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The Empire of Warriors

30 Sep 2019
Reiss Nelson
Arsenal F.C.
30 Sep 2019
S

outh London is big.

When I was just a lad, it felt like it was as big as the whole world.

When you look out from an apartment window, South London just goes on forever. It’s big big.

But it’s also got these small cages.

That’s where I’m from, the cages.

The cages are actually these little cement squares — much smaller than an actual pitch, more like a basketball court — that are all around the estate where I grew up. They were surrounded by metal fences. Two goals on either side. My friends and I would walk over, sketch a little end line, and that’s when the magic would start. 

Pure footballing magic, mate.

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

When I was little, I was there in the cages every day after school. It was the place. And it was the place because we, the kids from Aylesbury Estate, could go and be ourselves — and not be judged by others. That’s the thing about being from a place like where I’m from. People who don’t live there don’t get it. They look down at you.

Whenever I left the neighbourhood to go play somewhere else I’d always hear, “Look at the state of you. Look at where you’re from. That’s all you’ll ever be.”

So, yeah, if you were from Aylesbury, you got it. You understood. And that’s why everyone there was there was always competing. Just trying to get out. And down in the cages, you didn’t even have any friends, really. That was the battlefield.

I remember when I was 15 years old I was pretty decent with the ball at my feet. Little lad, but I could ball. Some kids told me about another guy, maybe a bit older than me, who was proper good, too.

“You need to get him in the cage, see who’s best.”

I have 20 different versions of that story. It happened to me all the time when I was growing up. That’s just the way it was. Pure competition, all the time.

Aylesbury Estate was a tough, tough place. But it helped raised me. It influences my game and my life even now. I’m not the only one, either. Jadon Sancho is from right nearby. That boy knows his way around the cages, I can tell you that much. Same thing with Tammy Abraham. He can play, that boy. That’s why they’ve got all that skill on the ball —  that little area, it creates more talent than you could ever imagine. And there’s more coming, too.

So when people ask me about the estates in South London, I tell them about the cages.

And I tell them that South London is where warriors come from.

A little empire of warriors. 

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

The thing about the cages is, when you’re in them for a while, you start to feel like you’re in another place. For me, I always felt like I was playing at Highbury, or the Emirates. That was my dream, but the cages were my reality. My whole family were Gunners. From my cousins to my older sisters, they all supported Arsenal. So in the cages, I was usually in an Arsenal kit. I’d pretend I was Cesc Fàbregas, because he was the magic man when he was coming through the system. Or I was Jack Wilshere, because he was young and doing big things with the club.

I think, even though I tried to copy some of their skills and techniques, the thing I learned about the most from them was the way they carried themselves as young players. They wanted the moment, you know? They weren’t afraid to step up. They weren’t afraid to fail.

Young players need to have that confidence. That’s part of why I went to Germany last year to play with Hoffenheim for a season. There were tough moments, for sure. I missed home, I missed Arsenal. I doubted my decision at times, like when I got hurt or when my form dipped. But what I developed there — maybe more than any ability on the pitch — was resilience. The club and support was world class, and that helped me get out of my down periods.

I’m still a player who thrives off of scoring goals. That’s where I get my boost of confidence. But because of my time in the Bundesliga, I know now how to contribute more all over the pitch. That helps me when the goals aren’t happening.

So I hope to bring some of that to Arsenal now that I’m home — now that I’m back where I belong. I’m excited to prove myself to our supporters, our manager and my teammates.

This is where I’m supposed to be. This is where my family — my older brother, my two sisters and my mum — worked so, so hard to get me.

Without them, there is no Reiss.

Without them, there is no warrior from the cages.


Reiss Nelson
Arsenal F.C.