Carl Jenkinson: ‘I was so sad to leave Arsenal… now I love being a fan again’

Carl Jenkinson loves talking about Arsenal. Whether it’s boyhood trips to Highbury with his family, signing for the club of his dreams, or lifting the FA Cup in 2014, the mere mention of the club he supports sees his face light up.

But there was a time when talking about Arsenal was hard. After he left the club permanently in 2019, thinking about his beloved Gunners brought up feelings of pain, rather than pride.

“It was difficult,” Jenkinson tells The Athletic. “I was so sad that it had come to an end. I needed a bit of time to get over the fact that I wasn’t a player anymore.”

Now enjoying his football again with Newcastle Jets in Australia’s A-League, the 31-year-old Jenkinson has been able to reconnect to the club of his heart.

“I think I just needed a little bit of time to become a fan again. It took a while but now I’m safely back in that bracket. And I love it: I follow the games like I always used to, and me and my dad got a season ticket back. It means when I come back to England, I can go with the old man again. It’s nice. I’m at a point now where I’m enjoying being a fan again.

“That’s what I always was before. And that’s what I’ll always be from now on.”

Jenkinson’s childhood bedroom was a shrine to all things Arsenal. He had Arsenal wallpaper, an Arsenal bedspread, and enough replica shirts to kit out a full team.

When his busy football schedule permitted, he’d occasionally get to join his father Steve for a game at Highbury. He grew up watching the Invincibles; he loved Lauren’s marauding runs from right-back and Robert Pires’ graceful efficiency from the left. He distinctly remembers watching Arsenal face Charlton Athletic, the club he signed for as a seven-year-old, on their way to that 2004 title.

Away from football, Jenkinson enjoyed Christmases in his mother’s native Finland and raising a menagerie of pets.

Jenkinson’s father may have been football-mad but he never allowed his son to take a career in the game for granted. He was practically a straight-A student at GCSE level. During his scholarship at Charlton, while the other lads did a complementary BTEC in Sport, he used his day off to return to his school, Davenant, and undertake Business Studies A-Level classes. “I knew I wanted to do something a bit more academic,” he says.

Even now, Jenkinson has an eye on furthering his education: under guidance from ex-Arsenal physio Colin Lewin, he has begun a strength and conditioning course with Setanta College.

Jenkinson was just a few days beyond his 19th birthday when he made his first-team debut for League One Charlton. He was an 86th-minute substitute in an away defeat at Hartlepool — a seemingly innocuous cameo, but one that would prove to be a sliding doors moment.

“I have a linesman to thank,” he explains. “I was a very, very enthusiastic full-back wanting to put my mark on the game and the first thing I did was fly into a tackle. It looked worse than it was but there was a big kerfuffle after, everyone gathering round, and a few of their boys going, ‘That’s a red card! Get him off!’” I remember thinking, ‘F***! What’ve I done here?’”

“I was stood over by the linesman and like a shot he went, ‘Don’t worry son, I’ll tell him it’s just a yellow’. I looked at him like, ‘Thank you!’ I don’t know whether he saw a young boy, no facial hair, bit overenthusiastic, but whatever it was — the referee went over to him, he said what he said, and he gave me a yellow card.

“I got a run of games after that because the first-choice full-back got injured. If I’d got a straight red there, I would have missed three games; I might never have got my chance. You look back sometimes and think your life could be very different.”

In what remained of that 2010-11 season, Jenkinson featured regularly in the first team — and his performances attracted interest from the Premier League.

“After two or three games, I started hearing whispers,” he said. “It was a bit of a ‘who’s who’ of Premier League clubs. Towards the end of the season, there’d be 10 to 15 of them coming to watch the games.”

There was one club in particular that Jenkinson was looking out for, though.

“I remember one game, I think we’d lost and I was sat there with my mum and dad on the sofa chatting away,” he says. “And my old man goes to me, ‘Arsenal were there tonight.’

“And I just froze. I got upset because I thought, ‘F***, I didn’t play my best game tonight’. I thought, ‘I’ve blown this’. I looked at my dad, gutted, and said, ‘I was average tonight’.

“And Dad turned around and said, ‘They loved you’.”

Jenkinson’s father explained that chief scout Steve Rowley would be returning next week. “I think they were very impressed by my physical stats,” says Jenkinson. “Steve said they were up there among the best in Europe — at the time I could run for fun.”

The formalities of the deal were completed quickly; he describes signing for Arsenal as a “no-brainer”. Before long, Jenkinson found himself face-to-face with Arsene Wenger.

“Can you imagine?” says Jenkinson. “You’ve just turned 19, you’re a nervous wreck inside. I just remember walking into his office with my old man, trying to be very respectful and just thinking, ‘This is Arsene Wenger. What am I doing here?! How good is this?’”

From left: Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with Wenger in 2012 (Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

A young player arriving at a new club might expect the manager to be fairly indifferent but Wenger’s passion for young talent shone through. “He knew a lot about me,” says Jenkinson. “He’d watched matches, knew everything about my game. He even spoke to my school and headteacher to see what I was like as a person.”

When the time came to choose a squad number at Arsenal, Jenkinson chose 25. As a boy, he’d owned an Arsenal away shirt with ‘Kanu 25’ on the back. “I loved Kanu,” he says. “He had so much class. I like the fact he was just a bit different to the average striker; he was so tall but his feet were so good.”

Suddenly Jenkinson found himself training and playing with the men he had idolised. Even the retired Robert Pires, his old hero from the Invincible era, would reappear to take part in training. “What a guy,” says Jenkinson. “Now he is a proper Arsenal legend. He’d come in and help out the rehab lads coming back from injury. We’d be doing mannequin drills and he would be an extra number. He was still top class.”

“From a football perspective, it was a big step but I felt like I held my own. There were things technically I had to improve. There were passing drills where I was like, ‘Wow, these guys are serious football players’. But I had attributes — the way I could run, and get up and down a pitch and put tackles in — that not many other players had, even at a club like Arsenal. As a footballer, if you’re fit and you can cover a lot of ground, then you’re in a good spot.

“The biggest shock was just getting used to being around lads that you’ve watched and supported pretty much your whole life. It was a process because you have to shift your mentality very quickly and realise this is now my job, this is my life, this is my career.

“I remember going on the pre-season tour of Asia straightaway, just the attention the club got was insane. I remember thinking: ‘I’ve not gone into a different football club here, I’ve gone into a different world’.”

Jenkinson made his Arsenal debut as a left-back, coming on as a substitute for Johan Djourou in the first leg of a Champions League qualification play-off against Udinese in 2011. Over the next few weeks, he started the second leg against the Italian side as well as Premier League games against Liverpool and Manchester United. It was a steep learning curve: Jenkinson was sent off for two bookable offences as Arsenal lost 8-2 at Old Trafford.

In the days that followed, Mikel Arteta joined from Everton. When asked if he showed any signs of being a future manager, Jenkinson is emphatic. “Straightaway,” he says. “He knew so much tactically, more so than what a player really should. And the way he talked about the game, I was like, ‘F***!’ I couldn’t keep up!

“He was one of the guys who when he walked into the room and spoke, you listened. He had an aura, he had a confidence, which is a real gift. I think captains need to have it, managers need to have it. And he had it spades.”

When it came to settling in, Jenkinson was helped by the fact he was part of a group of young players in the first-team squad. Along with Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the quintet were dubbed Arsenal’s ‘British core’.

Oxlade-Chamberlain arrived the same summer, also making the jump from League One to the Premier League. “We just clicked as mates,” says Jenkinson. “We’re still really close to this day.”

Wilshere was also a familiar face. “I’d known of Jack since he was about seven or eight years old,” says Jenkinson. “We used to play against him twice a year (in their respective academies), and he used to run the show. So when I came through the door, we knew each other straight away. We had that mutual respect because we’d had a good few battles over the years at Hale End.”

Wilshere has since followed Arteta into coaching. “When I look at Jack now, I’m buzzing for him,” says Jenkinson. “You can tell he’s got the knack of how to motivate the players; you can tell he’ll be a good coach. But having grown up knowing how good Jack was my whole career, I still feel like, ‘F***, I wish Jack could have played for longer’. It still upsets me a little bit because he was so good, it was a real gift for English football. There won’t be many who’re as good as Jack when he was in his prime.”

In that first season, Jenkinson served as Bacary Sagna’s deputy when required, making 14 appearances across all competitions.

When Sagna was ruled out at the start of the 2012-13 campaign with a second broken leg inside 12 months, Jenkinson had a significant run in the team. He responded with his best period in an Arsenal shirt, earning an England call-up in the process. Jenkinson had represented Finland at youth level but jumped at the chance to represent the country of his birth.

He made his England debut as a substitute against Sweden. It proved to be his only cap at senior level but he has no regrets. “I would’ve played more international football if I went the Finland route,” he admits. “But I remember being at the crux of the decision and just thinking: what have I always dreamt of? And it was to play for England. I speak English, I was born in England, and I feel English. It’s one of those moments that no one can take away from you. I’ve played for my country and I’ll always be immensely proud.”

In the summer of 2014, Jenkinson moved across London to continue his development by joining West Ham on loan. The spell went well enough that his loan was extended for a second season. Throughout this period, Jenkinson benefited from mentoring by one of the great Arsenal right-backs: Lee Dixon.

“We would get together maybe once a month at a cafe, and just go through some clips and analyse what I could do better,” says Jenkinson. “Lee went out of his way to help me. I didn’t pay him or anything, he was just a real nice guy.”

“He helped me a lot with one-on-one defending. He showed me different techniques to win the ball. I remember he taught me one technique I still use to this day, he called it the ‘hooky left foot’ — you get into a body shape where if the winger goes down the line, you’re in a position where you’ve got a start on him, but then you’ve also got your left foot to get a tackle in if he comes inside. It still works!”

Unfortunately, Jenkinson’s second loan with West Ham ended abruptly when he suffered an ACL injury in a challenge with Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero. It was another sliding doors moment in his career. Although Jenkinson returned to action with Arsenal 10 months later, he struggled to recapture his best form. A dislocated shoulder spoiled another loan (with Birmingham City in 2017-18). At the end of 2018-19, after making eight appearances under new manager Unai Emery, Jenkinson was sold to Nottingham Forest.

For a lifelong Arsenal fan, leaving the club was heartbreaking. His pride was clouded by grief.

“It was hard to leave Arsenal in the end, and I never really wanted to,” he says. “I know my dad would have loved for it to have gone on forever but it doesn’t always work like that. I think I realised in myself that I wasn’t at that level anymore to play for a club like Arsenal after I busted my knee.”

Jenkinson grimaces. “I hesitate to say that,” he explains. “I don’t like the idea of blaming the fact that things didn’t work out on an injury. But being honest, I was never quite the same after I did my ACL at West Ham. I came back and gave it my best shot to get back to the level, but I didn’t quite have the same physical attributes as perhaps I had before.”

The move to Forest did not go as planned. In Jenkinson’s third appearance, he ruptured the deltoid ligament in his ankle and was out for four months. Matty Cash came in and took his place in the team and, when Chris Hughton took over as manager the following season, replacing Sabri Lamouchi, the full-back felt he was never really part of his plans.

In January 2022, Jenkinson found himself training regularly with Forest’s under-21s — fit but out of favour. The coach was Warren Joyce, who had been manager at Melbourne City.

“He felt I had something to offer that was being wasted,” says Jenkinson. “One day he said to me, ‘Would you go to Melbourne City?’ I remember thinking I wasn’t even sure where in Australia Melbourne was!”

Jenkinson had never been to Australia, although he had appeared in a promotional video for an Arsenal pre-season tour in which he demonstrated his best attempt at an Aussie accent.

@aleagues Never forget this iconic ad for Arsenal coming to Australia in 2017 😂 Carl Jenkinson loved it so much he came back! #foryou #FYP #foryoupage #football #footballtiktok #WeAreALeagues #AllAccess #arsenal #arsenalfc #arsenalfantv #arsenalfans ♬ original sound – A-Leagues

“The lads out here got hold of that one alright,” he says. “I’ve since had a fair bit of flack for that, no surprise! Accents are not my strength.”

Within weeks, he had signed on loan. His debut was in New South Wales against Central Coast Mariners FC. “It was in Gosford and the stadium backs onto the sea. I remember turning up and thinking, ‘Wow, I play football here now’.

“It was completely different — I remember they had these big ketchup bottles behind the goals, and palm trees all along the touchline. It was surreal.”

Jenkinson came on and scored, and soon became a fixture in the team, often playing as an inverted full-back. “Because of Covid, there was a huge backlog of games,” he explains. “I ended up playing a ridiculous amount, with matches every three days. I played in the Asian Champions League too, that was an amazing experience.”

Jenkinson enjoyed the style of football he discovered in Australia. “Technically it’s a very good league,” he says. “You get a lot of foreign players coming over here who’ve played at a high level. It’s just the tempo is slower than back home, certainly in the higher leagues.

“But all the teams here try to play football. The lower you go down the English pyramid, the less that’s the case.”

That summer he was released by Forest and chose to stay in Australia, signing for Newcastle Jets permanently. He has since become part of the team’s leadership group and now tries to pass on his experience to the younger players.

In October 2022, Jenkinson was playing for Newcastle Jets when he spotted a familiar silhouette in an Arsenal shirt in the crowd, hiding beneath an umbrella. It was his dad Steve, who’d travelled to the other side of the world to surprise his son at a game.

“It was crazy,” says Jenkinson. “It was a surprise that wasn’t a surprise — in that it’s the sort of thing my dad does. He’s a great man. He follows me everywhere and watches all my games, and has my back through all the ups and the downs. I’m very close to my family. I will eventually go home because I want to be there for my parents and my brother. But Lucy my girlfriend moved out here a couple of months ago, and for now it’s a great experience for us.”

The other family in Jenkinson’s life, of course, is Arsenal. His time in Australia has healed some of those old wounds. Towards the end of last season, he let slip to some friends at the club that he’d be back in the country for the final home game of the season against Wolves.

“The next thing I know I got an email from the club, inviting me to one of the boxes to come and watch the game.

“I remember walking into the box — there were a few different ex-players in there — and we each had a personalised programme with our name printed on it, and a message: ‘Welcome back to The Emirates Stadium.’”

As fate would have it, Jenkinson sat next to Kanu in the box. “We had a chat and I joked about taking his shirt number! We had a little laugh about that. I saw loads of old friends and saw Mikel, which was great. I remember getting home that night and just thinking, ‘What a special day’.

For Jenkinson, it was a cathartic experience. With time and perspective, his 70 Arsenal appearances have come to fill him with pride, not pain and ‘what ifs’. “I’ve had great moments, played in big games, won big games,” he says. Jenkinson didn’t play in the 2014 FA Cup final but featured in earlier rounds and celebrated on the pitch at full-time. “Great memories from a great day. There’s a picture that day with Ian Wright kissing my badge. At the end of the day, it was my club and we won the FA Cup.

“Yes, there were some lows, but also incredible highs. I’ve scored a goal for my club and had my dad, my brother and my two best mates in the stand celebrating with me. That’s stuff people can never take away from me. I’ll always have those memories.”

Among the tiles inscribed with fan messages outside the Emirates Stadium, Jenkinson has one dedicated to the memory of his grandfather, who passed away too soon to see him wear the red and white. It reads simply, “Grandad, hope you’re proud.” He would be, beyond measure.

For now, Jenkinson is watching on as a fan again. “I love it,” he says. “Arsenal is a club that’s given me so much across my whole life — and it will continue to do so.”

(Top photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images)

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