Sidwell to show value of Arsenal education

Reading's midfield marauder left Highbury at 20, but is looking forward to facing his mentors tonight. Glenn Moore reports

There is a neat symmetry to Steve Sidwell's return to Highbury for tonight's Carling Cup fourth-round tie for it was an Arsenal defeat in the competition which persuaded him to leave the marble halls and heated floors and seek his fortune in the wider world.

Sidwell now commands the midfield for the Championship leaders, Reading, but, in November 2002, he was on the bench when Arsenal played Sunderland in the third round. Then, as now, the competition was the most likely source of first-team action for Arsenal youngsters.

"They are the games you pass an eye over thinking you may make an appearance," he said when we met at Reading's expansive Berkshire training ground yesterday. "I got the shout to warm up, but never to strip off. We lost and I thought, 'That's my season done'."

With his 20th birthday approaching Sidwell knew it was time to progress his career. "I went out on loan, had a dozen games at Brighton, and the next thing I know I had signed for Reading. I loved Arsenal and still do. I was there for 11 years, from nine to 20. I was part of the side that won back-to-back Youth Cups. I scored in the Highbury legs of both finals. I have great friends there. But I never played for the first team. That's my one regret. So to play there now, in their last season at Highbury, is a dream come true."

Sidwell will return with positive intent. "People say this is about going back and proving points but to me it's about going back and soaking up an atmosphere. And to show people I am still improving as a player. I left on good terms. I went to see Mr [Arsène] Wenger and Mr [Pat] Rice about my future. Mr Wenger said he didn't want me to leave, there was a new contract for me, but he couldn't guarantee first-team football. I had Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva, two World Cup winners, to displace. He said, 'I know you are a good player. It is in your best interests to go out and show people your worth', and he said, and I'll never forget this, 'One day we might buy you back'. I might remind him of that. It happened with Martin Keown.

"A lot of youngsters leave Arsenal with bitterness because of a lack of first-team opportunities but the education I got in those 10 years - from coaches like Liam Brady, Don Howe, Don Givens and Neil Banfield - I wouldn't have got anywhere else in the country. I have a lot to thank that club for."

So have Reading. Since signing, for £250,000, in January 2003 Sidwell has been an automatic choice for the prospering Royals, first under Alan Pardew, and now Steve Coppell. Reading, with another Arsenal graduate, James Harper, partnering Sidwell in midfield, stand 13 points clear of the play-off places and are 23 games unbeaten. They are not, though, planning a celebration party just yet.

"We were in a similar position last year," said Sidwell. "We were second on Boxing Day, then we had a couple of months when we couldn't win a game and didn't even make the play-offs. So we are only looking one game ahead."

Sidwell, an intelligent level-headed Londoner, is not one to get carried away. He knows the line between success and failure is slim and capricious. His brother, Lee, was a promising schoolboy at Crystal Palace but suffered broken leg and cruciate injuries and now combines playing for Whyteleafe, in the Ryman League, with working as a scaffolder in the family firm, an occupation Steve also had a taste of. "My parents always kept my feet on the ground. During breaks from school Dad would take us down the yard at 6am and have us sweeping floors to four in the afternoon."

That experience, and loan spells in the lower divisions - "to go to places like Bury and Chesterfield as a 17-year-old, no disrespect, was an eye-opener to someone used to London Colney with its heated floors, swimming pool and chef" - left Sidwell well equipped to handle the move away from Arsenal. And maybe, one day, earn a move back.