May 15, 2016 was the last time Jack Wilshere started a competitive match for Arsenal. It’s been a long, arduous journey for the one-time poster boy of English football, who has seen several years of his career ravaged by injury and subsequent setbacks.
Four-hundred and ninety-three days after lining out against Aston Villa in the Premier League, an eager Wilshere started alongside Mohamed Elneny in the Gunners third-round Carabao Cup match with Doncaster Rovers at Emirates Stadium.
There are some redeeming features of professional footballers which will always tug on supporters’ heart strings whatever the situation. Endeavour is one trait Wilshere possesses in abundance and his closing down of a Doncaster free-kick drew huge cheers from the 44,000 fans who have missed such tireless running from the former midfield prodigy.
Arsene Wenger had given the 25-year-old Wilshere permission to leave the club this summer and it was only the player’s insistence on staying in north London to fight for his place which saw him reject a number of permanent and loan opportunities across Europe.
It would have been easy to pack up and guarantee himself a starting spot elsewhere yet Wilshere clearly believes he can still become a permanent fixture in Arsenal’s midfield – the team he’s been with since the age of nine.
Wilshere may only be restricted to Europa League, FA Cup and Carabao Cup games this season and it was somewhat ironic that his first steps back into Premier League reckoning are beginning in the cup where he first announced himself as a 16-year-old in 2008.
The 6-0 win over Sheffield United didn’t unearth many future gems but Wilshere’s appearance ignited the excitement among the Arsenal faithful, who could sense that he was going to be something special.
His bursts in the final third and ability to nonchalantly find Olivier Giroud in the opening minutes of the game with a lobbed pass reminded those inside the ground of what still could be.
The Carabao Cup represents an opportunity for fringe players to get their chances in the first team, with the likes of Olivier Giroud, Mohamed Elneny and Per Mertesacker all featuring on Wednesday night.
"I wanted to leave him on to give him 90 minutes. Overall it was an ideal game for him to gain confidence and fitness," said Wenger after the game.
"For me now he's available to play..He needs 90 minutes at that intensity."
A typically temperamental Alexis Sanchez was handed a surprise start as he steps his return to full match fitness and a pin-point assist for Theo Walcott to net the game’s only goal saw Wenger’s men reach the next round of an increasingly undermined domestic cup competition.
Despite the decreased interest for the game, Doncaster fans attempted their best FC Koln impression by letting off a smoke flare in the away end.
Two streakers got their brief minute of fame as Arsenal stewards continued to earn their pay cheque on a night where the FA Cup holders lacked cutting edge in front of goal but still had something to smile about having seen Wilshere make his long-awaited return to the first team.
Indeed, this was the first time that he had completed 90 minutes for Arsenal since September 23, 2014, in a game against Southampton. Jack's finally back. And it's a most welcome return.