What sort of summer has it been for Jack Wilshere? It rather depends, I suppose, on your perspective. In a parallel universe, Wilshere might have been one of the home-grown jewels in Unai Emery’s Arsenal revolution, a World Cup semi-finalist with England, enjoying a well-earned break after his month as a national hero. Instead here he is, fresh from pre-season training with his new club West Ham, reminiscing wistfully about watching England on television while promoting a new range of children’s laser toys. From the outside looking in, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether things had gone slightly awry.
Then again, Wilshere is nothing if not one of life’s glass-half-full guys, and if there’s a scintilla of melancholy to him, then he’s hiding it well. He talks with genuine enthusiasm about the prospect of a new start at West Ham, the club he supported as a boy. He expresses his excitement about working under new manager Manuel Pellegrini, “a gentleman”, as well as a manager whose style of play he’s always admired. He speaks with pride and affection about the latest addition to the Wilshere family: Siena, a little sister for Archie and Delilah. And he really does like the laser game, although he admits he’s not great at it.
Either way, it’s been an eventful summer, an emotional one too, and it seems logical to start with the World Cup, a tournament Wilshere so desperately wanted to play himself, believed he should have been picked for, and yet one that – as a patriotic Englishman – he ended up getting swept up in like everyone else.
That said, watching from afar felt “strange”, he admits. “I haven’t really watched it as a fan since 2010 in South Africa. That was the last one I remember watching properly. I was buzzing for the boys. I was like a fan, cheering every moment. I was devastated they couldn’t get past Croatia, especially when they scored early. They seemed to get a little bit tired. But moving forward into the next qualification, they’ll look back and learn from it.”
Does he reckon the tournament changed perceptions of English football? “Yeah, I think so. That’s down to the players. They earned that respect, they showed they could compete against the top nations technically. We’ve always been able to compete physically, but technically, people have doubted us.”
And so as Wilshere watched the world’s best players duking it out in Russia, an urge began to gnaw at him: to get back out on the pitch and show what he could do. “It makes you want to play even more,” he says. “You’re not involved in it, but you’re watching every game, and you want to be playing. It’s been a long summer.”
Fortunately for him, the opportunity wasn’t long in coming. Pre-season training at West Ham is now in its third week, and with Wilshere joining a new-look West Ham squad with fellow new signings Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, Issa Diop and Lukasz Fabianski, there’s a real feeling of rejuvenation about the place. At the head of it all is Pellegrini, a title-winner with Manchester City in 2014, fresh from two years in China, and now eager to transmit his brand of attacking football to a new group of players.
First impressions? “He’s a good coach,” Wilshere says. “First and foremost, he’s a nice guy, a gentleman. He’s very hands-on, trying to get his message across, how he wants us to play and defend. Training is intense. I feel we’re getting fitter as each week goes by, but now we’re starting to work on a few things he wants from us tactically.”
After the pragmatism of Sam Allardyce, the expressiveness of Slaven Bilic, and the rigour of David Moyes, Pellegrini’s arrival promises yet another step change in style. “If you look at his City team that won the league,” Wilshere explains, “when they lost the ball, they pressed straightaway. That’s what we need to be doing as a team. We need to be a compact unit, and win the ball back as high as possible. Then we’ve got players who can cause problems going forward. You saw that last year, and we’ve added some attacking players who have loads of ability. So it’s an exciting time.”
Wilshere insists that the parting of ways with Arsenal after 17 years was his call: “I decided to leave,” he says. “Which was a decision that took some time to come to.” And so the first major transfer of his career required a good deal of thought. He spoke to his former manager Arsene Wenger, who told him his phone line was always open if he needed any advice. And ultimately, it was the pull of his boyhood club that held sway. Joining West Ham, it turned out, was a decision driven as much by emotion as logic.
“I’ve had a bond with West Ham since growing up as a kid, going to Upton Park, looking up to the players,” he says. “Obviously I had to consider all my options – abroad and in England – but once I sat down, it was clear for me. They’ve got real ambitions, they’re playing in a big stadium in front of good fans, and we can really build something special. As a team, they went through quite a lot last year, but they’re really tight. That’s going to help us going forward.”
Who did he enjoy watching as a kid? “Paolo Di Canio was my all-time hero. That team with Trevor Sinclair, even as far back as Julian Dicks. Then when I got a little bit older, I really looked up to Joe Cole. I remember watching him in the Youth Cup as a kid. We beat Coventry about 9-0 [in 1999], and he was unbelievable. As a young player, I wanted to be like him.
“Even in the past, when I was allowed to go to Bolton a few years ago [on loan, while at Arsenal], West Ham were maybe interested. And I was speaking to my agent, saying: ‘what about West Ham, what about West Ham?’ It never really came up. But as soon as it did, I was 100 per cent going to do it.”
And so Wilshere’s long, strange summer is almost at an end. “There have been a lot of changes happening in my life,” he admits. “And I’ve embraced it. I had a baby, so I went on holiday for a week, but we had to wait for the passport to come. It’s difficult when you have a new baby, but at the same time a nice distraction. She’s taken my mind off football. It was a tough time.”
It’s a decade since Wilshere first burst onto the scene at Arsenal. He’s 26 now, a father of three, and with a more rounded knowledge of the game, its ups and downs and how to cope with them. “In the past, it’s been difficult,” he admits. “But over the last couple of years, I’ve had a really good run. I went to Bournemouth and had a great time. The idea was just to prove to myself that I can still play at that level. Then I came back, and decided to stay at Arsenal and fight for my place, and I played 30-odd games [38 in all competitions]. So I’ve had a good couple of years.”
There’s ambition there, but no bitterness. Wilshere knows he has a point to prove this season, that there will be those eager to write him off, those who may already have done so. But then, that was ever the case. “You’re always being judged, you’re always being watched,” he says. “That’s the way the world is. As a footballer, you’ve always got something to prove. The day when you’ve got nothing to prove? That’s probably the day you should hang your boots up.”
West Ham United Footballer Jack Wilshere proudly fronts the launch of NERF LASER OPS PRO, a new line of innovative NERF blasters ready for head-to-head, live-action laser battles. Players can also amp up their game with a free app. The NERF LASER OPS PRO line is now available for pre-order in the UK at select online retailers and will be available online and in stores later this month.
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