When Bukayo Saka takes to the field on Thursday – fitness permitting – and attempts to play his part in steering Arsenal past Slavia Prague and into the Europa League semi-finals, he will not be short of support.
In the corridors at Greenford High School in Ealing, Saka’s legacy looms large. In pride of place on the wall in the reception area, there is a signed Arsenal shirt and a “thank you” letter written by the 19-year-old, whose status as one of English football’s brightest prospects ensures he still dominates conversations for teachers and students alike.
“Everyone was buzzing when he made the England squad,” Mark Harvey, Saka’s former PE teacher and assistant head at Greenford, tells BBC Sport.
“The older students study his career, and whenever he does something, like score or create a goal, it is always being sent around the staff WhatsApp group,” adds Dipesh Patel, Saka’s school football coach. “The younger children can’t quite believe he was a student here.”
Arsenal came first for Saka, before secondary school and exams, which he typically took in his stride despite an immensely disrupted schedule, achieving four A*s and three As at GCSE before leaving in the summer of 2018. He stood out from an early age, helping Greenford to regional and county success.
“I had been at the school for a number of years, but straight away I saw something in him which I’d never seen before,” Patel continues. “The way he moved, the way he saw the game and always seemed to do the right thing. He was just an incredible team player.
“In Year 7 we lost the final of the Ealing Borough Trophy 4-3, and he missed a hatful of chances; it was very unlike him. I remember him coming off the pitch and he felt like it was all his fault. He said to me, ‘I’m never playing football again!’. But he raised the standard of everyone around him.
“We got through to the final pretty easily, and he was mesmeric in most of the games. Sometimes I’d take him off at half-time, to be a bit nicer to the other team. When he got to Year 8, we pretty much won it all, Ealing Borough Trophy and the Middlesex Cup, which was the county. It was never about him; there was just a lovely spirit about the team.”
The winger, who has been with the Gunners since the age of seven, made his first-team debut in a Europa League tie in November 2018 and appeared in the Premier League for the first time in January.
By August last year, he was an FA Cup winner and was about to be rewarded with a new contract at Emirates Stadium. Two months later, having raced through the age groups from under-16 level, he made his full international debut in a victory over Wales.
Despite establishing himself as a regular in north London and forcing his way into Gareth Southgate’s thinking for the rescheduled European Championship this summer, Saka has never forgotten his roots.
“He had a really good relationship with his head of years and a really good relationship with his headmaster, who was a Chelsea fan, so you can imagine the banter going on between them from early on,” Harvey continues.
“He also had a close circle of friends, about five to eight boys. All of them were really nice, and they weren’t just sporty, but academic as well.”
When Saka’s former headmaster retired two years ago, he made sure he showed his respect at his leaving party.
“He came down with his dad and stayed for a couple of hours, talking to members of staff,” said Harvey. “Everyone knows him; from our receptionist to our security guard. He had a relationship with them.”
‘When he does things instinctively, they just happen’
The one thing which stood out most about Saka from an early age was his desire to succeed. His ability to beat a man and versatility were also crucial to his development with both Arsenal and England.
“He was a very quiet boy, incredibly respectful, a great listener, desperate to please and wanted to do his best,” says Neil Dewsnip, former England under-18s coach.
“We played him at left-back in a very attacking 4-3-3 shape, in the same team as Mason Greenwood. Bukayo could also play as an attacking winger, and could even go over to the right-hand side, so he was very versatile.
“His ability to run past people with or without the ball was superb, as was his one-vs-one dribbling, and he could score a few goals.”
“He’s great off both feet, so he can go on the outside or cut inside,” says Martin Taylor, a former Arsenal scout who watched Saka during his time with the under-16s.
“He had all the right attributes and a great desire to beat a player, and create and score goals. When he does things instinctively, they just happen.”
“He had an ability to see the pitch from when he was in Year 7 and Year 8, and you can’t teach that,” Harvey says.
“He would just play so simply, too. He could play in so many different positions from the start. I’d go and watch games and he’d be all over the pitch.”
‘One day, he’ll be Arsenal captain’
Personality and strength of character have become crucial factors in the make-up of young English footballers, things Dewsnip says are now key elements of their development process.
“Education is a major part of it,” says Dewsnip. “Young players are involved in workshops around social issues. When you hear Bukayo and others speak, they do so with intelligence, insight and maturity.”
“We pride ourselves on the fact we recognise students’ character development as well as their academia,” adds Harvey.
“We facilitated that and worked with his family and Arsenal from the moment he was with us. I went back to check his behavioural records and there was nothing, he was Mr Squeaky Clean!
“He was always so humble. When you are that good at something and you are playing against others who aren’t on the same level, it is important to remain a good sportsman. One day, he’ll be Arsenal captain.”
Taylor says Saka’s mentality is what has driven him to the top: “He’s playing with the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, players who are a lot older than him. But he’s still got his own personality and character which lets him do whatever he wants.
“His first thought is to look forward – a lot of players don’t have that. A player with confidence, like Bukayo, will run at anyone. That is mentality. You’re either born with game intelligence or you’re not, it can’t be coached. You have to have good intelligence and awareness about you to play at a good level.”
‘There is a long way to go’
Having cemented himself as a key cog in Arsenal’s machine and made the most recent England squad, only for a slight injury to disrupt his progress, Saka is continuing to impress. But Dewsnip urges caution over the youngster’s future.
“He’s still in that breakthrough stage, really. He’s made a really good start to his football career, but there is a long way to go,” he says.
“For a coach, there is nothing better than working with a player who breaks in at national level, but equally, expectations need to be managed.
“Having been in that environment, talking with Gareth and other national coaches, we always spoke about 50 appearances being the bar for a proper England player.
“I have no doubts that Gareth is brave enough to put young players in, the evidence shows that, but then they’ve got to be good enough. Bukayo has taken that opportunity, but he’s still very young and I’ve no doubt he will get better.”
Helping Arsenal into the Europa League semi-finals would be further evidence of his growing role for his club – and Southgate will be watching with interest.