amazing footballer, but because he’s that model student and he’s a great sale for us.
“When we talk to our children, especially those who love football, we tell them how important Bukayo’s studies were to him and how he never got into trouble and always did his job, while training hours and hours a week.
“He is a great source of inspiration for staff and students.
After leaving school, Saka joined Arsenal full time as an academic, moving from the club’s Hale End academy to the London Colney training center. And that’s when his talents really started to blossom.
“It was very obvious that he was going to be a great talent, especially when he got into the Under-16s when he really started to blossom,” said Steve Morrow, former head of youth recruitment at Arsenal and new manager of the Football Association. player selection and talent strategy.
“When Bukayo was younger, his physical qualities stood out to a lot of people, they are really qualities.
“But you also have to take a very close look at their technique and the way they handle the ball under pressure and their decision making, Bukayo had a real balance between it all.”
Once Saka moved from Hale End to London Colney for good, it was a question of when and not if he would make his first-team debut. Unlike many of his age, there was never much of a chance he would go on loan.
He had long been designated as a player to immediately make his mark with the senior team. And it happened on November 29, 2018 when Unai Emery made his debut on the bench in Kiev as Arsenal beat Vorskla 3-0 in a Europa League group stage clash.
Since then he has never looked back and it comes as no surprise to anyone who has played with him before.
“If Bukayo didn’t go straight to the top then there was no hope for any of us,” said Daniel Ballard, the 21-year-old Arsenal center-back who rose through the ranks with Saka. .
“He was an U16 who played in our U18 team and he was always the best player. If there was one person that you knew was going to score you a goal or perform some magic, it would be him.
“Even in the Under 23s I remember a lot of our hopes were on him, or mine was anyway. He was the only person I knew was going to score or make us win the game.
Since making his debut in Ukraine, Saka has made 88 appearances for Arsenal, winning the FA Cup along the way. In addition to scoring 11 goals, he contributed 19 assists, more than any other player during that span.
He also became an England international and ended a memorable season by scoring his first goal for his country last week.
“This is probably the biggest moment of my career so far,” Saka said after scoring the game-winning goal against Austria. “You dream about it when you are a child, to score for your country. It is an incredible feeling and I hope I can have this feeling several times.
For Saka, Euro 2020 is now waiting.
A boy who just a few years ago sent his school back to County Cup glory now has a goal of helping England win their first major trophy since 1966. The whole nation will be behind him, but nowhere will the support be stronger than returning to Greenford High School.
“We are very proud,” said Dipesh. “We have a Bukayo watch with us every time he plays. Some of the new kids think I’m kidding when I say Bukayo went to our school, I have to pull out old photos and prove it to them.
“It’s a bit incredible for a small school like ours to have helped produce someone who goes to the Euro.”