'Arsenal is still my dream' - Okonkwo explains Sturm Graz loan move and reveals Balogun inspiration

Arthur Okonkwo Arsenal.Arsenal.

Arthur Okonkwo is not the type of person who likes to just stay in his comfort zone.

That’s why the Arsenal goalkeeper leapt at the chance to move to Crewe in the summer to experience his first loan spell in the professional game.

And it’s also why he opted to leave Gresty Road behind last month - despite enjoying an excellent time with the League Two club - to pack his bags and move to Austria halfway through the season and join Sturm Graz.

It was a huge step into the unknown for the 21-year-old, but it’s one he had no hesitation in taking.

“A January move is not an easy move,” Okonkwo told GOAL during an exclusive interview. “Especially during your first loan away from your club.   

“And not only have I moved again, but I’ve also gone out to Europe. I’m in a different country and I don’t know anywhere or anyone in Austria.

“But I’m always open to learning. I enjoy a challenge and see this as another challenge for me to push on.

“I was comfortable at Crewe and I was getting the games that I needed. But I decided that it would be better not to stay too much in my comfort zone. I wanted to get out there and play at a higher level.”

There were plenty of eyebrows raised when it emerged that Okonkwo was swapping League Two for the Austrian Bundesliga.

His time at Crewe had been a successful one. He kept 10 clean sheets in 26 appearances and his performances had seen him nominated for the league’s player of the month award in November.

He could have stayed and looked to build on his impressive start, but the lure of playing top-flight football on the continent was too strong to ignore.

And, as he prepares to make his Sturm Graz debut in a mouth-watering cup quarter-final at RB Salzburg on Friday night, the Arsenal stopper can’t wait to get started.

“I’m excited,” he said. “These types of big games will be really good for me to push on. I can’t wait.

“Every footballer dreams of playing in front of big crowds and dealing with that sort of pressure. 

“It’s a massive game, a quarter-final against a top side. But I just have to do my job and enjoy it.

“I want to use what I’ve learnt over the last five or six months and show everyone what I can do.”

Having signed a new three-year contract at Arsenal in 2021, Okonkwo spent last season as a member of Mikel Arteta’s first-team squad.

Although he didn’t play a single game, he provided cover for Aaron Ramsdale and Bernd Leno and was a regular on the bench in the Premier League and cup competitions.

Okonkwo says he ended that season as a ‘completely different goalkeeper’ due to the experiences he had enjoyed, but his plan was always to follow it up with a year out on loan.

So last summer was spent talking to clubs to try and find the right destination and after careful consultation between Arsenal and his agents, he decided to make the move to Crewe.

Arthur Okonkwo Crewe Alexandra 2022.Crewe Alexandra.

For a player who has come up through the academy system at a Premier League club, adjusting to life in League Two was far from easy.

But after a tough settling in period, he started to grow as a keeper and as a man.

“Early on it was difficult,” he said. “Moving out of my house in London, moving away from my family.

“I knew it would be a challenge and the first few months were difficult, but after that I really enjoyed it. 

“Crewe were very good. They looked after me and they made sure things were in place for me.”

Okonkwo added: “The style of football was obviously different to what I was used to. There was less build up, more long balls. Teams were very direct and very physical.

“Players are men and they knew that I was a young keeper and they did target that. They would throw some stuff towards me to see how I dealt with it in games.

“But it’s about learning how to deal with those situations. You learn all the tricks as you go on and so as I got going it got easier."

Okonkwo now aims to use everything he learned during his time at Crewe to help push Sturm Graz forward during the second half of the season.

They currently sit second in the Austrian Bundesliga ahead of the restart later this month, six points adrift of leaders Salzburg.

So there is plenty to play for and the Gunners loanee knows there is a big opportunity for him to make an impact.

“I just want to give my best every day,” he said. “Being a footballer you want to play in front of the crowds every week.

“I don't want to sit on a bench. I always want to be playing, to improve myself and one day become Arsenal’s No.1. This is my biggest goal. This is still my dream.”

It’s that mindset that drove Okonkwo to push for a loan this season.

He could have stayed at Arsenal and played his role as a squad player, but he wanted to go out and prove himself. To play every week and develop.

And he is now reaping the rewards of that choice, as is fellow Arsenal loanee Folarin Balogun, who currently tops the scoring charts in France where he is spending the season with Reims.

“Flo is a great example,” Okonkwo said, pointing to his team-mate's success. "He is a top player. I’m so happy for him. But I know his quality, I know how good he is, so it doesn’t surprise me.

“He’s in a similar position to me. He wasn’t playing as consistently as he would like and that’s why he went out. That’s why a lot of players go on loan nowadays to play. 

“They want to get consistent football and to prove they can play football. It’s so important.

“And that’s my focus now. I’m just thinking about the present. I’m at Sturm Graz and I just want to give my best every day.”

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