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'I've had some dark times' - Sheaf's Arsenal desire still burning strong

Ben Sheaf’s desire to make it at Arsenal is as strong now as it was when he first arrived at the club from West Ham as a 16-year-old.

The midfielder has long been touted as one of the most technically accomplished players coming through Arsenal’s youth ranks and two years ago he looked set for a breakthrough, only for injuries to halt his progress. 

So as several of his team-mates at Under-23s level began to earn more and more game time in the first-team, Sheaf had to watch on from the treatment room.

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But during those dark days his ambition to realise his dream did not diminish and even now - aged 22 - he has not given up hope of joining the likes of Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson in Mikel Arteta’s plans.

“I want to play for Arsenal,” Sheaf told Goal in an exclusive interview. “That is the dream. 

“It’s easy to say injuries have stopped me, which I think they partly have. But I wouldn’t have the journey I’ve had any other way. That sounds a bit cringe, but I wouldn’t.

“I’ve had some dark times but I know that I’m good enough and if given the opportunity I will prove myself as good enough. It’s just whether that opportunity comes up or not.”

Sheaf has spent the past season on loan with Doncaster Rovers, having agreed to join the League 1 side last summer.

And prior to the football-wide shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, he was enjoying his best-ever senior campaign, having made 38 appearances in all competitions.

It has been a season, he admits, that has taught him a lot, and it is one he hopes will ultimately give him one last shot of succeeding at Arsenal.

“Of course that's what I want,” he said. “I want to go back there next season and get in the first-team. It’s as simple as that really, but I know the reality of it. 

“I am 22 now and injuries haven’t done me the world of good. But I would love to go back and prove myself because I’ve never really had that injury-free spell when I’ve been there.”

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Sheaf joined Arsenal in 2014 after turning down the offer of a new contract with former club West Ham.

He soon started making waves in the Gunners’ youth ranks and was tipped to make a big impact in the game by Arsene Wenger.

“He’s always ahead of the game and his anticipation quality is absolutely huge,” said the legendary French coach.

“There is something in him that I believe will allow him to progress. He analyses what’s happening to him, he assesses well what is going on and that’s why I believe he will have a good career.”

Sheaf made his senior debut in October 2017, coming off the bench to replace Francis Coquelin during a 1-0 win at Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League. 

Another senior appearance soon followed, this time in a 1-0 home success against West Ham in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals.

“It was crazy over at Red Star, so passionate and hostile,” Sheaf recalled. “Even the tunnel was crazy. It was so enclosed and you go down this long corridor which was lined by these security guards and then you come up and you’re getting whistled at and are having things thrown at you. It was so eye-opening.

“Then it was good to get on at the Emirates against West Ham. I remember winning a header against Andy Carroll and thinking 'blimey, what’s going on here?'”

Sheaf was rewarded for his progress with a contract until 2022 and then agreed a loan move to Stevenage in January, 2018.

A hamstring injury limited him to 10 appearances with the League 2 outfit before he returned to Arsenal with the aim of impressing new boss Unai Emery, who had just been named as Wenger's successor.

But another injury - this time to his knee - stopped him in his tracks.

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“It was the second day of pre-season,” he said. “It was a problem at the back of my knee, a cyst.

“It was really tough mentally because I would always do everything perfectly with my rehab and then I would come back and it would go again.”

Sheaf finally returned towards the end of the season and did travel with the first-team squad for a training camp in Dubai, but he was not in contention to feature under Emery so when Doncaster came calling in the summer, he jumped at the chance of a season-long loan.

“At the start of the season I set myself a target of 35 games, so to have that number of games under my belt already is really positive.

“I’ve learned so much. That rhythm of playing, that continuity is so key, especially for young footballers who are learning the game.

“I’ve been in central midfield all season. I’d not played regularly there for a while as my last two or three seasons at Arsenal was mostly at centre-back, but now I don’t know if I could see myself at centre-back again.”

With football currently suspended, Sheaf is back living in his home near Arsenal’s training ground, but he will return to Doncaster when League 1 is given the green light to return.

He has been in regular contact with Arsenal’s loan manager Ben Knapper during his time with Rovers and has also been speaking to the likes of Eddie Nketiah and Matt Macey back at London Colney to get the lowdown on life under Mikel Arteta.

“I remember playing in a few Under-23s games with Mikel,” said Sheaf. “There was one game, I think it was Blackburn at the training ground, when I was shifted to right-back actually just so he could be in the team.

“The boys have got nothing but good things to say about him. They are buying into his philosophy and I think you can see that with the performances.

“Just hearing about him really does make me want to go and work under him.”