Willock turns Gunners rejection into resurrection at United
Every season, many young footballers go through the dreaded experience of getting released by a professional club.
The realisation that they will not fulfill the dreams they have chased for years can be a hard blow to take and for many of them, the opportunity will have passed forever.
To rub salt into the wound, in some cases the judgment comes from the player’s favourite club, the one they will watch for the rest of their lives thinking ‘what if’.
Former Arsenal trainee and lifelong Gunners fan Matty Willock knows this scenario all too well.
After spending his formative years dreaming of emulating his hero Thierry Henry, at the age of 15 he was given the bombshell news that he would not be kept on as a scholar in the under 18s.
But it was not the end of the story, as amazingly he was offered a second chance – at Manchester United.
Despite the turn in events that got his career back on track again in Manchester, the pain of rejection by his first love was hard to take at first.
“I’m an Arsenal fan so I was dreaming of playing for them one day,” Willock said.
“But when I was 15 I got released. They told me they weren’t giving me a scholarship, so obviously I was without a club.
“Fortunately the head scout at Arsenal was in contact with United and he organised a trial for me to come up and play a couple of games. Luckily enough they said they wanted me, so I signed for United when I was 15.”
For many Premier League academy cast-offs, this type of career rescue act is unheard of. Some might drop down a division or two and have a mediocre career in the lower leagues; most will slip out of the professional game altogether.
Of course, grassroots football is where every player begins their journey to the top and the man from the capital’s East End was no different.
Recalling his pathway to Old Trafford, Willock said, “I started off in Sunday League when I was six or seven.
“I was at Ridgeway Rovers. David Beckham played for them and there are a few other players who have come through there. It was probably the best club around my area, Chingford, and they’ve got good connections with a few clubs like West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.
“Then I got a trial with Arsenal when I was about 10 or 11 and I just went up through the age groups.
Now 20, and an important figure within United’s under 23’s, Willock’s career is on the up.
Having trained intermittently with the first team squad, he further proved his worth to the Red Devils’ hierarchy with a 93rd – minute winning goal in the Premier League 2 fixture away at rivals Liverpool.
The Londoner’s header deep into injury time secured a 1-0 victory at Anfield, and three vital points for his team.
The next challenge for United’s match winner on Merseyside, is to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s reckoning and make his first senior appearance; something another member of the Willock family has already achieved this season.
“I’ve got two brothers who still play for Arsenal; Chris and Joe,” said Willock, proudly.
“We used to play together as kids in the park, my dad used to take us every day. It was just something to do. It’s good going home and being able to watch my brothers and they’re both doing well, so that’s a good thing.
“Joe (17) is playing for the under 18’s at the minute and Chris (19) made his [first team] debut in the EFL cup [against Nottingham Forest] which was obviously a big moment for him because he’s a proper die-hard Arsenal fan, it was a dream come true.
“I wasn’t there and it wasn’t on TV so I didn’t get to watch it, but he told me he did well.”
Whilst his younger siblings continue their development in North London the older Willock brother knows he must bide his time for the opportunity to feature in Mourinho’s plans.
Furthermore, to be considered for a loan move away from Old Trafford in order to pick up valuable minutes in a first team environment, Willock concedes that he must listen to the instructions and wishes of his club.
“I’ve been with the first team a bit in training, hopefully I can push my way forward. Patience is key, really. Sometimes as a player you really want something but you have to remember the club always knows best.”
Mourinho is famously a manager who tends to utilise experience, rather than youth, within his squad and therefore the path to the first team will not be straightforward for any young player at United.
Yet Willock, in pursuing his dreams, has proven that he is not adverse to overcoming barriers placed in his way.
Having bounced back from his early experience of rejection and the harsh realities of competitive football at the highest level, what message would Willock pass on to youngsters who, like him, have been left high and dry by their academy experience?
As you’d expect, old-fashioned hard work is high on the list. But so too is keeping a level head and realising there is still time for things to change.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he signs off.
“It’s easy to give up and start thinking you’re not good enough when people say it by releasing you, but you have to keep believing in yourself and keep working hard. If you’ve got the talent you’ll come through.”