As Arsenal host West Ham on Saturday, Carl Jenkinson could be forgiven for feeling conflicted. The club he has supported all his life, and who still own his registration, will be facing off against the team where he has spent the entire season on loan.
This weekend, Jenkinson will be forced to watch Arsenal from the sidelines, due to legislation that prevents loaned players from facing their former clubs. It’s a situation he’s all too familiar with: last season, the one-time England international spent long periods looking on from the stands as he struggled to displace Bacary Sagna as Arsenal’s first-choice right-back.
When Sagna departed at the end of the season, Jenkinson must have sensed an opportunity to stake his claim. Although there was a rawness to his game, he had shown plenty of promise in his limited Arsenal appearances. Crucially for a full-back, he had remarkable reserves of stamina, built up by spending his teenage years competing as a distance runner.
His lack of technique was often cited, but any supposed lack of sophistication was belied by his consistently excellent crossing. In his time at the Emirates, no-one delivered a ball with the whip and accuracy that Jenkinson managed. It’s no surprise that attribute has been put to good use by the aerially dominant Hammers.
One thing you could never question was his commitment. Jenkinson comes from a family of Arsenal fanatics, and having him in the side was a throw-back to the days when there was less separation between players and fans. That’s almost unique in the modern game. Tottenham fans may celebrate Harry Kane as “one of their own”, but there are no pictures of a youthful Jenkinson wearing a Spurs shirt floating around the internet. He is Arsenal through and through.
On the concourse surrounding the Emirates Stadium are a series of paving stones engraved with messages from fans. On Armoury Square, close to two symbolically-placed canons, is a stone emblazoned with a particularly poignant message: “Grandad - Hope you’re proud, Carl Jenkinson”. Wearing the Arsenal strip has rarely meant more to a player.
Inevitably, that natural affiliation generated an enormous amount of goodwill towards Jenkinson from the Arsenal fans. However, it seems Arsene Wenger did not have the requisite faith in the full-back to entrust him with a full-time first-team place.
When Sagna joined Manchester City, Wenger moved swiftly to sign another French international, Mathieu Debuchy. That in itself wasn’t a huge problem: Debuchy was 29 and not a long-term impediment to Jenkinson’s development.
However, the acquisition of Calum Chambers spelt real trouble. For all the talk that he may end up as a centre-half or holding midfielder, Chambers arrived as a full-back. Signing two right-backs in one summer pushed Jenkinson down the pecking order and towards the exit door.
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When his loan deal to West Ham was arranged, there remained an outside chance he could come back to fight it out with Debuchy for a regular spot. However, the surprise emergence of Hector Bellerin has probably put paid to those ambitions. The young Spaniard, who started the campaign as the club’s fourth-choice right-back, is developing as quickly as he sprints to the byline.
That makes it almost impossible to see Jenkinson getting back in to the Arsenal squad. The club has moved on without him.
He’s made progress too, and returning to Arsenal could actually be seen as a backward step. Having tasted what it’s like to play first-team football every single week, would Jenkinson really be satisfied by returning to be little more than cheer-leading reserve at Arsenal?
As things stand, Jenkinson is an integral part of the West Ham team. They’ve embraced their on-loan Gooner, and he has been a key part of the Hammers’ push for a European place. Chairman David Gold has already made his intention to keep him at the club this summer. Jenkinson now has to make the right decision for him, not his family. Difficult though it may be, the player will have to put professionalism before his affection for Arsenal.
Should he choose to attend on Saturday, it could be the final time Jenkinson arrives at the Emirates as an Arsenal player. If he leaves permanently this summer, he’ll depart with a heavy heart but buoyed by the conviction that it’s the right thing for his career.
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