COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
When Chuba Akpom crossed the white line at the Stadium of Light on September 14 2013 to replace an injured Olivier Giroud deep into stoppage time, many saw it as the emergence of yet another youngster under Arsene Wenger destined for a bright future at Arsenal.
However, that game against the Black Cats will probably only be remembered now as the day Mesut Ozil announced himself to English football. That, and Aaron Ramsey’s brace, stood out in a 3-1 victory for the North London club.
Granted, the 17-year-old didn’t get a kick against Paolo Di Canio’s side, however, followers of Arsenal had seen the academy product grow at the club since he was six, and felt he had a high ceiling.
So why, almost five years down the line, has the youngster finally left his childhood club for Greek side PAOK Salonika?In his time at Arsenal, Wenger showed the willingness to blood youngsters from the club’s academy, and that gave Akpom a fighting chance.
Homegrown starlets like Jack Wilshere, Alex Iwobi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson were given their debuts by the Frenchman, who also wasn’t averse to purchasing talent from abroad – with Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry, Kolo Toure, Cesc Fabregas among others representing the Gunners under the now-departed manager.
Irrespective of the fact that seeing products of the academy establish themselves in the first-team puts a smile on fans’ faces, there are still absolutely no guarantees in football, as a great deal of internal and external factors play a part in a youngster’s development.Nevertheless, given Akpom was, at a point, the crown jewel of the youth side, his departure will definitely leave a bad taste.
At 19, and after his hat-trick in Arsenal’s 4-0 win over Singapore Select XI in a Barclays Asia semi-final tie in 2015, Wenger promised to keep him the side for the season to be third-choice striker behind Giroud and Danny Welbeck.
His manager had challenged the club’s youngsters to impress on tour and the forward from Canning Town duly responded.
"It’s down to performance and attitude and he has enough of that to be a big talent," said Wenger, "but let’s not forget it’s a friendly.
"He’s a good talent but has to work and show that in every game."
The follow-up statement was wise by the Frenchman, as it’d have been unfair to place so much pressure on a young player still in his teens.
Be that as it may, Akpom never seemed able to live up to the hype, perhaps weighed down by the burden of expectation.
Maybe it didn’t help that having been guaranteed a stay at the club; he was farmed out to Hull City for the 2015/2016 season.
It made sense though as it’d have been illogical to stall his development keeping him as third-choice, and the attacker responded by helping Steve Bruce’s side secure automatic promotion to the top flight, notching three goals in 19 starts – and 36 games in total.
It’s telling though that the young forward’s spell with the Tigers was arguably his best away from the club, alongside last season’s stint in Belgium with Sint-Truidense – in which he found the back of the net six times in 16 appearances in all competitions.
His time at Brentford, Coventry City, Nottingham Forest and Brighton & Hove Albion were either too short to learn anything new or somewhat disappointing – as evidenced by fans’ frustration during his stay at Chris Hughton’s Brighton.
The fact Arsenal also seemed to have options in the striking role over the years limited his chances of featuring intermittently. That, coupled with the atmosphere in Wenger’s final years didn’t help either, in all honesty.
The unrest and division in the fanbase over the manager’s future would’ve made it even more difficult to get his chances in the side.It should also be noted that with the north London club’s recent change in transfer strategy - which has seen Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrive in the capital - chances were always going to be sparse for the frontman.
The departure of Wenger, which came ironically after arguably Akpom's best loan spell, and arrival of Unai Emery probably confirmed what most had thought… the Nigerian had reached the end of the line at Arsenal.
The 22-year-old Londoner had appeared destined for prominence due to his excellence in youth football, and while his career so far has proved that great expectations do not equal great realities, he’s still got time to prove doubters wrong… and why not at PAOK?