As part of the opportunities presented by Street Soccer London, I had the opportunity of interviewing former Arsenal & current Birmingham City Forward, Chuks Aneke. Born & bred in Newham, Aneke was a promising product of the Arsenal Youth Academy, which at the time was one of the Hottest youth Academies in world football (in terms of upcoming talent). He joined Arsenal’s Academy in 2001 at the age of 7 alongside some other (would be) big names like Harry Kane and Jack Wilshere.
Chuks described the opportunity to not only play for Arsenal but to play for them at such a young age and a long time as a ‘Blessing from God’ which could be acknowledged considering how difficult it is amongst youths/aspiring footballers in England/London to make it in the professional scene of the game we all know and love to day.
“Diaby was different“
Aneke was 16 when he first broke him into the Arsenal First Team, one of the youngest out of the crop. He pointed out the difference in the level of quality in comparison to his training with the reserves/academy and made it clear that once he got a taste of First Team football, there was nothing else that enticed him. Reserves Football didn’t feel the same again. “The tempo was like 1000% quicker” said Chuks, “…people make quicker decisions”
When asked about how he felt during his first training session, Aneke said he was more excited and hungry then nervous. Nerves were there but they were overshadowed by his joy and want to play amongst some of the biggest players in the Premier League. When asked who made him feel most welcome in the squad, the striker was quick to comment on Emmanuel Eboue’s energy shown not only towards him but also the other youngsters. He told me about how he (Eboue) invited him and a crop of Arsenal youngsters to his House for a BBQ & further went on to appreciate Eboue’s hospitality by saying “He [Eboue] didn’t need to do that, even me now, I always make sure the youngers feel welcome but I wouldn’t invite them to my house”.
I was most intrigued to find out who Aneke thought was the biggest baller in a star studded Arsenal squad that had names like Cesc Fabregas, Robin Van Persie, and Samir Nasri etc. Aneke said that the player that left him in awe was Abou Diaby. The Frenchman’s quality was noticed not only in the league but in the world and Aneke was lucky enough to experience the Frenchman’s magic first hand. He said he possessed quick feet and always knew what he was going to do next (as did many of the players in the squad). His technical ability was as good as anyone in the team and his physical presence was unrivalled. Cesc Fabregas was another candidate for Chuks praise. Chuks commented on the Spaniard’s game by saying “Cesc Fabregas was sick, mad vision. When I talk about decision making & quick thinking he was just on a different level.” His link up play also received praise, where Aneke said that he played with two touches for the majority of games/training sessions.
“He was just that guy, he was the Boss & everyone called him the Boss too“
I also took the liberty to ask another important question. If you were to bump into someone that was at Arsenal from 1996-2018 you would ask the same thing too. I asked Akene about how he perceived Arsene Wenger in his time in the First Team and his presence over the whole squad. The former Gunner commented on him as a person saying that he wouldn’t speak a lot, but when he spoke everyone listened. He also had the pleasure of speaking to the French manager one to one. Wenger’s assistant manager, Pat Rice, took charge of most the drills during training, highlighted Chuks, continuing to point out that Wenger wasn’t a very ‘hands on’ manager.
“More often than not, it wouldn’t even be him leading training, it would be Pat Rice’ said Chuks. He wouldn’t shout and chase players throughout a session. Instead, he would only interrupt when necessary.”
One thing that interested me, as well as Aneke at the time, was that every player referred to Wenger as ‘Boss’. Everyone.
He had all his players in order and demanded respect in the most subtle form. In my opinion, that just oozes class, and I think many Arsenal players, who like Chuks, have played under Wenger would agree that he is the perfect embodiment of the word – professionalism.
Loan & Abroad
“I was hungry and thankful that things turned out well… I put in a lot of work that season, off the field too. Sometimes you just hit a purple patch and thank God that I did”
Chuks Aneke made it clear to me that his intention while playing at Arsenal was to break into the First Team and gain regular minutes and game time in an Arsenal jersey. He even told Arsene Wenger this at the time and said he was willing to go on Loan as a means of improving his game. Aneke spent spells on Loan at Stevenage (2011) and Preston North End (2012). The forward felt the impact and significance of those loan moves and how they played a big role to the development of his game, especially his last spell on loan during the 2013-14 Campaign at Crewe Alexandra, where he bagged 16 Goals and 6 Assists in 44 Games.
Chuks spoke about his desire to go “all out” in his loan spell, so other clubs would notice him and his ability. The striker illustrated that it took a change of mindset to push him to these impressive numbers.
“I was on the last year of my deal” said Chuks, “… so I had to pull something out of the bag so I got another move.”
His dedication that season earned the reward of sealing a move abroad to Belgium the next year for Pro League side Zulte Waregem and while it was him and himself that earned that move, he was still thankful to God that things turned out well. A truly humble individual.
He was keen enough to shed some light on his experience abroad and said that it allowed him to gain the ability to interact with other people from different backgrounds – a necessary skill which all pro footballers must have and coincidentally a skill that the majority of British players are known to lack (hence why they spend most of their career in England). Chuks now has the ability to socialise with Spaniards, Germans, and French etc. after two years in Belgium. Goes to show that a career in football has its benefits on & off the field.
To say that the Academy that Chuks played in was good would be considered as a massive understatement. At the time, Arsenal’s Academy was home to some of the biggest footballing talent in the world and as aforementioned, where one of the hottest youth academies in the world at that moment in time.
The Gunners had players like Woijech Szczseny, Craig Eastmond, Luke Ayling, Jay Emmanuel Thomas, Henri Lansbury, Francis Coquelin ~ we’d be here all day if I could name them all. But the one man who stood out to the footballing world the most out of the crop was none other than Jack Wilshere. The man most famous for stealing the show in the Champions League against Barcelona in 2011 at just 19. I asked Chuks what was Jack Wilshere like – was his talent obvious, did you know he was always going to make it etc.
“Jack was sick man, he was something different… when you played with him, the guy was sick”.
“He’d (Wilshere) go past like 6 players and stuff”
Both technically and physically gifted, he believed Jack Wilshere was destined for greatness and that he was unarguably the best player at the academy. In regards to the other players, who too were all gifted footballers, Chuks acknowledged their ability and knew that he was surrounded by brilliant footballers but never at a point in his time in the academy did he feel overwhelmed by his fellow players. He said that he believed there was always a sense of competition amongst the players. As well as the fact that they all wanted to be better than each other they also knew how to come together and play as a unit, which was depicted in their 2009 FA Youth Cup triumph, which Chuks was unfortunately not part of.
The forward also commented on other players like Jay Emmanuel Thomas, Henri Lansbury and Emmanuel Frimpong and how he thought that they would all reach bigger things in their footballing career. While it worked out for some more than others, Chuks can be considered as one of the more successful players from that Academy team. Playing in the Championship with Birmingham City and both making his mark both abroad and in England.
“Ability wise I was ridiculous, and that isn’t even me, like other people would say that about me, but there were certain areas that let me down.”
Though he wasn’t a success at Arsenal he claimed that he knew why he didn’t make it when asked – “I know why I can’t and won’t play at the highest, highest level… I lacked other things in my game that meant I wasn’t going to play at the highest, highest level but I’m at peace with that”. Even in itself, to represent Arsenal Football Club for more than 10 years is enough to tell you that he was a talented footballer – something he and his fellow players (at the time) all knew too well.
Racism is forever an ongoing factor that needs to be dealt with, not only within the game but in the world. I recalled the events of the Euro 2020 (2021) Final to Chuks were England faced Italy and lost on Penalties after Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all failed to convert their shots on goal. The online social media abuse the trio received was sickening and disgraceful, showing that racism is still a prominent issue.
As a man with a Nigerian Background but a footballer with an English nationality, I asked Chuks if the Racial Abuse that (black) players receive is enough of a significant factor to resist representing England at an International Level. He said no and further explained “People are ignorant… I’m not going to let ignorant people stop me from achieving what I want”. Very adamant in his answer, Chuks explained that if he ever got the chance to play for England, he would take it.
“Racial abuse won’t faze me, I won’t let words stop me from having the career I want for myself.”
“They don’t even know what they’re saying, so why would I let it get to me”.
A strong mentality that all young Black footballers should have when stepping out onto the field. Entertaining abuse would only act as a means of showing them that their words affect you, which coincidentally is what they are trying to achieve. Ignoring it does the opposite and frustrates them even more. A class response from Chuks.
Overall, Chuks was a very calm and level-headed person and it is obvious to see why he’s gone so far in his Career. Throughout the interview, he gave me off the energy of a person who is focused and determined to his career in football and is forever attempting to be the best version of himself in whatever he does. You may think that because he wasn’t a success at Arsenal he may not think the best of his football career but that isn’t the case, “I’m good with my life, I’m good with how everything turned out” said Chuks, his words depict that he didn’t dwell on his ‘failure’ at Arsenal and moved onto better things. Chuks is now enjoying play for one of England’s most historic Football Clubs in Birmingham City.
Aneke is on a good path and I believe his strong mentality has helped this. His attitude is second to none. Not a lot of players are keen to go on Loan, so to tell your manager, and not just any manager (Arsene Wenger), that you are willing to try out a loan spell to better your game just shows that he approached his football career with the right attitude, which is something a lot of young and talented footballers fail to understand the importance of in football or in any form of sport. He’s an individual that is aware of his worth and ability. The experience to talk to a footballer like himself for me was great and I was glad to know that it was reciprocated back from Chuks’ perspective. He said the talk had been a ‘Trip down memory lane for him’ and that he rarely thinks about these things. I wish him all the best in the coming season and hopefully he’ll get a chance to showcase his talent in the Premier League before the end of his career.