Breaking into the big boys’ gang is never easy, but with an assist every bit as gorgeous as the striker he laid it on for, Joel Campbell can finally consider himself accepted.
There had been glimpses of assured excellence before. A crisp curler at the Liberty, a serene run and slide rule pass for Alexis at home to Zagreb, a Theo-esque explosion of speed followed by the calmest of nutmeg finishes against the Black Cats on Saturday.
Yet doubts still lingered. Was the Costa Rican really good enough to be an Arsenal player?
Hand on heart I don’t know if he himself, or the Gunners players, staff and fans ever felt like he belonged.
But they do now. And so too should the man himself.
In the space of six special seconds, with six divine touches of the ball, Campbell outlined why Arsene Wenger wasn’t as quick to write him off as the rest of us.
There was fine skill to bring Mesut Ozil’s looping ball down onto his thigh at pace. There was speed of thought to chop the ball back as defenders scrambled towards their own goal. There was wonderful instinct to pull off a blindingly fast triple-touch drag back. There was vision to look up and see where Olivier Giroud was. And perhaps most impressively of all, there was composure at the critical moment to roll his pass between defenders at just the right pace for Giroud to slot the ball home emphatically.
I’m not exaggerating here. If Lionel Messi had produced that moment it would have made it onto his show reel - and I can’t pay Campbell any higher compliment than that.
Not bad for a lad who’s constantly been labeled ‘out of his depth’ in north London.
I do understand why doubts persisted. As part of weakened League Cup teams he didn’t especially shine, and on rare Premier League outings as a substitute his aura didn’t give off the whiff of complex talent, or confidence either. He didn’t appear wholly comfortable.
Yet people don’t realise how hard it can be for young players to be accepted by a first team, and this could have played a part in taking so long to settle.
It doesn’t matter if you are a new signing or a promising kid that’s been elevated from the youth team; it doesn’t matter if the scouts or coaches think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread; if the big guns in the first team dressing room aren’t sure if you’re good enough to contribute, it’s impossible to feel at home.
From the moment any non-regular steps into that environment, all eyes are trained on them. Are they a threat to so-and-so’s place? Will they sink, or will they swim? Can they make us a better team?
Even though he’s been at the club for four and a half years, my impression is that Joel Campbell hadn’t done quite enough to convince everyone of his merits.
Back in the old days it used to be brutal. I remember trialists being close to tears, at the obvious contempt they were regarded in by established players, who couldn’t hide their frustration at poor pieces of play in training. Teenagers wouldn’t get kid glove treatment either. If they weren’t up to it, they’d soon know about it. Scornful tongue-lashings couldn’t be helped. It’s a harsh landscape.
Once you’re in, you’re in though. It’s unlocking the key to the inner circle that takes time. To do that, you must first earn your teammates’ respect.
Joel Campbell obtained that with a superb performance in Athens last night.
When the chips were down and everyone needed him to man up and prove he had substance to his game at the highest level, the 23-year-old rose to the challenge. He was quite superb.
I’m still not convinced he’ll ever be a world-beater, but the forward has at least shown his place at Arsenal is a worthy one. He has the ability to add something to the team.
I hope it’s a watershed moment. Now that he’s confidently in with the big boys, Arsenal should see more moments of magic from the Costa Rican.