Professionally Speaking: In Praise of Carl Jenkinson, Arsenal's Unlikely New Hero


Discovering remarkable stories of unexpected sporting triumph in London this summer wasn’t exactly an arduous task. Suffice to say, we were spoilt for choice.

As the Autumn leaves begin to fall just a few short weeks on, and performing a mere four miles away from the Olympic Stadium, there is now another previously unheralded young athlete wearing red, white and blue who’s making an extraordinary impression of his own.

His name is Carl Jenkinson.

Before we take a look at the present, let’s cast our minds back to February 13, 2010...

It’s FA Cup 5th round day and Chelsea – inspired not for the first time by Didier Drogba – beat Cardiff City by four goals to one at the Bridge, while Avram Grant’s beleaguered Portsmouth match that with an emphatic 4-1 victory of their own over south coast rivals Southampton, at St Mary’s. Three months later both sides will meet in the 129th FA Cup final at Wembley, where Drogba will net the only goal of a dour, disappointing game.

On February 13, 2010, Carl Jenkinson made his debut for Conference South outfit Welling United; a club close to my heart, and as it happens the final team I represented before having to retire through injury in 2006.

Just five days after celebrating his 18th birthday the little known Charlton youth teamer, on loan at Park View Road, pulls on a red Wings shirt for the first time against Dorchester Town - and according to the Kent Online match report, roundly fails to make a positive first impression. It reads…

“Welling dropped two vital points in the chase of a Blue Square South play-off place on Saturday.

“A stoppage time penalty denied the Wings victory over lowly Dorchester after a needless challenge by on-loan Charlton defender Carl Jenkinson.

“The teenager, being watched by Addicks coach Mark Kinsella in the crowd, dived in when the ball was never there to be won to concede the spot-kick which Matt Groves drilled home.”

An inauspicious and chastening start to life as a professional footballer for the Harlow-born teenager, who according to a friend of mine who was at the game, could be seen cutting an inconsolable figure in the bar afterwards.

Nine rather more solid, if unspectacular appearances followed, before Jenkinson returned to Charlton Athletic, where (after a further loan spell with Eastbourne in the Conference National) he would wait another eight months before making the first of eight appearances for the Addicks, in a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy clash with Brentford at Griffin Park.

Fast forward to 2012 and it’s hard to believe how far the Arsenal (and soon to be England) full-back has come in such a short space of time.

Having myself played at every level of football from the Premier League to the Conference South (sadly in descending, rather than ascending order) I can say with some assurance that life in non-league’s second tier isn’t a walk in the park. It’s fast, frenetic and physical. It can be an unforgiving place; you can’t just turn up, take liberties and shine, no matter how good you are.

But it’s certainly no Champions League, and last week alongside 60,000 others I watched Jenkinson excel at close quarters against Olympiakos. His pace, strength and defensive nous were outstanding, as was his touch, crossing and technique on the ball. His timing and decision making were first class too. He was in my opinion, on the night, Arsenal’s best player.

It’s a stunningly remarkable rise, which I hope acts as an inspiration to thousands of other young players who suspect their hopes of making the unlikely ascent from the lower leagues to the peak of the game are an impossible pipe dream.

Overlooked by the big clubs as a kid, Carl Jenkinson was never a golden boy. He wasn’t even fast tracked into the first team at The Valley. In fact he never really got beyond the periphery in south-east London.

Yet here he is, attracting the attention of England boss Roy Hodgson, and making arguably the Premier League’s most consistent right-back, Bacary Sagna, sweat on reclaiming his place in the Gunners side once he returns from injury.

How has Jenkinson climbed the mountain?

I can’t pretend to know his personal story inside out but I'm fully aware that he sweated buckets in pursuit of the impossible. When his mates at Charlton went home for an afternoon of PlayStation football on the sofa, Jenkinson often stayed behind to fine tune his skills in the real game.

He will also have got lucky, too. A member of Arsenal’s wonderful network of scouts will have spotted something in him initially, before asking chief scout Steve Rowley to confirm his faith in Jenkinson’s hidden potential. He needed to perform at the right times to get the nod, and I can only assume that he did.

And then there is finding a coach that believes in you. Clearly Charlton Athletic liked the player – he was never released – but did they have enough belief to throw him into the first team? Not really.

Arsenal took a £1million chance that his glimpses of potential, allied with determination and sound character, would help him blossom into a top class footballer – and the coaching staff at London Colney have guided him beautifully to the place where he sits today.

I’ve always believed that footballers can adapt to most levels if they’re given long enough to learn and that’s what’s happened with Carl. It took him time to adjust to the standards, but 16 months on it is almost second nature for him now.

In terms of ability we all have our ceilings of course - Jenkinson may never be a Cafu - but for now and the foreseeable future he’s unequivocally proven that he belongs with the big boys. And that means no longer scrapping it out with Dorchester's Matt Groves in the non league's second tier.

Click here to read more insight from former Arsenal midfielder Adrian Clarke.