Jay Emmanuel-Thomas: from Arsenal highs to struggling at QPR
In 2009, Arsenal won the FA Youth Cup with an aggregate 6-2 victory over holders Liverpool, who were looking to lift the trophy for the third year running.
After that crushing victory, surely many of those young Gunners were destined for stardom?
It would appear that was not the case. Following Francis Coquelin’s transfer to Valencia last month, Jack Wilshere is now the only player from that Cup-winning side who remains an Arsenal player.
The captain of that successful side, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, scored in every round of their cup run that season, and eventually went on to make appearances for the first team in both the Premier League and Champions League.
However, after loans spells at Blackpool, Doncaster and Cardiff he left Arsenal permanently to sign for Ipswich Town in 2011.
A spell at Bristol City followed before he joined QPR in 2015, but after further loan periods at MK Dons and Gillingham, he is currently out of favour and playing the majority of his football for the under-23s.
So, with his experience of the ups and downs of football, what does the 27-year-old striker think about the English youth academy system?
Too much, too young?
“Some players do get too much too young, but it’s not their fault,” he told Elephant Sport.
“As a young kid if you get offered a big contract, you’re going to take it, it’s part and parcel of life. No-one will say that’s too much money, you will take it and there’s then a huge expectation on the player.
“It’s hard for some players depending on where they go. At the end of the day, it’s often down to not being able to turn down such a big contract, especially from the big teams.
“It’s not anyone’s fault, but the bigger the club, the more money they have to spend on players’ wages. Sometimes there is too much weight on players’ shoulders.”
Despite the recent success of England’s various age group teams, including winning the U-20 World Cup, Emmanuel-Thomas believes young players at big clubs stand less of a chance of succeeding at the highest level.
“The boys at smaller clubs will probably have a better chance of breaking into their first team, due to finances, smaller squads and so on.
“It’s all well and good someone saying a player has potential, but it’s in training where it counts, what the player is doing off the pitch, so that they have the right to play on the pitch.
‘I just want to be back playing every week, it doesn’t matter where or who for’
“It’s all a matter of timing, waiting and patience. Some people are more patient than others, some want to just go out and play. When the chance comes, you have to take it,” he said.
Having played with Wilshere at both youth and first team level, the East Londoner is full of praise for the midfielder.
“Jack was always talented from a young age. You could see the ability he had was more advanced than the teams we were playing against.
“If Jack is at his best and fully fit he is potentially England’s best midfielder by a long stretch. It’s all down to him physically and mentally if he can get into that mindset.”
Wenger: a great mentor
Despite Wilshere being the only remaining player from the Youth Cup-winning side of 2009, the striker praised Arsenal’s youth system, and the effect of manager Arsene Wenger on his development.
“It was a great time for me as a player to be captain of a good team. We had some great players in our squad, and out of that entire team there’s only one player who’s not currently playing in the football industry at some level,” he says.
‘If Jack Wilshere is at his best and fully fit he is potentially England’s best midfielder by a long stretch’
“The youth system we had at the time was excellent. You can see from the players Arsenal have produced, and continue to produce now, the standard is incredible.
“I think Arsene Wenger evolved Arsenal as a club. He changed a lot, brought in certain styles of play, brought in players that nobody had heard of and made them into superstars.
“He’s been given these new contracts for a specific reason. As far as I’m concerned, he was a great manager to work with and to play for, and he should still be in charge.”
Despite making his way into the first team at Arsenal, Emmanuel-Thomas believes he had to leave the club to further his career, and has no regrets in doing so.
“From our age group we had several players potentially getting a game for the first team.
“Just before I left, I was getting minutes in the first team, as were Craig Eastmond and Jack Wilshere. Coquelin was in and out. Kyle Bartley and Henri Lansbury played a few cup games.
“But it was a decision that I had to make. I could’ve stuck around at Arsenal, potentially never knowing what was going to happen. For me, I still feel like I made the right decision leaving Arsenal.”
For the man nicknamed ‘JET’, the youth team he captained at Arsenal was also triumphant in terms of players making their way into professional football.
“It was a successful team, I know players from the year above us and the year below us that are no longer playing football at all,” he says.
But what does the future now hold for JET?
“I just want to be back playing every week, it doesn’t matter where or who for. I have a family to provide for, it’s all about playing the game and providing for my family, that’s the main goal.”
You can follow Jay on Twitter @OfficialJET10