The Calling: Eddie Nketiah
Footballers are often experts in giving careful, cautious answers. They’ve been taught to toe the line. So, they stick to it. Eddie Nketiah is different. He’s young, erudite and willing to talk openly about what football has done for him as well as his continual quest for personal growth both on and off the pitch.
Despite his game sparking comparisons to the traditional ‘number 9’ – thanks to his predatory and poaching ability which measures up to the likes of Messrs Wright, Cole and Van Nistelrooy – he’s very much a modern day centre forward. How he talks, how he walks how he acts. How he plays on the pitch; quick-witted, calm and composed is exactly how he is off it. He’s polite to everyone he encounters throughout the day, inquisitive to every last detail of the shoot and willing to learn a little bit more about the world around him. Maybe his confidence comes from the fact that he’s aware he’s on the right track; that this is his destiny.
In 2017, at the age of 18, Eddie made his debut for Arsenal in the Europa League. Despite making a positive impact, he couldn’t get on the scoresheet. Months later, coming on in the North London Club’s Carabao Cup tie against Norwich City for his second first team appearance, he knew he had to make an impact. Fifteen seconds later he had equalised. Not long after, he would score the winner. Mission accomplished. Reputation installed. Destiny delivered.
History soon repeated itself. On August 13th 2019, Eddie made his Leeds United debut, again in the Carabao Cup, against Salford City. Eddie extinguished any glimmers of a cup upset with a calm finish on the stroke of half time. A debut goal. It was written. Since then, Eddie has averaged a goal every 73 minutes in the league this season, which drops to one every 64 if you throw in his strikes for England Under-21s. He scored his first five goals for Leeds from just eight efforts on target. This is his calling.
But Nketiah’s journey towards his ultimate goal – becoming a first-team regular – still has some way to go. Even though he’s impressed in his short time in Yorkshire, the only real surprise in his time at the club has been the lack of game time, despite calls from fans for him to be a more permanent fixture. But, he knows about patience and he knows about setbacks, having honed his craft on the streets of Lewisham, South London. He knows how to succeed, too. Looking back, even his road to Arsenal was not an easy one. He was originally picked up by Chelsea at the age of nine, only to be let go by the age of 14. Two weeks later, however, he joined his boyhood club, Arsenal and he’s never looked back.
Now, for Arsenal, Leeds and England, his goals to game ratio rivals anyone in the game. Which means, the coming of age of one of England’s brightest prospects is perhaps closer than you’d think. The Championship’s most-talked about 20-year-old is ready to deliver on his destiny. This is how he plans to do it…
Let’s start with what’s fast becoming your trademark. How and when did the ‘calling’ celebration come about?
It all started pre-season with Arsenal. I came on late in the game, approaching the last minute, and we were drawing against Bayern Munich. I scored pretty much straight away, I hadn’t even touched the ball properly. Then, Arsenal media tweeted: ‘Need a goal? Better ask Eddie.’ It’s just ran from there. It’s given me a bit of good luck too.
How much longer do you think you’re going to do it for; or will there be an evolution of the celebration?
I’m trying to keep it for as long as I can, you know! I might bring out a few different ones from time to time, but I think this is the one I’ll come back to a lot.
What other iconic football celebrations do you love?
Ronaldo’s one, his OG trademark one. That’s always a good one. Drogba had a few decent ones too. When he used to pump his arms out, that one was a favourite. I’m a big fan of the creative celebrations, the ones that have got a little bit of thought in them but are still a little understated.
You’ve named some big strikers there but who was your football hero growing up?
Probably Thierry (Henry), you know. When I was growing up, he was the man, and I’ve always been a big Arsenal fan. For anyone who has watched him play, you don’t need me to explain how good he was. It was clear for everyone to see. He was the best. Luckily, I got the opportunity to work with him when he came back to Arsenal for a year or so, it was a dream for me. He taught me so much about the game, particularly off the ball.
There’s another Arsenal legend who you’ve got a close relationship with, of course, in the form of Ian Wright. He’s even come up to watch you in Leeds a few times. How did that relationship come about?
Wrighty is a top guy, you know. We did a few shoots together, I think the first one was for a Crash Bandicoot launch and we both just grew fond of each other. I’ve always been a fan of Ian, he was a great player but, most importantly, he’s a great guy. Growing up in similar areas, we can relate to each other. He was always open with me, giving me certain little tips and help. We’ve naturally grown closer from there. He shows good support. Like you said, he even comes up to some of the games. It’s a great feeling knowing you have the backing and support from someone so influential like him.
What has he taught you? Is it things directly on the pitch or is it on the side of the game which we often don’t see?
Mainly he gives feedback on the game he watches. He gives great tips and pointers about life as a striker, it’s more an arm around the shoulder. We talk about life as well, he’s very open. It’s just good to have that support from such a big striker in the game, especially one who is so humble and modest.
Let’s talk Leeds and Bielsa. What’s it like working with a bonafide football pioneer and such an icon in the game?
It’s been a new experience. You get to see the level of detail and preparation which he puts in on a day-to-day basis. He’s really passionate about football. Above all else, he just loves the game. It’s been good to learn from him. It’s still very early stages, but hopefully I can continue to learn from him to get a bigger run of games and use his advice to help me in my career.
Wenger called you up to the first team for the first time for a pre-season tour while he was still at Arsenal. What are the similarities or differences between him and Bielsa?
Wenger was really important for the early stages of my career, he was the one who handed me my debut. It’s hard to compare the two, though. They both have great knowledge of the game, they’re both massively respected in the world of football so I just feel lucky that I’ve been able to work with both of them. Plus, Unai (Emery) too. It’s been great at such a young age to take things from each of them – these characters and managers who are so well-respected.
What has been the biggest surprise for you since arriving at Leeds?
It’s hard to say. I wouldn’t say there’s been many surprises. Obviously, it’s a new culture, so it’s interesting to see how people approach training. It’s different to Arsenal. But, it’s something which I needed to do. I needed to move out of my comfort zone. The one thing which isn’t surprising is the size of the club, everyone in this city lives and loves the club.
How do you deal with the pressure? As a young player you’ve come into a massive club, one that narrowly missed out on promotion last year, as a centre-forward which comes with a lot of pressure and expectancy...
It helps that I’ve come from such a big club like Arsenal and have been lucky to have the experiences and the games that I’ve had there already. So, when it comes to big games I feel like I’m already a little bit used to it. I try and take all the distractions away. To forget about the significance of a certain game or the pressure and just concentrate on what impact I can make. It’s good for me, at a development stage, to try and play week-in-week-out and to really test myself day-in, day-out to get to a level where you are winning things. To actually back myself. It’s what you play for. It’s great to win games, of course, but you want to fight for important things and win trophies. Leeds have a great chance of doing that, which is why I chose to come here.
When did you first realise you were a threat in front of goal? Have you always been a centre-forward?
Yeah, forever. When I was younger I used to play from the left a bit more, but I used to score a lot so I naturally ended up going into the middle. I like being in front of goal. From young, even if I was playing with my friends as a kid in the park or moving up the age groups, I always managed to score goals. I’ve always just loved that feeling of scoring, so I’m just really hungry for it. It’s great that I’ve managed to keep scoring through the age groups and I hope that continues.
Who initially introduced you to the game?
It was my Dad. He was the one who started kicking it about with me around the house and in the garden before I graduated out of that and started playing with my friends.
Is he any good?
(Laughs) Ah, well, he’s not the best but he’s decent. He’s got great knowledge of the game, he’s got great intelligence, but he can’t execute all of his ideas technically.
What do you consider to be the biggest strength of your game?
I’d probably say my movement, you know. My intelligence levels to get into those goal scoring opportunities and to be able to finish. It’s a hard art to get into positions where you are going to hurt the opponent. It’s not just something I’ve come across, it’s something I’ve worked really hard on with different coaches to get their different perspectives and techniques to always get me in the most dangerous areas and the opportunity to score goals.
How does it feel to be a young England player at the minute? There’s been a lot of success across a lot of age groups but it also seems now more than ever that top teams in the country are being a lot more receptive and open to giving young English talent a chance in various first teams…
100%. Over the last few years, it’s been incredible to see what all the teams are achieving, right down from the U18s all the way to the seniors. The World Cup was massive. I think it was a coming of age performance which shows people that England are ready to perform at major tournaments. With Gareth Southgate he’s showing that if you’re doing well that you’re good enough. It doesn’t matter about your age he’ll give you the chance. For me being in the U21s and playing regularly, it’s good to see that there is a pathway for me to get in the first team. You know if you play well, it’s never too far away. It gives you that motivation to keep performing well week in week out because you never know when you’ll get the step up.
What about South London right now? It’s something which has been noted a lot of late, but what’s in the water around Lewisham because there are a lot of players from South making an impact such as Ruben Loftus Cheek, Jonathan Panzo, Josh Maja, Joe Gomez, Callum Hudson Odoi etc.
I think it’s the mentality. Obviously being from South London, I know that there’s not as many opportunities around, so football really is a release and often a way out for people. It’s a game which gives people the opportunity to express themselves in a positive way from a young age. People are constantly brought together through football, especially in South its something which creates community and brings them together. A lot of people start playing from such a young age and they get this competitive edge and the drive to succeed. So, it makes the transition from playing with your friends to doing it under pressure a lot easier.
It’s great to see people from your area, sometimes a difficult area, really making something of themselves. I’m sure there will be even more players to come through who haven’t even been discovered yet. Hopefully, with the abundance of South London players about now, it makes it easier or gives the younger players coming through the belief that they can make it too.
What players did you play with growing up in South?
I played with Reiss (Nelson) a lot and Jadon Sancho at Kicks. A few of the boys, Josh Koroma who’s playing at Huddersfield right now. We used to compete a lot in various different tournaments. It’s good to see people that you grew up with, people who you are close to, playing on these big stages and to continue to develop.
How have you found Leeds as a place to not only learn your football trade but grow as a person too?
It’s been good. It’s been good for me to get away from London and experience a new culture, a new city. I feel like I’ve already developed a lot. Being away, I’ve got to learn a lot about myself by coming out of my comfort zone and dealing with life on your own. I feel like I’ve matured personally. Leeds is a nice area. I live quite close to the city centre so it’s a great life. I’m really enjoying myself. Playing for a big club in a new city has been a lot of fun.
On the topic of life away from the game; how would you describe your style off the pitch?
I’d like to say I’m quite understated, not too flashy. I like to keep it calm and chilled. I’m into my clothes massively, always looking into new brands, but I like to keep it nice and understated.
Do any style superstitions creep into your match day kit?
Nah, not really. The big thing is that I cut my socks. A lot of players also do that now. I cut the bottom because the white under socks are a lot more comfortable. When it’s getting cold – which it definitely is up here – I quite like the gloves look. The alll-black gloves look on the pitch.
How many style conversations come up in the changing room now?
There’s a lot, a lot. Everyone wants to do a bit, have a bit. If you come in anything too rascal you’re always going to get grilled. You have to give a bit of thought into it. All the boys now are really into it. When we go out together, everyone is always slyly competing with each other. It’s good banter.
Have you noticed any differences in the way the Southern players approach style to the Northern boys up here?
(Laughs) I still think we have more flavour down in the south, to be honest. There’s a few of the boys up in Leeds who have got a bit going on. Barry Douglas has got a bit, he looks fresh. Tyler (Roberts) has got a bit. They’ve all got a bit. Day-to-day everyone keeps it casual, I’m the same. The go-to is the relaxed tracksuit look.
You said you’re massively into music; what artists are you listening to right now?
I’m big into American artists at the moment: Lil Baby, Gunna. D-Block Europe I listen to them a lot. They are the clear top three.
When they compile all your goals from this season into a nice compilation package – what track are you picking to support it?
That’s a big question, you know. (Pauses). You’ve put me on the spot here but I’d have to go safety with Lil Baby ‘Woah’. It’s quite upbeat, it will work well. Them compilation videos after a game is televised are good to be fair.
Both of your parents are Ghanian; what values did they install into you growing up and how do you think that has affected your outlook on life?
It gave me good morals as a person, first and foremost. Away from football, it’s installed in me good morals. Having my two parents behind me at all times has been amazing. Along with my sisters too. We’ve always been a really tight knit family and I’ve always felt their support. I owe them a lot. On this journey, when I think of where I’ve got to now and where I want to go, it comes a lot down to my upbringing. I’m very fortunate.
Are you the youngest?
Yeah, I’m the youngest. I never got bossed around (Laughs). I’ve always been in firm control. I’ve got two loving sisters. Being the only boy, of course, my Mum looked after me a lot but I’ve always been really close to my friends too; they are like family to me. I’m always thankful to have these people around me.
Finally, what’s the greatest piece of advice that you’ve received on this journey?
It’s a short career, you have to make the most of it. I still remember when I was a scholar when I first came up when I was 16 and the coach said to me ‘always keep working, because this all goes quickly. Don’t think you have all the time in the world.’ Looking back at it, it makes sense, it goes fast. So, now I always consider in what ways am I being productive and the work I can put in to constantly improve.
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