Back in 2016, we asked writer Will Frears to answer a simple question: Is it too late to believe in Jack Wilshere? Now that the England midfielder is finally healthy and earning minutes with the Gunners, we look back at our issue 09 story.
When that question was posed to me by the editor of this magazine, I wrote back to say it was impossible to know before the end of the Euros. I had visions, you see, of Jack leading England to glory, taking his place alongside Xavi and Makélélé as unusually short midfield geniuses. It wasn’t to be. not for Jack, and not for England, two shameful Brexits within a week. During the Iceland debacle I got a text from a friend in London who said, “The only way I want England to come back is if Jack scores a hat trick.”
Jack Wilshere occupies the same place in the Arsenal supporter’s imagination as Syd Barrett does for your average Pink Floyd fan—just substitute chronically weak ankles for the effects of industrial amounts of LSD on an already troubled mind. Jack is, by some distance, the most naturally talented midfielder England has produced since Paul Gascoigne. He can pass, dribble, and tackle, and is naturally neat and tidy with the ball. Also, like Gazza, he likes to make an effort. Not for him the languid elegance of Hoddle or Le Tissier, so often confused with a vanishing act. The more Herculean the task, the more Jack works. It’s no accident that his best performance in an Arsenal shirt came against Barcelona.
He also has some terrible habits. On the pitch, he tends to hold on to the ball too long, slowing the play and causing problems for a team that is already operating against a massed rank defense. It also invites nasty center halves to stick one on his ankles, an opportunity they often seize. Off the pitch, he likes a drink and a smoke and a tongue kiss with Joe Hart—all boys together and quite understandable. Less salubriously, he has a propensity for spitting on people: cab drivers, pensioners who live next door. He is easy to love but hard to admire.
When poor Roy Hodgson selected Jack for the Euros, he had played exactly one game of football this season. There was uproar in the press, particularly when he was selected over Danny Drinkwater, who had been such a crucial part of Leicester’s march to the title. Roy defended his choice, arguing that Jack was a special player who could make a difference. Hodgson’s view was correct in terms of pure talent, but exactly how Jack was supposed to make that difference was unclear. I’m a terrible, middle-aged park player, and even I know it takes me a run of games to find what passes for match fitness. Roy had a plan; he wouldn’t give Jack a run of games, preferring to build the team around an over-the-hill center forward who had been shunted back to midfield because his legs had gone, and then rely on the unfit, unmatch-ready Jack to bail him out.
Arsène Wenger has drunk from the same poison chalice. When Cesc Fàbregas sidled his way back to Barcelona, his parting words to Arsenal fans were not to worry because they had Jack Wilshere. Wenger’s refusal to strengthen the center of his midfield was always believed to leave room for Jack to come back. It’s delightful to imagine a spine of Xhaka, Wilshere, and Özil, with Ramsey tucking in on the right to add mobility.
If we’re lucky, we’ll see it twice. Jack Wilshere has missed 150 games for Arsenal since his debut six years ago—seven ankle injuries and a couple of broken bones. To watch him play is to sit in hideous anticipation. We are conditioned to expect the worst—a crumpled body lying on the turf, a fist banging the grass in frustration. And then the reports that he’ll be back in three weeks, followed by Arsène reporting that he’s had a little bit of a setback. One Arsenal blogger pointed out that the years Jack has missed are the years when football intelligence develops, when the knowledge of how to play the game takes over from pure natural ability.
So is it too late for Jack Wilshere? I don’t know. I hope not. It wasn’t too late for the Cleveland Cavaliers. It might be nice to give Jack a season off from our expectations. No more articles about a make-or-break season, no stories about how Pep wants him at City, and no more tabloid pictures either. If he gets his head down and plays, this could really be his time. Perhaps.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.