Midway through the first half of a run-of-the-mill Arsenal reserves match against Tottenham in April 2008, a buzz worked its way along the Main Stand of Barnet’s old Underhill Stadium as eyes moved in the direction of a teenager in a baseball cap who had just arrived to watch.
Although he had scored on his Arsenal reserve team debut a couple of months earlier, Jack Wilshere’s brief that season had largely been with the under-18s, where he topped the team’s scoring charts with 13 goals in 17 games from central midfield.
Despite the ferocity with which the local derby was being fought on the pitch, most spectators were now chattering away about the 16-year-old who had come down with a few mates to watch in the stands on his night off. Here, supposedly — for most of the nearly 2,000 people in attendance, myself included, had never actually seen him play — was ‘the next big thing’.
Within five months he would become Arsenal’s youngest ever senior league debutant. By 18 he was playing for his country, with England manager Fabio Capello telling him to “understand he will be the future”. But now, a decade on, he looks to have been thrown onto the scrap heap.
Type Wilshere’s name into Google and his playing career can be neatly summed up by two suggested questions that appear: “What has happened to Jack Wilshere?” and “Is Jack Wilshere injured?”
After West Ham terminated his contract on Monday, the answers are that he is looking for a club and remains “convinced that I can still contribute at the very top of the game”. And no, he is not currently injured, which is a rarity during a painfully stop-start career.
Hopes could not have been higher after he was handed his senior Arsenal debut aged 16 years and 256 days, replacing Robin van Persie in the final minutes against Blackburn Rovers, and soon cementing himself at the heart of Arsene Wenger’s side following a brief loan spell at Bolton.
Here was the type of player that England rarely produces, a central midfielder with not only impeccable technique — seemingly able to shift his body weight and glide in ways most players dream of — but an ability to read the game and a vision that belied his age as he navigated the most congested areas of the pitch.
A few years after a 19-year-old Wilshere dominated a Barcelona side featuring the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and David Villa in a memorable 2-1 win at the Emirates Stadium, Xavi recalled how impressed he had been with his opposite number that day: “It wasn’t a performance you forget easily.”
Even the likes of Steven Gerrard could not help himself when asked about Wilshere as a potential future England captain in 2013: “Jack is so good I am sure when he gets to my age he will be in my position with the armband on talking about another 100-cap player. I’m really paranoid about putting too much pressure on any player but he is that good there is nothing for him to worry about.”
By then, the injuries that would blight Wilshere’s career had already taken hold. A stress fracture to his ankle in a pre-season friendly against New York Red Bulls in July 2011 was worse than originally feared and caused him to miss the entire domestic season and Euro 2012.
Even after fighting back to regain his Arsenal place for the following couple of seasons, the injuries — mainly to his ankles — continued. In 2014-15 he played just 732 minutes of a possible 3,420 in the Premier League. In 2015-16 he played 141, and in the last two seasons, since joining West Ham, he managed 389 and 210 minutes, starting only six league games for the club after undergoing yet more ankle surgery and suffering groin problems. In some ways it is remarkable that he managed to make as many as 34 England appearances between 2010 and 2016.
As tends to be the way when footballers on large wages — Wilshere’s West Ham salary was a reported £100,000 a week — do not play, sympathy from supporters has been in short supply. When news of his latest injury prompted sniggering earlier this year, he posted on social media: “Laugh at me but remember I am a human being who only wants to get my boots on and play football, the one thing I love, and my body at the moment is not allowing me.”
In an interview with Telegraph Sport last year, he said he believed many of his injury problems had been a result of his playing style. “Most of my injuries have been contact injuries - a kick or something,” he said. “My game is running with the ball, opening things up in midfield and you always open yourself up to those challenges.
“I’m not really quick. I want to get close to a player to beat him, I want to feel the player near and that comes with risk. When you watch me dribble I get tight to the player. I’m not the type like [Raheem] Sterling who’s going to kick it past them and use his pace. I never had that.
“So I had to get close to players, get in tight areas and get through that way. And unfortunately there are times in my career when I have paid the price for being that type of player.”
Wenger has also suggested that “when [Wilshere] was younger we overplayed him because he was such a good player”. Only Andrey Arshavin made more appearances for Arsenal in 2010-11 than Wilshere.
There were also mistakes off the field in the early days, which often ended up making headlines. A caution for common assault following a street brawl when he intervened as peacemaker, a police warning for attempting to spit at a taxi driver, and pictures twice emerging of him puffing on a cigarette.
“Everyone knows that I made mistakes and did stuff when I was younger but as you get older you learn and you grow up,” he told Telegraph Sport. “I became a dad; I became a family man. I grew up.”
The story of the footballer who had too much, too young is all too familiar: over-hyped, over-paid and largely ridiculed as they relax in their home cinema, dining out on past glories. Or so the image goes.
Wilshere's is not a tale of a footballer who threw away his talent for a life of fame and partying. He says he is “still incredibly hungry, ambitious and desperate to play football” and, at the age of 28, is motivated by proving people wrong. He also wants his four children to see him perform at the highest level, rather than relying on past stories.
An initial step down seems inevitable, with a regular run of games the priority. Perhaps he can find joy at a Premier League club like Fulham, in the Championship, or in Scotland, before being able to return his sights to grander ambitions.
Mikel Arteta, his former Arsenal team-mate, certainly hopes so: “He’s such a special character with such talent, ability and personality on the pitch.
“He could have achieved much more, but injuries have been really tough on him. He’s shown time and time again after that it doesn’t matter how bad those look, he always finds himself in a position to get back and hopefully he can do that again.
“I hope he can maintain that mental strength and that willingness to still be as good as he can, because he deserves that.”