England v Montenegro: Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere tries to stub out all talk of smoking
England midfielder admits his error but now says he wants to focus on helping club and country
Jack Wilshere was not even two years old when England last failed to qualify for a World Cup finals and a mention of the 1994 qualifying debacle, drew just a blank look from the young man upon whom so much English hope is pinned.
At least that is one burden of the past that Wilshere does not have to carry around with him, although one would not say that the past seven days have exactly been carefree. It is a good job that nothing seems to faze Wilshere, or at least that is the way it came across as he discussed his cigarette episode and the very public fall-out around his denial and then subsequent admission that, yes, he had been smoking.
The photograph that originally appeared in The Sun on Friday showed Wilshere drawing hard on a cigarette on a night-out after Arsenal's win over Napoli. The original mealy-mouthed explanation that it had been a "prank" gave way to the rather more honest admission on Monday that he had been smoking and was sorry for it.
It was hardly the greatest crime but at St George's Park, Wilshere said that he would not be caught out again. "I know that I did wrong," he said. "I spoke to the boss [Arsène Wenger] and he supported me through it. He gave me a little telling off, we dealt with it. He put me in the team on Sunday and I hopefully repaid him with a goal. So it was dealt with."
And the scrutiny that he has found himself under after breaking through as a teenage prodigy? "Yeah, it is tough. It is not just players who make mistakes. I am sure you have made some! If I get caught it looks bad but it's been dealt with now. I spoke to the boss. I said before I am not a smoker, I don't smoke 10-a-day or whatever as people have been saying! It was a mistake and I have learned from it."
The question of whether it was wrong for a professional footballer to smoke, even very occasionally, provoked a candid response from Wilshere. "Yeah, it is. I am a top, top athlete. I am not just a footballer. I am an athlete. We have to be at the top of our game. Not just at the weekend; in training every day I am playing with the best players – Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla. You can't be slacking behind them. There's no hiding place when you are training."
He said that there had been little remorse shown to him by his Arsenal team-mates and the club's staff following the publication of the pictures. From the lame joke cracked by physio Colin Lewin: "He said 'You smoked that shot' after I scored on Sunday," Wilshere recalled, to his fellow players in training: "When I am getting angry they now say 'Calm down, have a fag'."
As for England's two games against Montenegro and Poland over the next six days, Wilshere is a good bet to start alongside Steven Gerrard in the central midfield pairing in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but not a certainty. He is up against Frank Lampard and the lesser-spotted Michael Carrick for the starting role, having played both the previous qualifiers against Moldova and Ukraine to varying degrees of success.
The current issue at Arsenal is that, as on Sunday against West Bromwich Albion, Wilshere is being played out of position on the left side of the attacking three and, as he said himself more than once, he is not a left winger.
"I am playing in a team where there is a lot of competition for places and there are a few players who are in top form at the minute so it is tough to get in there," he said. "But I am doing a job for the team. I have said before I wanted to play for Arsenal from a young, young age. So if I am playing on the left or I am playing on the right or I am playing deep-lying or a bit further forward, I am just happy to be on the pitch. Ideally, I would agree with the boss, I'm a deep-lying midfielder. Not a defensive midfielder but we play a sort of a two and another in front and I think that [the No 10 role] is Özil's position. But I would love to play behind that. It is not a defensive midfielder, it's a bit of both."
Wilshere said that he rated his season so far as a "six... and a half out of 10". He was phlegmatic about a difficult first half at the Hawthorns on Sunday in which he was booked for a late challenge on Claudio Yacob just before the break. Booed by the home fans after that, he turned it around after the break and scored his side's goal, only the seventh in his entire career.
Had he heard the answer that Wenger gave to the question, post-match, about whether Wilshere could become a goalscoring midfielder in the manner of Cesc Fabregas in his later years at Arsenal. "He said: 'No'!" Wilshere said. And what does he think? "I think so. I think he [Wenger] said the same thing about [Aaron] Ramsey last season as well and look at him this season. He can't stop scoring! Hopefully I can prove him [Wenger] wrong."
He was deployed as a No 10 in Kiev last month and had his least effective game of the 10 caps he has won so far. Although given the emphasis placed by England on bypassing Ukraine's hard pressing in midfield, it was under mitigating circumstances. "That's football," he said. "Sometimes you can't be the best player, you can't get the ball all the time and make things happen. You just have to play a part. As a team we defended well. We still had chances to win the game."
Against Brazil in February, Wilshere had arguably his best game in an England shirt. Before that it was Switzerland in June 2011 which came before his injury problems.
He anticipated that Montenegro will sit deep and invite England to break them down, which is where Wilshere's eye for a pass and his invention will be required. The expectation upon him, he likes to say, is "part and parcel of being a footballer" and there will be plenty more at Wembley on Friday night.
The Wilshere effect: Jack's England stats
2010 Made senior debut on 11 August 2010 in a 2-1 win over Hungary.
10 He was the 10th youngest England debutant at 18 years 222 days.
6 England have won six of the 10 matches he has been involved in.
5 Has played at five levels – U-16s, U-17s, U-19s, U-21s and seniors.
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